I grew up surrounded by sport.
Cricket clubs in the summer, hockey clubs in the winter. Some of my longest-standing friends were made running around hockey pitches aged four. I never knew any different: sport has always been part of my life.
This week, to celebrate Women’s Sport Week we ran a straw poll in the office amongst the women to find out the moment they fell in love with sport and how this inspired them to have a career in sport. There is no doubt that in most cases it was through a parent, in particular a strong father-daughter bond. I am no different.
My father was an FIH International Hockey Umpire and weekends were spent travelling the length of breadth of the UK, from one freezing cold hockey pitch to another, the best part being…the teas! Summer was warmer, when we lazed about the boundaries of village cricket pitches. When, at 13 years old, my father died suddenly, my world fell apart. It was such a difficult time for my family, but, looking back, we were given extraordinary support by the sports community that surrounded us. No doubt, my father’s death and that very sporting community had a profound effect on me – to keep his passion for sport alive.
Playing and watching sport never came with a down-side. I always lapped up the banter of girls’ inability to throw (because I can) and I never saw any inequality in sport. At University, girls’ football, boys’ football, men’s rugby, women’s rugby were all recognised with complete equality and the camaraderie was unique. It wasn’t until I left University that I started to realise that my experience of sport so far wasn’t a fair reflection of how men’s and women’s sport was recognised in the big wide world.
I landed my first job at the Evian Ladies European Tour (LET) as an Events Assistant in 2001. My job was to support the team on the event logistics and administration for the Tour events across UK, Ireland and Europe. I had such glamourous expectations of the events, the spectators, the celebrities, elite sport…how wrong I was.
My first event was at the prestigious WPGA Royal Porthcawl Golf Club, a beautiful links course in South Wales, where if the wind was gusting in the wrong direction your first tee shot was more than likely to land on the beach. I arrived on tournament week and had a run-in with reality. It was lunch time on the first day and we all trotted off for food in the clubhouse. At the front door we bumped into the Men’s Club Captain who pointed at me and pointed to a sign, ‘Men’s Entrance’. My colleagues were horrified, but Mr Men’s Captain gave me very specific instructions as to where the Women’s entrance was. It turned out it was through a side gate, round the back of the clubhouse, past the bins and just next to the toilets. I was mortified.
It was the first time I had ever felt singled-out and demeaned for being a woman. And then I felt angry. How was it possible that a club of this stature was allowed to host a professional LET event when it clearly felt that women were not seen as equal? It turned out the club was going to lift this particular club rule once the players arrive. How courteous.
My second surprise was when the tournament teed off. The players arrived from all over Europe – legends of the game, Laura Davies and Annika Sorenstam, and next generation stars, such as Suzann Pettersen and Paula Marti. The players were humble, athletic and incredibly skilled. But where were the spectators? We always had some really loyal fans who travelled to Tour events, but they were few and far between.
As my career developed and I started working on more international events, I realised quite quickly that the low interest in the women’s game was quite specific to the British culture and not matched worldwide. I was proud to be part of the Solheim Cup 2003 project team, where Europe beat the US for the first time in Sweden. Ironically, this was the first time the event had been hosted outside of the UK (for the European hosts) which no doubt had hindered its profile. In Sweden, the European team were rock stars, not female golfers – elite sportspeople. Over four days, nearly 100,000 spectators turned out to see them play, and big brands including American Express, Volvo, Vodafone and Pringle activated the hell out of the tournament, to much success.
In Sweden and much of the Nordics, golf and sport are part of the culture. Men, women, boys and girls at 5pm after school hit the golf club. It doesn’t matter what you are wearing, or what your ability is, it’s just about what you do. There are no gender issues and certainly no different entrances for boys and girls.
The LET has grown enormously, and there is no doubt that the profile of young, incredibly talented players such as Charley Hull are starting to get the game more attention, but not enough. Since 2012, as Tim Crow says in his Now New and Next article, a women’s sport movement was kick-started by the successes of the GB women on a global stage. With campaigns such as This Girl Can, #LikeaGirl, the BBC’s commitment to women’s football, Investec’s investment in women’s hockey, and programmes such as Back to Netball and Hockey, the profile of women’s sport is no doubt increasing.
What excites me the most is that for the first time there is an active and vocal community of women, from grassroots (This Girl Can 250k alone) to elite, campaigning for equal media exposure, an end to inequality and – most importantly of all – to encourage women to get involved in sport in any way they feel comfortable.
As campaigns like This Girl Can continue to create the next generation of ‘everyday’ female sporting role models, no longer will we have to rely solely on the likes of Jessica Ennis-Hill, Victoria Pendleton or Katherine Grainger. I am proud that my Dad is my sporting inspiration, but I hope my two daughters, part of the much discussed ‘next generation’, look to their Dad and Mum.