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Volvo Ocean Race 2017-18

Volvo Ocean Race blazes a trail for women in sailing as America’s Cup lags behind on long road to equality

Ocean Race blazes trail for women in sailing as America’s Cup lags

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 11:55am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 January, 2018, 11:55am

Women will only be equal when we stop thinking of them as different. This applies not only in business, but also in the business of sailing.

Libby Greenhalgh, navigator on Team Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag, the Hong Kong-funded boat who won the leg from Melbourne to Hong Kong, says sailing is not unlike industry.

A survey of 3,000 global companies found that women held 14.7 per cent of board seats, and only four per cent are CEOs.

“When you look at the three pinnacle events of sailing, we see that only seven women in total have done the Vendee Globe race. The numbers are scant in the America’s Cup,” Greenhalgh said.

These days you are more likely to get a ride on an America’s Cup boat if you are a champion cyclist than a female sailor, and it is not exactly known for opening doors for women.

Despite the two other pinnacle races having a shortfall, Greenhalgh says the new Volvo Ocean Race rules encouraging crews to take female sailors have helped trailblaze a pathway in ocean racing for women.

“The rule’s been great. With 20 women in the race this time, there are about 30 per cent of women in the crews. Given the nature of the sport, that’s a good achievement,” Greenhalgh said.

“Of course, we want to see 50-50 opportunity for women, and we’d really like to see this new rule stay in place in the next Volvo race.”

Greenhalgh explains ones of the needs for the rule change: “Last time on the Volvo, we had a crew of 13 women on board SCA, but all of our management team were men, apart from the admin who booked flights and hotels.

“This was the first all-women crew in 12 years. We won one leg and two in-port races. Afterwards, the phone didn’t ring for any of us, and we pretty much went back to our usual lives.

“We realised we needed to look at the sailing landscape and to try to create a network for women as well as upskilling to leadership roles.

“Sailing, like in industry, is about who you know, and we need to change that ‘who’. This is one of the reasons we started the Magenta Project with a goal of accelerating women in sailing.

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“The project is also helping to feed women into the Volvo race, and it is helping women to know the right people and create a network.”

Despite this, it’s still catch-22, says Greenhalgh.

“It’s all about someone hiring you to sail with them. Skippers will ask ‘who are we going to take? We’ll pick that person because they’ve done seven laps of the planet’,” she says.

“You’re out in the ocean for a long time, so people tend to stick to who they know and crews they’ve sailed with before.”

As on land, Greenhalgh believes the self belief of women and a lack of confidence can hold them back, as, sometimes, does having children.

“How can we change the thinking and offer support to make women stop saying ‘right, I’m going to have kids now, my career is kind of over’. The same thing has taken a long time to change in the normal working world,” she says.

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Fellow SCA crew member Annie Lush, who is sailing on Team Brunel in this edition, celebrates the fact three of her all-female SCA crew members thumbed their nose at this kind of thinking.

“We had three women on board who all had boys three years of age. No one thinks of men, ‘that’s amazing you have young kids and you’re out here’ when you do a race like this,” Lush said.

It seems that changing our thinking is the only way forward. Greenhalgh cites the “30 per cent Club”, launched in the UK in 2010 with a goal of getting 30 per cent of women on FTSE-100 boards, an organisation that has a Hong Kong chapter.

“It’s been identified that diversity in the boardroom makes for a more successful company,” she said.

According to Greenhalgh, the same thing applies on the water, and the rule is a game changer.

“One thing’s for certain, whoever wins, a female will win the Volvo Ocean Race. That will happen. The new rule is incentivising and gives women experience with the people who are at the top of their game.”

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The skipper of Turn the Tide on Plastic, Dee Caffari, says female sailors want to be treated as sailors rather than female sailors.

“Hopefully this will become the norm. None of us want to be separated out. We are all doing the same job. Eventually we want to get over the ‘are you male or are you female’ and get to the point of “are you a good sailor or not a good sailor?,” Caffari said.

Whether in a boardroom or on a boat, creating equal opportunity is a race around the planet we are still battling, despite winds of change.