In the last few weeks we have been treated to a seemingly endless parade of female high achievers. From Jessica Ennis to Sophie Christiansen, Ellie Simmonds to Victoria Pendleton. Female athletes delivered more than one third of the medals won by Team GB at the Olympics and are adding to that achievement daily at the paralympics. A brilliant effort, especially given that sportswomen receive less than one per cent of corporate sponsorship for sport and five per cent of media coverage.
It is fabulous to see women’s achievements celebrated in this way and to have a generation of young women who can act as role models for our young girls – a far better message to send out, surely, one that says that girls can be successful footballers rather than judging their success by marrying one!
While there isn’t a 50:50 male/female split the governing bodies do have significant input from women; UK Sport has two women at the top – Liz Nicholl the CEO and Baroness Sue Campbell the Chair, while 30% of the board of UK Athletics is female, including Sarah Smart, who is profiled in this issue of the3rdimagazine.
But what does it mean to be a Woman on Top?
In the Olympic arena it is clear. At the end of each event there is a podium with three platforms, the highest reserved for the gold medal winner, the lowest for bronze and the middle for silver medalist. My youngest brother, a former PE teacher and semi-professional footballer, refers to second place as being the first loser. He is now at the top of his chosen profession so you could argue that this philosophy works in getting you to the top. For those of you of a similar age to me, you may remember this attitude being displayed by Lord, then simply Sebastian, Coe who swiftly removed the silver medal award to him when he finished behind Steve Ovett in the 800m at the Moscow Olympics.
But is it really that clear?
When Rebecca Adlington won bronze for the second time at the 2012 games, having won gold twice in Beijing, she said,
“I am proud to get a bronze, there is nothing to be embarrassed about. I hate it when people say it is losing because you have not done my sport. Swimming is one of the hardest events to get a medal at. It’s not like other sports. Hopefully the public will be proud of me getting that bronze.”
Clearly she was proud of her performance but concerned that her achievement wouldn’t be appreciated or be given the credit that it deserved.
Earlier in the year I had watched the UK Athletics championships, which this year also served as the qualifying event for those seeking to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. Here just being the best in the UK at your chosen event wasn’t enough. An athlete could win the race, beat all the competition and still be labelled a failure as unless the victory was achieved in a time, or at a height or distance that would allow them to compete with the best in the world, the athlete would not be selected for Team GB. This happened quite a few times. Success dressed up as failure.
I think that these lessons of achievement need to be taken into our working lives. Not the striving for the top but in the need to consider what success looks like, particularly for women.
For example, I’m considered by many to be a successful woman whereas my hairdresser is a hairdresser. She hasn’t won any major awards, doesn’t drive a flash car, doesn’t have any of the “stuff” that we associate with success. However she employs several staff, treats them all really well, supports all her team to continue their learning and development and earns enough to keep herself and her family comfortably. Most women in business are like her and should, in my opinion, be applauded.
Getting more women on boards is all well and good – in fact it is essential if we are to change the whole nature of big business and I am actively involved in a number of projects to further this aim. But as Napolean said, we are a nation of shopkeepers. To paraphrase, we are a nation of small businesses, a lot of which are women owned and managed. Most women aren’t working in corporates and have no interest in being Chair of a FTSE 100 company.
While we need to support the women who do want a corporate career we also need to look at what we mean by being “On Top” and to think more carefully about what success really looks like for most women.