Imagine dreaming your whole life of going to the Olympics. Now imagine that for most of it you can’t because you’re a woman.
Well, that’s exactly the situation Kate Allenby MBE faced.
For 88 years the Modern Pentathlon was a male only event, until Kate and others won their right for inclusion at Sydney 2000. Competing for your county is daunting enough, never mind competing for your gender too.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, 2021, we invited Kate to join us at Engine to discuss that journey to Sydney, the challenges that faced her then and throughout her career. Here’s some of the things she shared in conversation with Bill James, Chair of Engine Transformation and British Triathlon.
Getting to excellence as the norm
Britain had a proud history in Modern Pentathlon but in the 1990s, senior championship medals were thin on the ground. However, a group of young women were starting a journey that would see them become one of the most successful squads ever in the sport.
The introduction of National Lottery funding allowed the squad to come together at the national centre at Bath University.
On the one hand, they were fierce competitors. On the other they were team-mates, working together, contributing different skills and individual strengths, fundamentally shifting the standard of performance.
The next decade would deliver four Olympic medals, over 20 World and European Championship medals and a 2001 season where they won every major title.
Excellence was the norm.
Self-reflection and self-learning were commonplace – an expectation that each person would deliver their best performance every day. They were continually seeking those marginal gains – and in creating a culture of success, they delivered medals.
Challenging 'normal - creating the platforms and opportunities
Bill asked Kate about how we can shift perceptions of what’s normal. She referred to ‘This Girl Can’ as a leading example of a campaign that promotes and encourages women to be more active.
Whether that’s in a team sport or through solo endeavours, it shows real life. It reminds us we’re all different and it’s ok to look the way we do – whatever shape and size that is. It’s normal to sweat, to be red-faced, to be out of breath and to have periods. Objectification and airbrushing is replaced with authenticity.
In the business world the same thinking applies. There’s no one size fits all employee. We’re not looking for cookie cutter recruits. We need diversity in our offices, our boardrooms and on our shop floors and our leaders have a responsibility to ensure the voices of everyone at the table are heard, not just those who talk the loudest.
We need teams to complement each other’s skills and approaches and we must challenge what’s gone before us if we’re to create a working environment relevant for today.
For sports and organisations that have been around for many years it’s common to hear the phrase ‘we’ve always done it that way’. Kate recently listened to a webinar where an American coach used a phrase that she now plans to take forward in many aspects of her life (and we can see why): Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.
Naturally it’s easier to create a level playing field when you start with a blank sheet of paper. The Hundred starts this year – a 100 ball cricket tournament running men’s and women’s competitions simultaneously and with equal prize money.
Challenging the status quo and reflecting on whether past traditions are still fit for purpose is essential if we’re ever going to achieve gender parity and equality.
Representation of women - if we can see it, we can be it
During a press conference in the run up to the games a journalist asked Kate if she was going to win a medal. She pointed to her head and replied that the competition would be won in here before the event even begins. That it would start with managing all the expectations associated with competing at the Olympics. She said ‘none of us have experienced this environment before and we don’t know how we’ll react until we start. We’re basically 24 virgins competing tomorrow’. The headline the next day? Virgins in Sydney.
This media representation of female athletes isn’t unusual. The number of column inches or airtime given to male sport still far outweighs women’s sport. Imagery often depicts men in action, while their female counterparts are shown off the field looking pretty. Some progress has been made but as Kate said, we still have some distance to travel.
If we’re going to shift the perception of what it means to be a female sportsperson, we need to see more of them. Bill asked Kate about role models and who she looks up to. She cited women like Denise Lewis and Sharon Davies who inspire her because they’re prepared to step forward and try new things. They believe in themselves and are willing to use personal brand and position to influence change even when tackling difficult and sometimes unpopular topics.
A mentor once told Kate, ‘Being able to step outside of your comfort zone is where the magic happens’. As a double Olympian and bronze medal winner, Kate has certainly achieved the magic and she’s an inspiration to us all.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge and that’s exactly what Kate Allenby has done throughout her career. She’s a role model for future generations: they can see her, now perhaps they can be her.
You can watch the full interview here including the chance to see Kate’s bronze medal and hear how it was made.