Think piece: Train like a girl?
Michelle McGagh asks if the traditional approach to achieving success in business and cycling has had its day…
Think back to 1985's Rocky IV movie and you may remember Rocky Balboa training for his fight against Russian peroxide blond Ivan Drago. Sweat, rippling muscles, brute force, log-lifting and cart-pulling, all set against an epic ‘80s rock-synth soundtrack. Because that’s what makes a winner, right? Being more aggressive, more dominant and more single-minded than your competitors. Well, maybe not entirely.
Lee Craigie – former British Mountain Bike Champion, Commonwealth athlete and co-founder of the Adventure Syndicate – believes attributes such as collaboration, creative problem solving and patience haven’t always been obvious in athletic training programmes.
She reveals: “I was trained by male coaches using one model, which did work for a lot of athletes, but it didn’t always fit. The model was that if something was holding you back, you kick against it and use aggression, but it was one dimensional. That’s not the only way and there are lots of other systems we can draw on.”
Sally Helgesen, expert on women’s leadership and author of the best-selling book The Female Advantage: Women’s Ways Of Leadership, says women get greater satisfaction from achieving goals they set for themselves, rather than beating others. She explores this theory in her latest book, The Female Vision, which looks at difference and similarities in how “men and women define, perceive and pursue satisfaction at work.”
“We found many similarities, but one of the two major differences had to do with women and men’s attitudes toward competition,” says Helgeson. “Women reported greater satisfaction from meeting their own benchmarks, whereas men reported greater satisfaction from beating their competition, winning and coming out on top.”
Both the male and female approach to competition have their benefits. Those who benchmark against themselves are “inner directed, more collegial, more likely to produce collaboration and are better for leading and being part of team,” says Helgesen. However, she adds the male competitive benchmark produces “greater investment in outcomes and they’re more likely to embrace risk. This can be positive but it can also have downsides,” she says.
These downsides have become evident in British Cycling with allegations of bullying made against ex-British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton. Central to the accusations was former European team sprint champion Jess Varnish, who Sutton allegedly told to “go and have a baby” and that her “bum was too big.”
Helgesen adds: “The less directly competitive approach is becoming more common in workplaces broadly. In part, this is because of the emphasis on work being done in teams and the increased emphasis on collaboration, with women’s increasing success and visibility as leaders helping to foster this different approach.”
The business case
The proportion of women in leadership roles will continue to increase, with the government putting in place legislation to enforce female representation. By 2020, it wants a third of board members to be female. Women currently represent just 18 per cent of board members in Britain’s 250 biggest companies. Then, of course, there’s the business case for adopting a more balanced gender distribution in companies.
A report by consultants McKinsey found that companies with the most women on their boards, regardless of sector, consistently and significantly outperformed those with no female representation. And operating results were 56 per cent higher in companies with women on the board than without. In other words, these companies made more money.
Back to British Cycling, the recent appointment of a female chief executive in Julie Harrington (former Football Association group operations director) gives an indication that the organisation may finally be starting to think differently, too.
The women’s cycling collaborations making a difference
The Adventure Syndicate is made up of eight female cyclists who have racked up thousands of miles between them and hold a variety of medals and records. The group – including Transcontinental winner Emily Chappell, 24-hour mountain bike champion Lee Craigie and round-the-world cyclist Laura Moss – was founded to inspire and encourage others to identify their ambitions, overcome obstacles and get out on their bikes. To meet this ambition, they run talks and events and lead bike rides in the UK and abroad. Their website is also full of inspiring stories of women getting on their bikes and getting on with it.
Bringing together professional cyclists, weekend warriors and complete beginners from around the world, Strongher is an initiative driven by multiple World Champion winner Marianne Vos that aims to create communities of women who ride together.
Women’s cycling is gaining in popularity but it still doesn’t garner the same media attention as men’s cycling. Through Strongher, Vos wants to close the gap, encourage more women into the sport and help develop the sport further.
As well as practical blogs and videos to help women pick through the jargon of cycling, Strongher organises sportives, rides and races for all abilities, plus women can connect with other riders around the world through the Strongher app, which allows you to create rides, invite friends and chat with other cyclists.
Set up in 2011 by British Cycling, Sport England and Sky, Breeze was started as a way to get more women cycling, regardless of age, fitness or Lycra preferences – with British Cycling’s ultimate goal to encourage one million women on to their bikes by 2020. The rides are social and aim to encourage healthy living, as well as being a place to make new friends, and the organisation spreads the love by training women to become ‘Breeze champions’ so that they’re empowered to organise social bike rides in their local area.
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Illustration: Laurence Denmark