Thoughts from No Man’s Land

Published on December 9th, 2019

It’s easy to view the landscape for women in sailing when you are a woman. Like Sally Balharrie, who recalls a recent Skippers briefing, “Have you got any idea what it’s like being the only woman in a room of 60 blokes… takes balls.”

Sal’s got them, forging her way into the male dominated landscape as owner of a Sydney 38 she’s named NO MAN’S LAND, based in Melbourne, Australia. Here she ponders the topic of the gender imbalance:

Why don’t more women sail? Why don’t more women own boats?

These two questions have been tossing around in my mind. As a benchmark let’s take the Sydney to Hobart. Approximately 70,000 sailors have taken part to date, 1000 of them have been women. That’s 1.4%, that’s pretty low, given that the first woman to sail in the race, Jane Tate, did so in 1946. Chicks are slow to the party. What’s that about?

Is it financial? Is it that we are shaped by traditional patterns? Is it psychological? Physical? Is it a lack of time? What is it that prevents a larger proportion of women from saying – here’s a great sport, I can do as part of a club, with friends, for the rest of my life?

In an article for The New York Times, The Myth of the Frivolous Female Spender, Kristin Wong writes about a banker, Anne Boden, the founder and chief executive officer of Starling Bank. Anne had been wondering why her customers were mostly men.

Looking for clues, she noticed that the women’s magazines focused on saving money and deal hunting, while the men’s talked about money in terms of power and luxury.

She commissioned a study on the gendered language around money — and found that 65 percent of financial articles in women’s magazines categorized women as excessive spenders. Of those aimed at men, 70 percent emphasized making money.

“Women are told to cut back on coffee to save up for a new pair of shoes,” Boden said. “With men, money is all about power suits and investing and long-term goals. Supercars and yachts and people looking quite smug.”

And yet while the concept of finance can pose a barrier to owning a boat, when it comes to adult participation, lack of money isn’t about to lock you out. If you’re determined and seek opportunities to join a crew or get on a boat, such experiences exist.

My daughter Hattie, at the age of 8, described herself as a verb – “I do things!” As a mum of a girl, I was very proud of that moment. But Hattie isn’t sailing with No Man’s Land.

She cites being thrown in a dinghy as a 6 year old and capsizing in the shipping channel, with her slightly older brother, as the time she decided sailing was not for her. Psychologically she associates sailing with cold, discomfort, and fear, both physical and of making mistakes.

You can add to the above, sailing requires strength and stamina. Doesn’t take Einstein, on a bench press, to point out, men are stronger than women. And yes, if you equate sailing to old school vision of America’s Cup, coffee grinding brawn does matters.

Pulling a sail down on deck or reefing in a big sea with big wind requires brute force. But this is stuff that can be planned around – the type of boats we choose to sail, the type of sails we choose to fly, the smarts we choose to apply. Time in preparation is seldom wasted – smarter boat words were never spoken.

I was raised by strong women. My maternal nana was made of steely stuff. My paternal grandmother, survived walking through a plate glass window as she sneezed. Both out-lived numerous husbands. However, they were of a generation who referred to the male of the species, in hushed tones as, Menfolk.

I remember dinners being prepared for the Menfolk on their return from golf. I remember being told not to disturb the Menfolk as they slept after Christmas lunch leaving the women with mountains of dishes. Oh, the good old days.

So, tradition. Is it an old world view of the role of women in society that keeps us off the water? To this I say, forget it. Boring. Move on. There is no looking back, only forward. Next.

If men have more muscle, women have babies. And this is a biggie – being a primary carer of some description derails hobbies. Statistically women are more likely to care for elderly members of the family, on both sides. Caring is a major time suck, be it children, partners, others.

Add to the mix the juggle of career and paid employment, the issues of gender pay gaps, fighting for workplace equity of opportunity – and I think we will agree, prioritizing a hobby for your time poor – mum / carer / wife / worker / sister / niece / daughter / entrepreneur – doesn’t look like she’s getting out on the water this weekend.

Most likely it’s a combination of all – financial issues, fears, adversity to risk on multiple levels, the impact of tradition on the choices we all make, a reluctance to take part because sails are heavy and rain is wet.

But I happen to think it’s something much simpler. Could lack of participation be as straightforward as how women undertake learning new things?

For a Yachting World article – Why aren’t women at the helm? Is sailing still stuck in the 1950s? – Elaine Blunt interviewed John Neal and Amanda Swan Neal who sail the world on their Hallberg-Rassy 46, Mahina Tiare III, and run expedition courses for sailors.

They said, “…it comes down to the different way men and women learn. Our experience is that men are happier to learn intuitively whereas women prefer to be sure they can do something before they take it on.” And the answer? “In a nutshell, it’s about gaining the confidence, which requires practice, a good support system…”

Such a phenomena also happens in job recruitment. Men are more likely to apply for any role that takes their interest, even if they only meet 60% of the requirements. Whereas women are more selective and tend only apply for jobs that they think suit their skills and personality and on paper, they fit 100% of listed requirements.

I’ve been lucky to learn about boats over time, so much so, that I didn’t realize learning was taking place. My knowledge was acquired by absorption method, by being on a boat, skills picked up with repetition and out of necessity.

Untangling twenty boats, tied stern to, piggie backed, three deep on across a quay, in Greece, with bow anchors, crisscrossing the harbor, a head spinning with 3 Star Metaxa (akin to petrol, 3 star is very bad stuff) as the gale hit and you discover quite quickly that fear won’t fix anything.

And thus we circle back to No Man’s Land. While I have some experience, I was mindful that I didn’t want a lack of knowledge to inhibit anyone taking up the offer to become part of our crew. There’s no doubt we are deep in absorption mode. The advances are quite staggering – week on week, real time, learning shared and acquired, across a team. This is learning deliberately geared for women.

No Man’s Land recently held our first three day intensive training, a time to crystalize learnings to date, a time to take things to the next level. We were switched to rapid learning. Rapid but calm. Calm and intelligent. This is an environment where no question is stupid and safety is everything.

The environment is congratulatory. There is a lot of supporting and reinforcing. There’s not a lot of chatter, there is a great deal of focus and concentration. And it is brilliant. The boat is a hum with intelligent women learning ‘new things’. Roles are growing. People are beginning to ‘see’ the interdependent nature of the team, the connectivity of how each role effects the other.

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