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Getting women into competitive sailing

Published on March 9th, 2022

What’s really driving women away from the sport is a culture within the sport itself. Think about it, says Kelly McGlynn in this report for Sailing World

“The real problem with women’s ­sailing is that all the boats we sail are made for men.” A guy recently said this to me after telling me how big a proponent he is of women in sailing. This wasn’t the first time I’d heard this argument, and I was frustrated later when a few of my male friends told me they thought he made a good point. It led to a familiar set of questions: Do I really think the average woman is strong enough to trim the main on a keelboat or an E Scow? What percent of women do I think are strong enough to pump a kite in 20 knots?

Many people believe this is why sailing is such a male-dominated sport. Sailing is physically demanding, and as they see it, the average woman isn’t strong enough. If only we sailed boats that were smaller and more manageable, we’d have more women sailing. This perspective is frustrating because it’s a distraction. Sure, the average woman is not as strong as the average man. But that’s not why there are so few women in sailing. No one builds out sailing teams by picking ­average men and women off the street.

The real issue is that people in the sailing world overwhelmingly underestimate female sailors’ abilities. If we want more women in sailing—which I believe most ­sailors do—we need to stop acting like a lack of women in the sport is inevitable. Instead, we need to address the underestimation of women. It’s not some inherent difference in natural strength that drives the gender gap; it’s the inherent difference in how women are treated.

From junior sailing through adult ­racing, girls and women have to work harder to establish confidence and earn respect. In spite of notable progress, our community still expects less of women than it does of men on the water. That affects what opportunities women have to sail. It affects how women are treated when we sail. And it affects everyone. My friends and I talk about it often. But its effects are even more harmful on those who probably don’t talk about it: young girls who don’t realize that their confidence and sense of belonging in our sport are so often undermined—subtly but surely—by underestimation. If we really want to grow women’s sailing and foster equality in our sport, we need to better understand this issue and shift our culture around it. – Full report

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