On International Women’s Day, Hannah Mills, the most successful female sailor in Olympic history, explains how gender equity in sailing is not only achievable, but it is improving team performance at SailGP.
Today is a special day around the world to celebrate women’s achievements, to raise awareness about discrimination, and to take action to drive gender equity.
And this year I feel more excited than ever about the role of women in sport, and the incredible opportunity we have to change the face of sailing to have a gender equitable league.
I didn’t come from a sailing family and the Olympics was all I knew growing up, so as I pursued my passion for sailing and chased my Olympic dreams, Britain’s hero Ben Ainslie was the one I looked up to.
It’s ironic and somewhat surreal that we’re now on the same team, competing together for the Emirates Great Britain SailGP Team as we take on the world’s best sailing athletes in SailGP - the most exciting racing on water.
As women’s sport is finally getting its time in the spotlight and more families are tuning in to watch SailGP, I hope there’s a new generation of young women out there who see me and the rest of our incredible female athletes, and will be inspired by us, rather than Ben (sorry Ben!), to pursue a career in sailing.
And not only that, but I hope they see that men and women can compete together to improve overall performance. There’s never been a more exciting time to be an aspiring female athlete.
Don’t get me wrong, sailing has long had its challenges with gender equity. Traditionally most of the roles on sailboats are physical roles which involve grinding and pulling on ropes - naturally falling to men. With the driver and the roles of strategists and navigation generally falling to the guys, this made it really hard for female athletes to get on these boats.
When fast foiling boats burst onto the scene with the America’s Cup in 2013, it was the guys with prior experience in traditional sailing that were first to get involved, creating a massive experience gap between men and women. Despite many of the roles onboard these foiling boats being less physically demanding, there was no female involvement from the start so the experience gap became wider, and now makes it very difficult to close.
This problem with gender equity was highlighted by World Sailing Trust in its Women in Sailing strategic review in December 2019. The review found that 80 percent of female respondents and 56 percent of male respondents believed that gender balance was an issue in the sport.
That’s why the Women’s Pathway was instigated as part of SailGP’s Better Sport strategy to change the trajectory for aspiring female athletes by giving us the opportunity to compete on the F50 - SailGP’s hydrofoiling catamaran that flies at incredible speeds approaching 100 km/h.
Before then I never thought I’d have a career in sailing, but as my Olympic campaign in Tokyo came to a close, the Women’s Pathway came around at exactly the right time to enable me to pursue both my passion for sailing as well as my passion for sustainability.
After a period of training and getting to grips with these boats, when we first got our opportunity to all race onboard as strategists at the Spain Sail Grand Prix in Cádiz in 2021, it was unbelievable and a watershed moment.
I remember how nerve racking it was as it was such a big step. Suddenly you go from being a team member to really feeling a valued part of the team and it shifted the dynamic massively.
Since then, female athletes have raced onboard in 100 percent of races. As with all new things trying to blaze a trail, it had its ups and downs, but I really feel like we’re now in the most exciting transition phase.
We now have these amazing female athletes from around the world in different teams who have built up plenty of experience and time onboard the boat as strategists. We’re also seeing female athletes in other roles such as grinder and flight controller which is an encouraging sign of progress.
A major milestone will be getting a female driver behind the wheel and that is very doable. We’ve got this young crop of talented female athletes now chomping at the bit to get behind the wheel so it’s only a matter of time before this becomes a reality.
These boats are extreme, they’re fast and you’ve got the best male and female sailors in the world competing together on the same team. I can’t really think of many other sports where you can do that - with sailing there are so many roles that aren’t just about physicality so there’s no reason why we can’t race together.
What’s most interesting about men and women being on a team together is the performance aspect. Women tend to bring quite different perspectives in my experience because I think women don’t just rely on physicality and brute strength, they’ve had to learn to do something in a different way.
I did all my Olympic sailing as a team with two other people so my skill set around communication has added quite a lot to our team. When men and women work together, there’s no doubt we are making the team better.
But while we’re making progress, there’s still plenty of work to be done to make our sport more inclusive.
The surge in visibility of women’s sport is certainly helping. The Women’s Sport Trust (WST) found the average viewer in the UK watched more than eight hours of women’s sport in 2022, compared with less than four hours in 2021.
With a record crowd for Red Roses home matches broken twice last year, sell out crowds at Wembley on the back of the phenomenal Lionesses’ success and booming Women’s Super League attendance, it’s showing that if you make women’s sport visible, then viewership, interest and participation will follow.
I think of the young female sailors growing up today. If I’d seen a female driver in SailGP while I was growing up it would have totally blown me away and driven me to be a part of it, so I can only imagine the knock on effect that would have for our sport in building a pool of aspiring professional female sailors, and particularly showing men and women competing on equal terms on the same boat.
This is why I decided to launch the Athena Pathway Programme Ben Ainslie last year, a new British pathway for female and youth sailors which aims to level the playing field in high-performance foiling sailing and bring diversity into the professional sport. We need programmes like this to keep moving the dial forward.
So on this International Women’s Day, as we celebrate the achievements of women and continue to push for gender equity in our sport, I hope there are young girls around the world tuning into SailGP and seeing that not only can men and women compete on the same team together, but it’s making our sport even better.
Let’s get racing.