The Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel is one of the leading public research bodies in the world and back in 2016, it conducted a fascinating study into how genders in sport respond to pressure. The study analysed 8,280 men’s and women’s tennis games and found that men consistently choke under competitive pressure and that even if women show a drop in performance in the more crucial stages of the match, it is still about 50% smaller than that of men. In biological testing, the levels of cortisol, which is known to diminish performance of both men and women, commonly escalated more substantially among men relative to women in response to achievement-related challenges. Fascinating stuff.
So as the America’s Cup comes to its climax, the pressure goes on to the athletes and every team member from top to bottom in the syndicates knows that they’ve got to put in the performance of their lifetimes to win. It’s an intense, white-hot pressure that is hard to withstand and there’s absolutely no doubt that individuals will crack – be that shoreside or on the water. Mistakes will be made. The Cup will be lost by the team that cracks wherever in the campaign the fault line was caused be that a missed tack, a riding turn, a design failure or just an off-day.
Having an off-day is something that we all know about. For some it occurs more often than not in normal club racing or at championships. Some days it all clicks, other days it just doesn’t. At an elite level, the repetitive nature of the training is all about defining a repeatable process that evens out the spikes of performance and produces consistency – and we all know that consistent sailors are just so hard to beat in a series. You’ll hear the commentators saying “trust in the process” and that means everything from the design to how you sail the boat and is why a performance like Oracle’s in San Francisco was a perfect example of the mantra. Trust that the design team will get it right and that the shore team will make the right calls on changing crew members and miracles happen. Not often, but they do.
But let’s take this from another angle. Say you or I lucked out in the great lottery of life and suddenly ended up in a position to put a team together and challenge for the America’s Cup. Fanciful I know, but bear with me. What would be your criteria for the team? Let me go first. One hundred percent I would not want a boys club and a sailor clique making decisions. At a management level I would want diversity of thought, challenge, rationality, uncomfortable questions, more challenge and, in my view, it’s a travesty that more women aren’t in the most powerful positions within the teams. That’s not to say that they aren’t in the teams – there are plenty of women (probably still not enough) employed by the syndicates but at the top end, women running teams and yielding real power are rarer than hen’s teeth. And it’s not just the Cup. In the FTSE 100 there are just 7 female CEOs. In the Fortune 500 only 7.4% have female CEOs. Quite frankly it’s a disgrace.
If I were a billionaire about to part with the thick end of £150m, I would want to make damn sure that my money is being spent wisely. I’d want deep, forensic economic accountability for every penny spent and cool rationale for every design avenue and decision made. I would want reassurance that I’m not being taken for a mug. What I definitely wouldn’t want is echo-chambers of belief that occur within a male dominated environment. And then at a sporting level, I would want more diversity. The simple fact is, women make very good decision makers and as the Ben Gurion study shows, they are far less likely to crack when the intense pressure to perform comes on.
And that means getting women in the key positions on the boats. Why not? We can all name outstanding female sailors in the foiling classes and current Olympians with medals to boot that would give the current talent one heck of a run for their money given half the chance. But the glass ceiling seems impenetrable at the Cup level. In fact it seems to have been made of toughened reinforced bullet-proof glass in recent years and it’s just getting tougher. And that’s a huge pity. Who’s going to be the billionaire who’s going to smash that – my money’s on a Bertarelli or a Ratcliffe to pull this off. What’s proven time and time again in the Cup is that you have to think differently to win. Bringing more women into sailing teams at an early stage and giving them the time in the boat in the key helm and tactician roles would pay the most handsome dividends in my book. As Nike says, “Just do it.”
The brilliant Dawn Riley was recently quoted as saying; “I think in a lot of ways sexism has hurt our sport. When you look at it from a marketing perspective, half of the possible participants in this sport are left out of it at the highest professional level, and with so little diversity you dwindle away half of your fans, or half of your audience.” And of course, she’s right. Spot on. What is there in the Cup today that makes a young foiling girl look up and go ‘that’s where I want to be’ and find the answer in the America’s Cup? They don’t. It’s a stitched up boys club right now but with the AC75’s surely there’s an avenue for talented female athletes to come through?
For the next Cup regatta it’s imperative that we have a team led from the top either in management or sailing (preferably both) that reflects the modern world. Whilst the AC75s have high, broad appeal, the current teams don’t, plain and simple, and that’s just a structural tweak that can be easily made by someone with the foresight to do it. Think of the message it would send. Think of the platform that would be created. Think of the pathway for the talent coming through that would be created. The America’s Cup could lead the way and create a model that would avoid certain irrelevance in generations to come.
Smash the ceiling, shatter it forever and ‘Think Different’ – as Steve Jobs used to say.