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How high can women jump? What female jockeys are teaching us about diversity at work

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices.

By Emily Hayes, – Head of HR & Interim head of L&D, News UK

This year Rachael Blackmore became the first woman to win the Grand National. 

In 2019 Hollie Doyle set a new record for winners ridden in a British season by a female jockey, only to smash her own record a year later. And in 2019 Khadijah Mella was not only the first hijab-wearing jockey to enter in a competitive British horse race, but also winner of the Magnolia Cup. This is one of the few sports where women can compete directly against men, but what can these women who are smashing it in the world of horse racing teach us about gender diversity at work? 

The Grand National is the pinnacle of jump racing in the UK and I have wanted a woman to win it since I was a child. (I’ve been obsessed with horses since the age of 5, when I was taught by the same person that trained legend Willie Carson to ride.) But it’s taken 44 years to get here. How can it possibly be that an industry built on speed is moving at such a snail’s pace when it comes to gender diversity? 

Women have been allowed to enter since the passing of the Sex Discrimination act in 1975, but only a total of only 15 jockeys have entered 18 of those Grand Nationals since 1977. 

For women and men at work, this legislation was intended to protect them against discrimination. 

The racing industry has a cut throat reputation, and isn’t known for treating women favourably. According to the British Horseracing Authority there are around 450 licensed jockeys and 300 amatear riders in the UK, but the complexity of the industry (think race types, race levels, handicaps, families in the business) makes it hard to describe what’s really going on. 

When it comes to the prominence of women in racing, the stats aren’t pretty. Only 10 of the 450 registered jockeys in the UK are female, and men enjoy 10x more rides than women. 

However, two significant studies show that from a performance perspective, women are just as good as men. Vanessa Cashmore from the University of Liverpool carried out an analysis of  over 1.6 million rides covering a 18-year period. The research shows that a Jumps horse ridden by a female jockey at odds of 9/1 has the same chance of winning as a male ridden horse at odds of 8/1. Similarly Alexander Binder of Pittsburgh State University found no difference in performance between male and female jockeys based on a study gathering data from 120,000 horse races in the US between 2016 – 18. 

Our biggest lesson here is that the only real differences between men and women are that punters are underestimating female jockeys when they lay their bets. 

We know that women want to work in horse racing: 51% of the entry-level stable staff jobs across the UK are held by women. But despite this statistical evidence, some trainers still refuse to use female jockeys, and the majority of female jockeys are on amanteur licenses with only 11.3% of professional jockey licenses currently held by women.

How does this relate to what’s going on for women more generally at work in the UK? According to research by Business Leader this year in the FTSE 100 companies there are only six female CEOs compared to 94 men. Not only is this unacceptably small, but it was the same number between 2017 – 19.  Things aren’t changing. Male CEOS are also earning 17% more than their female equivalents, and when you look at earnings generally in 2020, women are earning 31% less than men.

Once again, the real issue here is that we’re making incorrect assumptions about what women are  capable of.  We assume they’re not strong enough, that they won’t cope at the top and if they can have a successful career and a family. We’re not asking the same questions about men.  

This unconscious bias infiltrates the female psyche at such a young age, shaping a girl’s opinion about what she can and can’t achieve, and inspires a sense of  toxic masculinity amongst boys. It’s criminal that so much potential talent is going to waste.  

The racing industry is an interesting microcosm because it presents an opportunity for change and to learn. Women will thrive… if you let them.  But how do we let them? Here’s three ways: 

  1. We could give fines to male trainers that refuse to select women jockeys. 
  2. We could launch more  campaigns celebrating the successes of female jockeys. The Magnolia cup or  ‘silk series’ is a championship that gives  women more chances to ride and earn. 
  3. We could lobby. Lots of good work is happening in this area through the British Horseracing Authority, its Diversity in Racing Steering Group, along with campaigns like #justjockeys and bodies like Women in Racing. 

If something can change here, in this complex, tough and hugely male orientated environment then surely we can learn from this for other professions too. If we can bring men along with us and change their attitude this can only help them be more successful too. 

I hope it’s enough. How many more girls like Hollie Doyle and Khadijah Mella are we missing out on because they don’t believe they can be successful or they’re not being given the chance? I want to see more Rachael Blackmores and Nicola Curries. With the right steps taken, the top  three horses in the Grand National could be ridden by women one day, and I don’t want to wait another 44 years to see it.