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International Women's Day with UKA – Sarah Benson

Category: Women, testimonial, Women in athletics, UK Athletics, Paralympic, inspirational women, International Women’s Day, Staff Testimonial, Athletics, athletes, celebrating women, British Athletics, UKA, career for women, leading women, athletic, Paralympics, Para Athletics, Paralympic programme, Paralympians, Female Athletes, International Women’s Day 2022, inspiring women

Gender Focus

On the 8th March, it was International Women’s Day, and to celebrate, our Equality, Diversity and Inclusion advocates at UKA have spoken to several stakeholders in the sport about this year’s theme, #BreakTheBias.

The theme for this year is encouraging people to think about what they can do to do create a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive. Where difference is valued and celebrated to forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias. More information can be found here.

From Tuesday, we have been showcasing stories from across the sport. Today we hear from Paralympic Pathway Manager at British Athletics, Sarah Benson.

Role(s) / involvement in athletes (now and in the past):

My main role is working in the Paralympic Team as the Pathway Manager. I also support senior and junior teams on both Olympic and Paralympic Programmes as an Endurance Team Coach and Team Manager.

Have you experienced bias during your time in the sport?

I haven’t experienced any bias within athletics and I think this is because the sport has the same opportunities for male and female athletes all the way through the pathway. Plus we have so many successful female athletes that women are generally well respected in the sport of athletics.

I have, however, experienced bias in previous roles within High Performance sport, especially during pregnancy and after having my two boys in 2015 and 2017. Whilst nothing was ever said directly to me, I often felt a sense from the people I worked with that my pregnancies were inconvenient. A coach (in another sport) actually once referred to my baby bump as ‘a problem’ given the timelines for a project we were working on.

I breastfed both my children for nearly a year after they were born. After my first son, I returned to part-time work after three months which meant expressing milk for my baby during the working day. I did this privately in my car because the room I was offered at work had glass windows with no privacy. I was told I could keep my milk in the fridge, but it clearly made other people uncomfortable so I would store it in a cool bag with ice packs in my car. Again, I really felt like I was a problem or a burden that had to be accommodated for because employment rights and policies. There were constant jokes made about my situation, teasing comments referring to me being a cow or a milk factory and several of my colleagues gestured about how it made them feel sick.

I don’t think that kind of bias is unique to working in sport. Pregnancy and maternity is still a huge area that’s progressing within employment. Anyone who has a new baby will understand just how stressful it is without the added pressure of feeling like you need to ignore it at work.

How have you dealt with this / how to you ‘Break the Bias’?

In that particular situation, I think I was already challenging the norm. The company hadn’t dealt with a breastfeeding mother before and even though they had a policy, putting it in practice was new territory. The HR team were great and I often fed back how others made me feel which they helped manage internally.

Despite how my colleagues and managers in my previous role made me feel during pregnancy and returning to work, I knew what my rights were as a new parent. Anyone who knows me, will know that when I’m told I can’t do something or it’s going to be a ‘problem’, it makes me more determined to prove everyone wrong! I wasn’t afraid to call people out or just informally feedback to them about how their language or comments could be interpreted. I expressed milk for my son during my working day for around six months until he was weaned and moved onto night feeds. It’s probably one of my proudest achievements during my working career!

Which female(s) inspire you (can be involved in the sport or not, well known or not)?

Paula Dunn would be at the top of my list. When I started in my role in 2017, my second son was only 4 months old and I was also still feeding him. In fact, when I interviewed for the role, he was only about 6 weeks old and my milk started leaking towards the end of the interview! I was mortified… but I’ve since told Paula and she said nobody noticed!

Paula (and the team) knew I had a new baby and I felt incredibly supported because she had been there herself as a working mother. She made me feel like my new baby, my health and family were priority over the role. I felt like I could openly talk about expressing my milk with the whole team and I wasn’t judged or made to feel like an inconvenience. I quickly got into a good routine of expressing milk on the way to Loughborough, storing it in the fridge and expressing on the way back. Although, there were a couple of times I forgot to remove the breast pumps before reaching the barrier at Loughborough University… which came with some very strange looks from security!

Paula is a trailblazer in elite sport and is one of very few women who has led a highly successful programme whilst raising a family.

What does International Woman’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s Day to me is about celebrating what it means to be a woman in this day and age. It’s a chance to recognise and thank all the women who came before us. The women who challenged the norm and changed the rules. The women who made it possible for me to feed my babies whilst working, raise a family whilst having a career and feel like I am not at a disadvantage because of it.

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VERCIDA works with over one hundred clients who are committed to creating an inclusive work environment. If you are an employer and interested in working with VERCIDA to promote your diversity and inclusion initiatives and attract the best candidates, please email [email protected] for more information.

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