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Bigger, better, stiffer, faster, stronger. Masculine words for a male dominated sport?

I paddle for equality

We’ve recently been involved in a very passionate online debate. It was about why women are under-represented in the adventurous outdoor activities sector.   As always with online debates, things quickly got out of hand. There was name calling, and abuse. Strong beliefs and opinions made the thread more an argument than a debate, with reasoned and evidenced facts being confused with opinions. But there were some really interesting points made by many people on both sides of the argument that got lost in the general vitriol and abuse.    And these interesting points deserve further discussion.

Equality and inclusivity

Inclusivity is a hot topic of debate, so now is a good time to reflect on gender equality in SUP. And to think about the barriers to girls and ladies taking up paddleboarding, and consider what can be done to remove them.

As a relatively new sport / recreational activity, and one that is growing so rapidly, paddleboarding is in a unique position.  It does not need to be constrained by the failures of the past; it does not have a legacy of ‘old farts in suits’, or a historic gender imbalance to fix.  It’s fair to say that there are many societal factors outside of the world of paddleboarding that might contribute to a gender imbalance, and we can talk about these later. But it’s vitally important to make sure that SUP itself does not perpetuate some of the issues still prevalent in other sectors that have led to girls and women not participating in the same numbers as boys and men.

At McConks we have a strong interest in equality across the board, not just gender equality. And we try very hard to make sure that our products and the language that we use to describe them, appeal to everyone; young/old, male/female, able bodied/less able bodied. And we try to make our writing as inclusive and as straightforward as possible.  To appeal across social and cultural divides and to remove some of the unconscious barriers that put certain groups of people off SUP and paddleboarding.


  • 28% of staff working in the outdoor sector identify as female (ref 1)
  • 33% of managers in the sector are female (ref 1)
  • Of people who partake in outdoor activities regularly, 35% of them are female (ref 1)
  • 23% of British Canoeing board members are female (ref 1)
  • 26% of British Canoeing members are female (ref 1)
  • 33% of the British Canoeing SUP working group are female
  • 22% of the British Canoeing SUP technical group are female
  • Female participation in boating (canoeing / kayaking) is the highest it has ever been, with 48.9% of participants being female

Although there are no published figures about female participation in SUP, we believe (based on nothing more than personal observations) that the percentage of female SUP instructors is similar to the percentages above.  And female participation in SUP races and challenges is generally similar based on published results. Varying between about 25% for landmark events like Head of the Dart or Battle of the Thames, to as high as 45% for the Naish N1SCO European championships in 2017 at Swanage

And in terms of general participation, we believe that roughly equal numbers of females and males participate at a grass roots level. Whether this be recreational paddling or taking part in club SUP events and activities.


So roughly equal numbers of boys and girls, ladies and gents are taking part in SUP recreational paddling and social SUP events. Why then do a smaller proportion of females go on to be instructors or take part in competitive events?

And does it matter?  Should we be striving to a 50:50 balance in instructors, or a 50:50 balance in races?

Equality of opportunity vs equality of outcome.

This is quite an important concept.  As long as everyone has an equal opportunity to participate, then there is no need to worry if different numbers of boys and girls go for a paddle.   And as long as it is equally possible for a girl to become a SUP elite athlete, or as long as it is as easy for Jane Smith to be qualified as, and become a SUP instructor as, John Smith, then all is fine.  This is called equality of opportunity.

This seems to make perfect sense. Let’s look at the newly formed British Canoeing StandUp Paddleboarding Working Group.  The group is made of 10 people, of whom 3 are female.  If fewer females than males applied to be part of the group, then you can’t expect there to be a 50:50 gender balance on the group can you?

Or thinking about races and competitions.   Some say that girls don’t like outdoor play as much as boys do.  And boys are more competitive than girls, therefore of course there will always be more men competing in races.  As long as the races are open to females to enter (i.e. equality of opportunity) then there isn’t a problem, right?

And that is where the equality of opportunity starts to sound a little shaky.   Sometimes people think they’re providing equality of opportunity, when in fact unconscious biases are actually working to put females off applying.Take the British Canoeing SUP working group example.  Rather than just saying that the application process was open to everyone and transparent (as it was), we need to consider if there are other reasons why there are less females on the group than males.

Are there less female paddleboarders than males?

Female participation in canoeing and kayaking is approaching 50%. Our experience is that roughly equal males and females take part in social and non competitive SUP paddles, therefore this doesn’t seem to be the reason. And given that there are more females than males in the population generally, this is a weak argument,  Even if true, we need to understand why!

Does the wording of the advert appeal to more male paddlers than to female paddlers?

Research by leading universities shows that there are male and female coded words and phrases.  And that adverts written by males often will appeal more to males than females because they use male coded words.  So if you already have a body or company where there are more men than women, they’re likely to keep recruiting more men than women by using language that appeals more to men than women.

Interestingly, we’ve run the advert for the working group through a gender decoder, and it was neutral. Well done British Canoeing – it is very unusual to find adverts that are neutrally coded!

Were the adverts placed in media that are more readily or easily accessed by men?

This is a little more difficult to assess. So we’re not going to try to.  But when considering if females get the same opportunities as males, it’s really important to make sure that not only the process of transparent and open, but that someone has considered ad placement to make it equally visible to male and female paddlers. We should point out that there is nothing that suggests British Canoeing have placed ads inappropriately or incorrectly in this case.

If equal numbers of men and women applied, did the selection process favour males?

Again, there’s no reason to suspect this is the case, but it is important that females are involved in the selection process to ensure that it is fair.  It is entirely possible that a selection panel of all males would set criteria that are biased towards men.  And there is some evidence that this is quite widespread – even if not deliberately so. And this last statement is quite important – it’s called unconscious bias, and we’ll come to this in a minute.

Do female paddleboarders want to be associated with British Canoeing?

There could be many reasons for females to have a weaker preference for joining in something organised by British Canoeing than men.  And each require careful consideration. But importantly, is there a legacy that makes female paddlers less inclined to join a working group. Is British Canoeing an organisation that has historically been full of middle aged men with beards?  Is it an institution that has a history of perceived gender discrimination that puts ladies and girls off?  Is there an undercurrent of ‘chatter’ that makes women feel like their opinion would not be valued?   I’m not qualified to answer these questions, but it could be past actions rather than the things happening in the here and now that are preventing ladies from applying.

Unconscious Bias

It is entirely possible to believe that you are acting in a gender neutral way, but in fact your words or actions are interpreted more positively by one gender the other.  If you want to read more about this, search for unconscious bias on google. And this applies to everything, not just interview selection criteria. Could it be that one of the reasons why there are less female than male instructors be due to the fact that instructors unconsciously act in a way that puts off female paddlers?  What’s the first thing that comes into your head if you think of a sports coach?  You probably think of a man in a track suit?  And what’s the first image if you think of an outdoors instructor?  A bloke with a beard?  These things are unconscious biases, and we need to take positive action to prevent them leading to decisions that favour one gender or the other.

So maybe there are more deep-seated opinions or biases, that require more concerted action to overcome.

We think the three biggest biases (or should that be fallacies?) that require challenge and action are:

The three big gender fallacies

Males are more competitive than females

For years and years research suggests that men are more competitive than women. This gender difference appears in primary school, as evidenced by the playtime activities that girls and boys choose, and increases through puberty and adulthood.  If true, this could mean that females could always be under-represented on groups where there is a competitive process to determine members.  And it would explain why there are less females participating in races than men.

But recent studies have challenged this, and have found that this difference in competitiveness is driven by societal norms, not by innate gender differences.  Daddy teaching little Johnny to tackle harder or run faster, and mummy teaching little Ruby that looking after the doll or doing some painting is so much more ladylike than running around the house.   And this is, in part, driven by the experiences and the received norms of the parents, the grandparents and wider society around them.

Men prefer being outdoors

As with the competitiveness thing, years of research have found that differences in how girls and boys play mean that men prefer outdoor sport to ladies.  As recently as 2009, a study found that  girls and boys play differently. Girls tend to spend time in smaller groups and engage in verbal games, conversation and socialising. Most boys play in larger groups, which lend themselves more to physically active games, such as football.”

The perception of the outdoors as “not a woman’s place” has even been reinforced by institutions charged with managing public lands.  Historically, wardens and rangers jobs would have been described as men’s jobs.  The idea is that women just aren’t strong enough, physically or emotionally, to cope with all that the outdoor world throws at you.  Well that perception has been rigorously tested and proved entirely wrong by our armed forces and emergency services. But the perception remains, and we suspect is still believed by quite a large percentage of the population

If a higher percentage of men prefer being outdoors that women, we strongly believe this is due to societal pressures and learned behaviours, rather than inherent difference between girls and boys.

Men naturally have more self confidenceMcConks sup

That’s hardly surprising.  It’s a man’s world. Lots of research points to the fact that while women have just as much talent and ability as men to make it, they all-too-often lack confidence when it comes to their careers.

Sadly, in the past, in school and in training girls were taught to keep their heads down, work hard and play by the rules. And these girls then grow up certain that if they adhered to this, somehow their talent and efforts would be rewarded. But in the outside world they soon learn that success, no matter how hard you work, comes with no guarantee. And just because you work 16 hours a day, diligently go beyond your daily tasks and excel in every one, this does not mean that you’ll be recognised for your achievements.   Sadly, as a female, all too often if you want to gain that all-important recognition and carve out a path to success, you have to get out there. Not only do you need to seize every opportunity and chance to show what you’re capable of, but you also need to shout about it too. And for this to happen you need that all-important trait – confidence.

There is possibly something about the way in which men and women, on average, process criticism, and how this then impacts future confidence in their own ability. But I think on average the genders are generally similar, and it’s how girls and boys have been treated differently during development that cause this difference.

What needs to change?

There are still some very misogynistic opinions out there, judging by the thread that we got involved in recently. Those opinions need to be challenged, but constructively and positively whenever we hear them.  And even some senior execs and owners of brands use terms that are quite frankly offensive to females in the name of banter.

#ipaddleforequalityI paddle for equality

And when the likes of Red Bull don’t allow ladies to compete in their landmark events such as Red Bull Heavy Water, it’s clearly an uphill struggle.  The hashtag #IPaddleForEquality was a grassroots response, and caused embarrassment for Red Bull, before it became appropriated by brands.  But it will for years be associated negatively with Red Bull. And although they got the feedback that they richly deserved, it is concerning that they remained tone deaf to that criticism.

Sexualised imagery in marketing and branding is still all too common.  All too often the images of girls portrayed in brand marketing reinforces the view that they’re there to look pretty, rather than to take part in the activity.  Quiksilver found themselves on the wrong side of a social media campaign with the ‘mens’ section of the front page showing a young surfer ripping it up’, and the girls section showing off a pert bottom in a bikini.  This kind of sexualised imagery needs to be banished from the sport. Imagery like this, coupled with the overtly macho language often used, plays a large part in reinforcing the message that the activity is a male preserve, with girls being there on the sidelines to be looked at and fawned over.  We all deserve better than this!

Role models

But, in general the signs are positive. There are already some great initiatives underway, and some great female role models.

Sian Sykes, owner of Psyched Paddleboarding is an inspiration to many.  A female paddleboard instructor and business owner,  always in the media, always generating positive images about SUP for everyone, gets over 80% females on her courses and expeditions.  Whitstable SUP, owned and run by Lucy Boutwood, is another example of a school / company that attracts more females to their lessons and trips than males.  This just goes to show that the right images and marketing can significantly shift the gender balance. It also suggests that there is a pent up demand from potential new female paddlers for more female provision.  Think ladies only paddles for example.  Whilst the issue of lack of confidence, and fear of competition still exists amongst the general population, then female only paddles and social events will help to get more girls and ladies involved at grass roots.

And Anni Risdill Smith, well known on the UK SUP racing circuit, has just become a SUP ambassador for #ThisGirlCan – the hugely successful initiative started by Sport England.  And Anni also runs female focussed instructor facebook groups such as Water Angels helps to provide safe places for ladies to talk about instruction and the future.

And what better example of strength and courage than keen paddleboarder Kiko Matthews, currently rowing single handed across the Atlantic.  And with such an engaging back story, Kiko is a phenomenal role model.

We could go on about role models, Amanda Leonard at Sup-in-a-Bag, Lowri Davies Team GB freestyle supremo, Caroline Carr of SUP school, amongst many, many others. But what stands out about all of these role models, is that their messaging and social media marketing is unrelentlessly positive, engaging and fun. There are no negative undercurrents or tones.  This is something that we should all aspire to.

New initiatives such as #IWillIfYouWill are aiming to overcome the confidence issue, by using peer pressure to get groups of girls, or just a couple of friends to try something new together, or to bring a friend along when they have taken part in a new activity that they’ve enjoyed.   This is another initiative by Sport England, who have recognised that supporting marketing and initiatives that persuade girls and ladies to bring their friends to the next event, or to try something together helps with confidence issue, or the fear of something new

Things certainly look more positive for gender equality than they ever have. And it is an issue that is taken very seriously by the governing bodies and head honchos of every sport. But the most effective changes always start at the bottom and work up.  With so many females taking up SUP as a pastime, a recreation and a sport, maybe the messaging needs to change.  Maybe it should be #EveryGirlCan or #YouCanToo, rather than #ThisGirlCan.

But most importantly, everyone involved in the sport needs to remember that there are huge numbers of paddlers out there in the real world who don’t care about performance, or being bigger, better, stronger, faster. And who don’t want competition, they just want to paddle and have fun, with friends and family.  They don’t care about politics, about who runs the sport, or about which training is best. And they’re totally turned off by all the negative sniping, back handed comments, arguing and just plain misogyny that happens on social media.  And with societal norms as they are, there are more girls and ladies in this group, than there are boys and men.

If you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re going to keep getting what you’re getting.  So is now the time to do something different?

But maybe there’s an elephant in the room we need to address first.  Why the watersports scene across the board is dominated by white caucasians.  Perhaps that’s the topic for another article.



(1) Land and Wave  publication on gender equality in the outdoor activities sector