There are lots of pressures I feel as a female sportsperson. As a woman, I think you’re caught in a Catch 22 situation, where on the one hand you just want to be known for your performance and the athlete that you are. Yet at the same time, you have to work hard to gain any kind of visibility, and even to get any type of endorsement deal.
As female hockey players, we often have nothing more than a stick contract, which is usually a very small amount of money. So, to change that into something more professional, and to gain more media attention, you have to do things that athletes in other sports simply don’t have to do. You have to do lots of photo shoots and media (which I actually enjoy!) – but at the same time you don’t want it to take away from what you do on the field. Serena Williams has spoken powerfully about this balance and she’s a fantastic ambassador for female sports stars everywhere. I find it interesting that she’s the greatest female tennis player of all time, yet she’s had to do things that the likes of Roger Federer haven’t in order to gain that level of fame.
I try to use the media as a tool to drive the profile of my sport. If we want hockey to be seen as professional – if we want to compete for better TV broadcasting rights and more newspaper articles – then we have to work with the media to get the best for us, as well as the best for them.
However, during the Olympics my teammates and I decided as a squad that we were going to come off social media altogether until the end of the tournament. That was a massive decision because we are all very active on social media and because it’s such an important part of engaging with fans. But we had a conversation as a group about the dangers of social media and the negative impact it can have. For example, some of my teammates have had comments online about how they look in a skirt, or commenting on their body shape. We weren’t prepared for that, and nobody should have to deal with that.
If something like that knocks one person on the team, it affects the whole team. Our coach spoke passionately about the power of social media, and said that the best way to build our reputation was to focus everything on winning medals – not on curating an online fan base. Of course, we love tweeting and posting on Instagram, and we love interacting with fans and sponsors – but it’s important to know when to switch on and when to switch off. Our gold medals show that the approach was the right one!
“Playing sport at an elite level as a woman gives you a different perspective”
But it’s vital to engage with fans in person too – not just online. I’ve absolutely loved going into schools and talking about my background, what I was like when I was their age, and giving them the opportunity to ask me any questions. Kids can be quite unfiltered in their questioning so they often ask me anything!
I also believe that as female sports stars we have a responsibility to speak out about causes or issues that are important to us. We should use our profiles to fight for what we believe in, even if it’s just being a role model for others to follow. When I married my partner Helen (a fellow GB Hockey player) we didn’t seek to publicise it, but just by being a same-sex married couple in an Olympic winning team our wedding really got people talking about LGBT causes in sport. I firmly believe that the more we can talk openly about issues and problems in our society, the better a culture we can create.
Being a successful female sportsperson and role model is a great honour and a responsibility that I take very seriously. I speak about my sexuality openly, not because I feel pressure from fans or the media to open up, but because it’s so important to be honest, open and ready to talk about your life and how you’ve got to where you are.
I do feel more comfortable talking about issues like sexuality and equality at this stage in my career. But it’s important to recognise that it’s not so easy for people starting out at the bottom. Speaking out can be tough, not least because when you’re part of an association or a team, you might just be giving your personal views, but people might think you’re speaking on behalf of others.
“We should use our profiles to fight for what we believe in”
But the confidence to speak out is vital to empower us to question the old ways and drive change on issues like pay. For example, I heard after the last Olympics that a female teammate was being offered four times less than a male counterpart for her stick sponsorship by the same company – even though she won a medal and he didn’t! That cannot be acceptable and we need to push back when that happens.
Of course, it has become easier for me to negotiate on pay now that I’m a double Olympic medallist, but it shouldn’t be the case that you can only challenge sponsors as a woman when you’re at the very top of your game. We need gender parity at all levels of sports. I think that we can tend to be quite British and dislike talking about money, but the more open and transparent we can be, the fairer and more equal things will become. Unless people talk about it, things are never going to change.
As we push for gender equality in sport we’ll create a virtuous circle. As we create more role models that inspire young people with sporting aspirations, more will take up the game. At the start of my career, the female athletes that I particularly admired were Sally Gunnell and Martina Navratilova. They are both phenomenal athletes, but they also used their voices and profiles to make a positive difference.
We need to change things at the top too. A recent survey by Women in Sport found that half of Sport England and UK sport-funded national governing bodies have fewer than 30% of non-executive director roles filled by women. This shows that while things are changing, we are nowhere near finished yet. We need to keep pushing, we need more role models, and we need more funding and sponsorship for women athletes.
Sexism on and off the field is certainly difficult to tackle. But there are lots of positives that are born out of the difficulties. The way I’ve always looked at life is that you must make the very best of every situation. As a women’s hockey team, it’s made us more driven and hungry. It’s made me more flexible, more organised and more diligent – all the things you need to be to get to the very top of your sport.