The ONLY woman in the room

Have you been the ‘only one’ in the room?

I have. It is an exciting place to be.

It invokes multiple emotions. There is pride, anxiety, and also loneliness. The quintessential emotional cocktail.

I was the only athlete in the room since the age of 9 – in the Canara Bank quarters at Mumbai, in my school in Mumbai and Pune, in my college and finally within my family and friends. I was also the only athlete in the BPCL’s Pune I & C department when I quit the sport and started working full time. When I moved to the US and got accepted in the Master’s in Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Dallas, I was the only Indian in the class. Now as I work as Program Head at a sports foundation I am again the only woman in the entire team. While the theme of being the only athlete in the room and then the only Indian in the room is interesting to explore, I think it is more important for me to do a deep dive on being the only woman in the room. I think that theme is just more urgent and too important to be ignored given the damaging repercussions it may have if ignored.

For the last couple of months I have been researching the current status of representation of women in the Indian sports ecosystem. Growing up as an athlete I hardly saw women around me. When it came to my coaches, my support staff, the state, district and national associations I never saw any women. When I did, it was an exception. As an athlete I never questioned or cared about it, because it didn’t really affect my performance. I realise now though how selfish I was. My vision of the problem was myopic. The truth of the matter is that having more women in the Indian sports ecosystem translates to having more women athletes participating at the grassroots level, which in turn means increased probability of women athletes winning medals for India.

First, let’s start with some statistics on this. An analysis of Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) grassroot level schemes reveals that only 30% girls and women participate(an average participation taken from 2015-2021), as compared to men. Similarly, the SAI governing body only has 11% women and 17% senior women coaches in their ecosystem. When it comes to support staff for athletes (masseurs, fitness trainers, physiotherapists, etc.) the numbers remain low. The same trend is seen in the administrative departments of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports at only 14% women, Indian Olympic Association at only 5% women) and the majority of our federations have around 2-8% women on their governing bodies.

We need more women in the decision making bodies across the board. What is important here to understand is that only women know what women face. Let’s imagine a scenario where all our sports governing councils had 50% representation of women as a mandate. How would the elite sports ecosystem in India look like?

SAI did it’s first ever course on the different stages of menstruation and its effect on performance for female athletes and coaches in their Bangalore centre recently. For starters the menstruation course would have not taken so long to come to the mainstream. The number of sexual assault cases on women athletes would be much lower. Our training centres would have had day care facilities, which would allow more women coaches, support staff and athletes to actively participate and deliver high-quality output because they no longer need to worry about their little ones. Women athletes would get paid maternity leave which would help sustain their careers after pregnancy. All playgrounds in India would have clean and functioning female toilets available for use. All rural and regional training centres would provide safe public transport to nearby villages to and from the centres to help make the girls and parents feel safe about sending their daughters for practice. Women would know exactly what courses to take to upgrade their skills in coaching, and it would not be an exception to see a female coach heading a men’s team. Every sport would have a women association of its own. The dream list could go on and on.

When so much good can happen with more women in sports in India, why are we still facing the issue of less participation?

This is what my fellow women professionals working on field told me. The #womensupportingwomen most of the times remains just that – a hashtag. It is important for every woman on field to actually bring that value in practice. We need to be honest to each other and support each other every time we have the opportunity. Women need to be made more aware and show more drive from within to excel and to make a tangible change in this ecosystem. If women want to be respected as coaches, they need to be made aware and given the opportunity to finish various sport specific certifications which could in turn would make athletes and associations take them more seriously as coaches. The patriarchal nature of our society puts undue and unfair expectations on women, first as young girls and then as women and mothers. Our associations right from the district to the national level need to make a more conscious and real effort to get more women into their system. The current women in the sports theme seemed to be used more as virtue-signalling, while no real power is given to them. This needs to change.

The realisation I have come to today is this – if we want to make a real change we need to really start with understanding the problem fully. The last official piece of research done on gender and sports in India was in 2010 by the National Commission of Women. It has been a decade since and most of its recommendations have just remained on paper. We need to do an in-depth research which is backed by data and is relevant to today’s times, come up with objective recommendations based on the research and convert those recommendations into real solutions. If you are a government official, a corporate leader, an academician, a sports enthusiast, a man or a woman genuinely interested in seeing a change in the sports system, this research is a must . A research study of this magnitude and significance requires resources – time, money and human efforts.

As a young girl, or a woman till recently, I enjoyed the notion of being the ‘only one’ in the room. But I realise now that being the only one in the room is not just a place of pride but also a place of responsibility. Ten years from now if there are not as many women as men in a room taking important decisions about sports in our country in every association, every department and every organisation I would have failed. I realise I can’t do this alone, and I need a tribe of both men and women to help me achieve this change. The International Olympic Association today has 53% women employees in their administration . They reached there after working on the problem for almost a decade. This gives me hope and the courage to dream. We need to get this done, it is time!

P.S. I am the Program Head at the Simply Sports Foundation for their women initiatives. If reading this makes you curious and interested in joining forces with us to see a more gender equal sports ecosystem in India, write to me at aditi.m@simplysport.in. As I said, lets get this done 🙂