CEO's Blog - Why diversity in rowing is a good thing

Posted on Tue, 11 Sep, 2018

It’s no secret that rowing suffers from some stereotypes.  Some of these are without foundation (elitism being one of them, you just want to row in the fastest crew, regardless of where they came from) but some have numbers to back them up.  Unfortunately one of these is that participation in our sport in the UK is mainly by white men and women.  Personally I think this is a huge problem and needs to be sorted ASAP.  You may find it odd that, as a white male myself, I feel justified in suggesting this but we’ve seen such huge benefits at FRBC with our work across the whole community I feel that I can’t not share my thoughts on this!  Having really been involved in rowing from the late nineties, I’ve always had an awkward nagging feeling that our sport is chronically under-represented from members of Black, Asian or ethnicities other than white.   Clearly this feeling has been amplified since starting FRBC and especially as I now have the ability to do something about it. 

There is no question that it’s a highly emotive topic but I’d like to begin by trying to frame my thoughts with some facts:

  • 14% of the UK Population are from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnicity (ONS Study 2012)
  • In London this figure rises to 55% (2011 Census)
  • According to British Rowing’s Inclusive club Guide 2018 only 4% of it’s members are from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnicities

A sensible starting point is to try and identify the reasons why this participation rate may be so low in an effort to make a change.  When I was writing this my default reaction was that one of the reasons must be the clear lack of representation of state schools in rowing but after doing the research I’m not sure this is the case.  It’s true that when we started FRBC approximately 10% of the schools registered for competition with British Rowing were from the state sector and the other 90% from the Independent sector.  This is almost the complete opposite of the educational landscape in the UK with 93% of students attending state-funded education and only 7% attending fee-paying schools.  However, according to the Independent Schools Council 2016/2017 report, 30% of it’s pupils are from a minority ethnicity which is higher than the 24% representation across the state-funded network (DfE Jan 2016), so it’s not about which type of school you attend.

I’m not sure an issue of this scale can be broken down into some simple stats with each one being overcome.  There are some deeply complex, historical and cultural reasons, some of which are fairly obvious, as to why the representation rate is so low.  I’m never going to claim to be able to come up with a solution to these but I think some of the areas we can begin to address are:

  • The under-representation of BME athletes on the National Team when compared to the UK population and so a lack of role models for the BME community
  • Closely linked to this is the under-representation of BME coaches who as we know are intrinsic to rowing, you can’t learn or progress in this sport without a coach!
  • The fact that there are very few programmes looking to widen the base of participation.  Organisations such as London Youth Rowing, Warrington Youth Rowing, B-Row, RowUK, Aberdeen Schools RA and ourselves do great work but this is just the tip of the iceberg.  If the main bulk of clubs in the UK don’t see this as a problem that needs to be solved then little will be achieved

So why is this a problem at all?  It comes down to the opportunities being missed by not being a truly diverse and inclusive sport. 

Firstly, there is a huge pool of untapped talent not being found and developed.  We’ve seen this time and again with our work over the last few years, plenty of British Erg records being broken and wins on the water from those that wouldn’t have previously thought about taking part.  We’ve also been able to grow our participation numbers rapidly (more than 1,400 users of FRBC last year) in a little over three years by aiming to work with the whole community.  I think when one of the main competitive rowing clubs in the UK has the bravery to set up a talent ID project working within their local community they will:

  1. End up with faster boats than their opposition over the medium term
  2. Very quickly find the WHOLE community around their club rooting for them
  3. Open up funding pots that were previously out of reach

For the wider sport there is a clearly a commercial benefit to having a more diverse user base.  Sponsorship deals are far more likely when, in London for example, you begin to offer activity that will be aimed at the majority of the market.

On a club level you also being to eradicate ‘Group Think’ or the old adage which cripples this sport of, “But we’ve always done it like this.”.  The Wisdom of Crowds is a great book by James Surowiecki which goes into the detail of how a group of well-informed individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds and experience will always come to a better decision than a homogenous group of thinkers.         

For me, the most important reason to actively work to increase the diversity within our sport is a simple one….because it’s the right thing to do.  The benefits of this sport are too great for it not to be actively brought to as many different people as possible. 

It’s one thing to say that you will work with whoever comes through the door, it’s another thing to actively go out and find them

I’m never going to be able to fully answer the question of why diversity is a good thing but the more we continue to talk about it the sooner individuals will begin to change their actions to make it happen.


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