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WOMENS WORDS

Women's Rowing: The Reckoning

Eleven people hold our rowing future in their hands



Monday 22nd May 2023 could go down as a defining moment in women’s rowing in the UK. Eleven members of the British Rowing Board (one position is vacant) will sit down to review the Transgender Policy. The sporting futures of 14,175 women and girls (45% of the 31,500 total membership) are in the hands of 11 people. It’s a big responsibility.


Ten years on from the first published British Rowing Transgender Policy we are at a stage where one man holds 10 Women’s British Indoor Rowing Records, and numerous British, European and World Gold Medals in women’s masters’ categories. Just two years after the first Trans Policy was published, a male was selected to race in the Cambridge University Women’s second boat Blondie in 2015, the first year the women’s race was held on the Tideway, bringing parity with the men.


Umpires and race officials have no idea how to deal with males turning up to compete in women’s events. For under-16s no questions must be asked.


The current policy is shocking in its disregard for the fairness and safety of women and girls. Inclusion at all levels of the sport trumps fairness, and there is little recognition of the need for safe spaces in changing rooms and toilets. And no equality impact assessment of the needs of women of certain faiths or whose previous experience of sexual assault means ‘safe spaces’ need to be female-only.


As the Board members sit down on Monday to consider the policy, what will they be taking into consideration? Here’s my best guess…


We have to follow World Rowing

Errr, no you don’t. World Rowing officiates the elite end of rowing. It’s accountable to no one. It makes up its own rules and doesn’t engage with any individual dissenters – not even former Olympians (that’s another tale).


The International Olympic Committee, which you might have thought would have taken a lead on this, have left it to the individual sports to decide what to do. This has resulted in sports fumbling around trying to do what they think is right and trashing their women’s sports in the process – cycling, weight-lifting, archery, skateboarding . . . that’s you with three transgender athletes taking women’s places at Tokyo 2020.


Mind you, no surprise with Dr Richard Budgett IOC Medical Director and former Olympic rower, coming out with the old cliché: ‘Transwomen are women. You have got to include all women if you possibly can.’ The one person you might have presumed to understand sex-affected differences in rowing, clearly demonstrating that human biology is not one of his strong points.

British Rowing is accountable to its members on these Isles from novice to elite; on the ergo, in fine boats, in clinkers, in coastal sculls, in Celtic longboats, in pilot gigs. We don’t need World Rowing imposing its discriminatory policies from on high. We need our British governing body to support us. To ensure that we have fair and safe rowing. To encourage women and girls into fitness and activity. In short, we need our governing body to stand up for our sex-based rights.

Several sports in this country vary from their International Governing Bodies and have ‘female at birth’ rules for their women’s categories. A shout out to British Triathlon, England Volleyball, British Water Ski and Wakeboard and The Walking Football Association – all have policies that safeguard women’s sport despite what’s happening overseas.


The precedent has been set.


Excluding people is unlawful

As in excluding a male from the female category? UK law is pretty unequivocal in stating that women have sex-based rights to single sex sport and spaces such as changing rooms. It’s worth repeating the findings of the Sports Councils Equality Group research from 2021: ‘The inclusion of transgender people into female sport cannot be balanced regarding transgender inclusion, fairness and safety in gender-affected sport where there is meaningful competition. This is due to retained differences in strength, stamina and physique between the average woman compared with the average transgender woman or non-binary person assigned male at birth, with or without testosterone suppression.’


The word ‘NO’ has to be used more frequently, as in ‘No, you may not row in the women’s category but you may row in the category that aligns with your sex.’


What if we get sued?

There is a fear that a transgender athlete will sue British Rowing if excluded from a woman’s event. It works both ways. If I was sitting around that boardroom table on Monday, I would be asking myself: ‘will we be sued for Direct or Indirect Discrimination under the Equality Act 2010, by a woman who has been denied fair competition because of our policies’. Now that’s a much more likely prospect. Crowdfunding anyone?


We could just tighten up the Testosterone requirements, that would work…

No, it won’t. The current British Rowing policy is reduction of testosterone to 5nmol/l as against World Rowing’s policy (published in March 2023) of reducing T to 2.5nmol/l (as a reminder the average woman has testosterone levels of around 0.5-2.4nmol/l; the average man ranges from 10nmol/l to 30nmol/l).


In most of the studies of male-to-female transgender athletes, testosterone has been reduced to less than 2.5nmol (often less than 1nmol/l). Reducing testosterone, makes no difference as 80% of the male physical advantage remains. How any rational person can think that a grown man can magic away all the benefits of male puberty – longer, stronger bones, bigger heart and lungs, wider trachea etc – is quite beyond me, but then I’m a scientist.


The rowers are angry

Yes, they are. They’re angry that women and girls have been let down by their governing body. Our GB squad is one of the most successful in the world. At grassroots level rowing is a mass participation sport for women. Indoor rowing and Go Row courses have got women off their sofas and into fitness. It’s taken 40 years to build women’s rowing up from tiny numbers in the early 80s, and just a few short years to start the demolition process.


British Rowing asked us what we thought in a ‘vote’ a couple of weeks ago. Except it turns out it wasn’t a ‘vote’ but a canvassing of opinions. At the time of writing, I don’t know how the vote went, and I also don’t know the results of the Feedback form that’s been on the British Rowing website since September 2022 when the current policy was issued. I have been told that the ‘canvassing of opinion’ is part of the whole package of evidence that the Board will consider.


British Rowing is never out of the papers!

The press hasn’t been good. The longer British Rowing commits to supporting males in women’s categories the more it will suffer reputational damage – and that goes for every sport in the land that has a similarly anti-female policy. Women are angry. So are the men who take an interest in these things – the fathers, the sons, the brothers, the uncles, of rowers. We’re angry that women have been sold down the river (sorry!) to appease the rights of a very small minority of males who wish to compete in a category that is not appropriate to their biology.


So, what will happen on Monday?

I have NO IDEA! I think the Board realise the strength of feeling. I think the Board has listened to the scientific and legal arguments put to them. But I don’t actually know how the discussion will turn out.


British Rowing has a golden opportunity to do the right thing, follow the science and the law and uphold women’s rights and earn our gratitude for waking up to the importance of women’s sex-based rights. Or it can kick the can down the road and hide behind the ‘we have to follow World Rowing’ argument.


I very much hope it’s the former. I can’t stay this angry for much longer!


British Rowing

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