“We row for the women in front of us, the ones behind us, the ones who came before us and the ones who will come after us.”

Julia Lasica in conversation with Lata Persson

The title above comes from something Lata tells me at the end of our conversation. We met in the arc café for a coffee, both yawning from an early morning. Lata is trialling for the women’s lightweights – the quote came from the previous team’s mission statement, something they would read before the Boat Race. ‘The women’s side of the university boat club go out of their way to make each female triallist feel empowered, and when I first read it, I got goose bumps!,” Lata says. She emphasises how it was the women in the team who came up with the mission statement, ‘it was the girls who thought of it together, which just shows what a supportive environment we train in- we go through such an intense experience together, we’re always there for each other.’

First picking up the sport at LEH, her single-sex secondary school, Lata trialled last year as well as this year. We have varied experiences of the rowing world – whilst I only started coxing last year and stayed almost exclusively on the men’s side of my college club, Lata has been rowing for a long time, training predominantly in a female environment. I’m interested in whether the fact that I have encountered rowing in an all-male environment differs to Lata’s experience, which has always found her surrounded by women. ‘I would say that at school and university level, there has always been a strong sorority spirit. A couple of weeks ago, a boy walked past whilst we were lifting weights, and teased us, “lifting big today, are we?” Obviously, we all shouted him down – I have never encountered any explicit sexism during all my time as a rower, but even with little things like that, we know that we always have each other’s back.’

I do feel a bit jealous listening to Lata. Of course, I would never say that my experience of coxing in an exclusively male environment has been negative. But the way she describes the women’s side uniting to compete together, as a tight knit team and unit sounds very comforting. Coming from an all-girls school where I had never partaken in any competitive team sports and preferred to lie about a clarinet lesson in order to skip netball, I felt very much like an outsider on the men’s side of the boat club for a while, not least because of the obvious mis-match in gender. I found that they possessed a confidence I had never really encountered before, this attitude of ‘knowing that they’re amazing before they’ve even proved anything’, as Lata describes it. This odd, almost patriotic attitude to college, intimidated me at first, and Lata agrees – she’s seen it before. ‘When I went back to college last year for Mays, I was shocked by the lack of confidence the women’s side had. It felt at times like we’d go down three on the river, when in fact we eventually went up three! I had been so used to all the girls backing themselves, at school and university level, that I found it hard to adjust to the female college rowers being shyer, especially in comparison to the men’s side,” she says. Of course, we both agreed that the confidence was something to emulate, but perhaps the lack of confidence the women displayed was a knock-off effect from the intense bravado that the men’s side showed, ‘maybe they felt overpowered by the men, as if there wasn’t enough space for them.” Lata says.

Female confidence is a difficult issue – a couple of months ago, the TIMES published an article exploring the question, in collaboration with a polling firm called Ypulse. Surveying over 1,300 American teenagers between the ages of 8-18, they found that female confidence dropped by 30% by the time those girls had reached 14. At that point, boys’ confidence is still 27% higher, and ‘for most women, once opened, this confidence gap fails to close’, the TIMES article reads. It is obviously something which affects wider society and does not exclusively exist within the rowing world. But how can we address this potential gap when it opens up? Lata decided to go to the men’s side of her college club, and stresses how supportive the boys were. ‘We talked about it, and they listened really well – this year, they’ve started to train the novice men and women together.’ Bringing the two sides of the club together is something which is occurring on a university level as well – this was the first year that the University Rugby Club merged the women’s and men’s sides for training, and the University Lightweight Men’s now also share coaches and training programmes with both the University Women’s Heavyweights and Lightweights Rowing Club.

I have also worked on my own confidence as a cox, getting over my initial nervousness. Perhaps the moment that really happened was in the lead up to the May Bumps campaign. In previous terms, I had always relied on the presence of a close friend in the boat I was coxing, questioning him after the session was over as to all the things I had done wrong, and whether I’d made too much a fool of myself. That Easter term he had left the boat, and I was aware of how important the upcoming races were to the crew – I was terrified that they had picked the wrong person to cox them, and that I would make a disastrous mistake, and it would all go wrong. But then at some point, it clicked that I was as much a part of the team as all the boys. I began to trust my ability as a cox more, and as Lata says, ‘backed myself’- I didn’t feel as much an outsider anymore, but like a part of a team, one who felt confident in what it could achieve together.

Lots of things affect our experiences and by no means are these general or ‘normal’- a cox is slightly more isolated from the rest of the team by nature and I am generally quite a shy person. But Lata and I agree that female confidence is an important issue which both sides of any sports club should be aware of. Talking about it later after our initial meeting, we wonder together as to how to round off this piece. Should we end it on a note of optimism, drawing on the female empowerment we have seen occur through rowing? Of course this has been an essential part of our journeys, however much they differ. But it is also important to find a way to bridge the gap between the two sides of the boat club – they do after all sit under the same roof and row in the same name. The men should be aware of the issues the women face, whether it is the small, snide comments or more threatening experiences which occur in the world of rowing and sports, often reaching our ears as played back accounts of things said when the women weren’t present. Constant dialogue and support has to flow both ways. As I said to Lata at the end of our talk – we thrive best as sportswomen when we feel just as valuable and less like outsiders to our team and club.

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