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Malachy Clerkin: Kellie, Katie and tackling our unconscious bias

There are so many barriers to women getting into sport which may not occur to most men

There was no safer bet for the 2021 Toy Show than that Kellie Harrington would appear from the wings at some stage. On a good vibes kind of night, Kellie is good vibes squared. She came on, made everyone feel good about life, gave two little girls her gloves and vests from the Olympics and promised them she'd come out to their school to do some training with them. She's a diamond. But then, we've all known that for a while.

Kellie had sprung to mind already last week, even before Friday night. It was in something Sarah Keane, president of the OCI, brought up as part of a wider discussion on women's sport. We got to talking about the idea of unconscious bias and how it plagues even the well-meaning among us.

When Kellie Harrington was a teenager trying to find an outlet for all the energy - good and bad - she had within her, she got turned away from multiple boxing clubs. The unconscious bias of the day said that boxing wasn’t for girls and so she was 16 before she got accepted anywhere. To be clear, this wasn’t back in the dark ages. This was in 2004.

This is the thing about unconscious bias. It only exists until it doesn't

Times change. The idea that girls can't or shouldn't get into boxing has been swept away, first by Katie Taylor and now by Harrington and Michaela Walsh and Ceira Smith and all the women and girls coming up after them. You wouldn't say there's a tidal wave of female boxers sweeping across the land but that's hardly the point.


The point is that the idea isn’t the non-starter it used to be. No girl gets turned away from a boxing club or an MMA gym in 2021 on the basis of her gender. If it happened now, it would be front page news. The unconscious bias that made it unthinkable only a decade and a half ago has been ransacked and wiped out.

Harrington and Taylor are two of the most bankable, recognisable and genuinely beloved stars in Irish sport. They didn’t just get their foot in the door of the boxing clubs, they remade the sport’s image in the eyes of everyone else. This is the thing about unconscious bias. It only exists until it doesn’t. And when it is challenged and when it changes, you see it for what it was.

That's why a crucial step towards a good future for women in sport is for the rest of us to interrogate our own unconscious biases. This is not an easy thing to do. Around this time last year, I wrote a column about never having to think twice about going out for a run on a winter's night because I'm a man and not a woman and how it had simply never occurred to me that there was a difference. And boy did the walls come tumbling down.

Every woman who got in touch told me about a bad experience they had had while out running or walking at night. About half the men who got in touch told the same story as I did - how it had never crossed their mind that the onset of winter would cut down a woman’s window for exercise. And the other half dismissed it as the usual Irish Times misandry, setting the sexes against each other, woke snowflake nonsense and so on.

Exercise safely

This stuff is real. And only real changes will address it. Small things can have a big effect. Ciarán Murphy of these pages (and some podcast or other) tweeted a picture from his home club in Milltown, Co Galway a few weeks ago. They’ve committed to putting on their floodlights between seven and nine every night from Monday to Friday through the winter so that people can exercise safely in the dark evenings. Lots of clubs in lots of sports in lots of counties do the same thing.

Retaining teenage girls in sport is the Valhalla of all sports administrators. They need all the help they can get to make this happen

Now, this was no feminist stake planted in the ground. The lights go on for everybody, of course they do. But that’s the point. A safe, well-lit place to exercise in the winter is something men take for granted. We have that unconscious bias. A small thing like turning on the lights of the local club sings to the women of the area in a slightly different key to what the men hear. This can only be a good thing.

And so back to Sarah Keane. One of her true bugbears is the imposition of school uniforms on girls, specifically those long flowing skirts they make teenage girls wear. Retaining teenage girls in sport is the Valhalla of all sports administrators. They need all the help they can get to make this happen. It turns out that school uniforms are not all the help they can get.

“In most schools around the country, public or private, girls still have to wear skirts,” Keane said. “They can’t wear trousers, they can’t wear tracksuits apart from one day a week. They have to wear certain types of shoes.

It wouldn't have occurred to most men in a million years that something as banal as a school uniform skirt could be a barrier to keeping girls in sport

“So you go around the schools and you find that there are really, really low numbers of girls cycling in. Because you won’t do it with your big massive skirt hanging down. So most of them aren’t doing the physical activity on the way in, they’re not doing physical activity when they’re in, they’re not encouraged to run around because they’re in a skirt.

“We’re sending so many of the wrong messages out. What’s happening is that teenage girls who are sporty, even they are being put off. So our chances of getting girls who are not sporty to do it are minuscule. If you are in a tracksuit and if you are in runners, it’s much more natural for you to cycle in, to run around, to do something.

“But if you’re in a long skirt and school shoes, you’re just not going to do anything. Boys think nothing of running around at lunchtime, playing football, doing whatever. They think nothing of cycling to school and cycling home. Girls think about it and they don’t do it. Uniforms are a huge part of that.”

Talk about unconscious bias. It wouldn’t have occurred to most men in a million years that something as banal as a school uniform skirt could be a barrier to keeping girls in sport. But of course Sarah Keane is right - it’s a completely pointless encumbrance. A small change to school policy across the land could have a huge effect on the future of women playing sport.

That’s all progress is. A series of small changes, bit by bit over time, chipping away at the unconscious biases we are generally mortified to be told about. In the greatest ever year for Irish sportswomen, there’s no better time to make more of an effort to become conscious of them.