Recently, there has been much commentary on France Galop’s decision to introduce a 4lb (2kg) allowance for female jockeys. This rule change will come into force on 1st March and has provoked strong opinions, both in support and in opposition of the unexpected move by the governing body of French racing.
By Susannah Gill and Harriet Rochester, Women in Racing Committee, February 2017
In the pro-camp is Bridget Andrews, amateur jockey and champion point-to-point rider who tweeted: “A lot of talk over the female allowance. Surely it can only be a positive. I would certainly take it and not be offended #everylittlehelps"
While against the move is leading female jump jockey Lizzie Kelly who described it as “farcical”, while Josephine Gordon, Champion Apprentice Flat Jockey in 2016, tweeted: “Spent so long saying racing isn't sexist. 4lb allowance to girls. How’s that not sexist?! You’re either good enough or not. Male or female!”
Some people have taken a distinctly practical view of the policy, including ex-Champion Flat jockey Richard Hughes who tweeted: “If someone offers Ryan Moore a 4lb allowance he would take your hand off. @josephinegordo it's not offensive it's an advantage.”
So: is this an opportunity or regressive step for horseracing – albeit in France?
In recent years, there has been much progress in the understanding of what makes a good jockey. There has been a move away from the view that it’s purely about strength, and a more realistic view that multiple skills of balance, agility and the ability to read a race – otherwise known as good horsemanship or horsewomanship. We believe men and women have these skills in equal measure.
There are plenty of examples where women riders are as effective as men. Josephine Gordon proved this by winning the 2016 Apprentice Championship last October on equal terms to her male weighing room colleagues. In 2015 the girls’ team took home the Shergar Cup at Ascot, with Sammy Jo-Bell being crowned the leading jockey. Over jumps few jockeys of either sex can rival Nina Carberry in a finish, especially around the cross country fences at Cheltenham.
And if we want to discuss strength then we should acknowledge that pound-for-pound muscle in men and women has almost the same strength. The crucial variable is the quantity of muscle on the frame of both sexes – not the quality of that muscle.
Testosterone is the hormone crucial to building muscle on the bodies of both sexes. Men typically produce 10 times more testosterone than women, hence building more muscle on their bodies. However, in a career that often forces men to keep their weight artificially low the strength levels between a very lightweight man versus a physically fit woman with good nutrition could be much more similar than you might typically find in other sports.
Giving women jockeys a 4lb allowance could prove to be a great opportunity if it means owners and trainers put more females on their horses in races. This is because they will gain important ‘match practice’, which every jockey needs to develop their race riding skills.
However, this could equally be a regressive step if it entrenches the view that women are not as good as male jockeys.
One feature of British Racing’s treatment of female jockeys that is worth a salute... on the flat and over jumps men and women compete on a level playing field, and are paid the same riding fees for doing the same job.
Set against the fact women are regarded as second-class citizens in many other sports, for example where they receive less prize money and sponsorship than the men’s equivalent, this is something racing should be proud of.
Furthermore, horseracing has played an important part in women’s political and social advancement. It was the stage for a women’s rights breakthrough when, more than 100 years ago, a feminist’s attempt to promote the cause of votes for women resulted in her tragic death at the Epsom Derby. The suffragette Emily Davison was fatally injured after throwing herself under the King’s horse ANMER. No single event in the years of campaigning drew as much attention or sympathy, and within 10 years women had the vote.
Women in Racing believes if British Racing were to copy France it would likely be a regressive step for the sport. However, initiatives that provide female jockeys with more opportunities to gain race riding experience and showcase their talents should be encouraged. Arena Racing Company’s inaugural 2017 Silks Series and the Jockey Club North West’s female jockey development award are such examples that should be applauded.
Therefore, should female jockeys give up the perception of equality for the reality of what we hope will become more opportunity? Let the debate continue.
In addition to the Grand Women’s Summit in April, held in partnership with Aintree Racecourse, Women in Racing will be adding to the equality debate this year with the publication of a report currently being written by The Centre for Diversity Policy Research and Practice at Oxford Brookes University. “Women’s Representation and Diversity in the Horseracing Industry” will be the first ever research into equality in British Racing – while it will inevitably highlight a range of opinions Women in Racing hopes everyone can agree this is a piece of work which is much overdue.