Clare Balding backs sports careers for women

By Sean Coughlan
Education correspondent

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image captionClare Balding told schoolgirls not to "limit their own ambitions"

How did Clare Balding become the unofficial sporty head girl to the nation? How did she become such a part of the sporting DNA that she can step from Cheltenham to Crufts to the Olympics?

At the London Aquatics Centre, in the Olympic Park, the sports broadcaster talked about her career to hundreds of schoolgirls, in an event designed to encourage young women to think about jobs in sport.

It wasn't necessarily about playing sport, she told them, but there were many sport-related jobs, everything from events organisers to surgeons to sports lawyers.

When she was at school people laughed at her when she said she wanted a career in sport.

"It wasn't seen as a viable option. I was at a girls' boarding school. They just hadn't had anyone before who had said that."

Her "heroines" were three-day event riders, but no-one saw it as a credible career path.

At this Inspiring Women in Sport careers event she was still taking on the doubters.

Jobs for the girls

"I don't want any girl in any school to feel that they can't say they want to be a cricketer, a footballer or an athlete. Those are career options."

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image captionPerri Shakes-Drayton says professional sport requires sacrifices

Professional contracts had made a "huge difference" for sportswomen, she said, helping them get beyond trying to balance full-time sporting ambitions with part-time jobs.

But is there still a lingering prejudice that sport is about jobs for the boys?

If there is such discrimination, she said girls should fight back.

"If there is ever a situation where you feel the boys have got better facilities or the boys are being pushed in a direction that you want to go in, challenge it."

The biggest barrier could be a lack of role models. She quotes Billie Jean King: "If you can't see it, you can't be it."

Commentary barrier

But there are still some uncrossed frontiers for women in sports, including sports broadcasting.

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image captionEmployment minister Esther McVey wants women to consider sport as a career and not just a hobby

"There are still some challenges, areas where women haven't yet tried or been allowed into - and one of those is commentary," she said.

Female commentators in sports such as football face an unfair level of scrutiny, she says.

She also warns of how bad advice can close doors at an early age.

"I've always been the kind of person who, if they're told they can't do something, will be even more determined to do it.

"But that's not true of everyone. You could ruin someone's career when they're 14 by saying they can't do that or not giving them the right direction."

Widening horizons

The event, held beside the Olympic swimming pool, saw a careers version of speed-dating, with a range of athletes and people from sports-related jobs giving advice to girls from 18 London schools.

For those thinking about taking the plunge into sport, there was also gold medallist Tom Daley training in the background.

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image captionMiriam Gonzalez Durantez is the founder of the campaign to raise young women's aspirations

The founder of Inspiring Women, international lawyer Miriam Gonzalez Durantez, said the role models showed girls how careers in sports are "within their reach" and they should not be deterred.

Dame Joan McVittie, head teacher of Woodside High in Haringey and trustee of the Education and Employers Taskforce, said the "real strength" of such projects would be "the rollout in all schools across the country".

In her own school, a careers event brought representatives such as lawyers, accountants, police and engineers.

"People, jobs, and industries that my students would not normally have access to in their daily life."

Employment minister Esther McVey was also at the Aquatics Centre, a place of glass walls rather than glass ceilings.

She said girls might not realise that interest in sport could be converted into a career.

"I did sports at school, I was in the netball team and lacrosse team, but girls sometimes give that up at about 15, boys do too. But if you don't know the opportunities, then you can put it aside as a hobby, not realising that it could have grown into a really successful career.

"We're reaching out and saying you might be good at maths and love sport, have you thought about being an accountant in that industry?"

Ms McVey is promoting a campaign, #NotJustForBoys, encouraging women to consider careers in industries where they are under-represented, such as engineering, construction and sport.

Sports degree

Supporting the campaign is track and field athlete Perri Shakes-Drayton, currently training her sights on next year's Olympics.

The careers advice given to her had been "all about going into the City", she said. "I didn't know that sport could be a way of earning a living."

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image captionThe sports careers event was held at the London Aquatics Centre

But she wanted to keep up the sport as well as the academic study - and managed this balancing act, getting a degree in sport from Brunel University while competing at a high level.

"You can do both, it can be done, but it requires sacrifices. That was my social life, you can't be around your friends as much as you'd like to. I'd miss family events, weddings, christenings, because I'd be competing."

She says becoming a full-time athlete meant a complete commitment.

"My mentality changed." It's not just about training, she says, it's a total lifestyle of thinking about everything she eats, whether she should go out, when she should rest. It's about psychological as well as physical resilience.

But it's worth it.

"It's a cool thing that I'm doing something that I love and enjoy and I get paid for it."

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