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WSF President Zena Wooldridge talks #BreakTheBias

Zena Wooldridge, OBE, has been President of the World Squash Federation (WSF) since December 2020, having previously served as the President of the European Squash Federation and as the Chair of England Squash. Since her election to WSF presidency, Wooldridge has made inclusion an important part of WSF’s strategy and culture, including aspects of WSF which need a transformation in gender balance.

To mark International Women’s Day, Wooldridge sat down to discuss the theme of #BreakTheBias.

Q: In your opinion, what does #BreakTheBias mean?

A: “I think for International Sport Federations generally there exists conscious and unconscious bias. In the world of international sports, we are working across many different cultures. I think we have to respect the fact that those cultures will have a very different approach to inclusion generally, and specifically in terms of gender parity and how they perceive females and female leaders.

“But the world is changing and there’s a lot we can do to influence that; and there are nations who are driving change in and through squash where we may not have expected. Nations such as Iran [where males and females are often segregated, with females enjoying far fewer rights] are doing some fabulous work to grow the sport amongst women and girls.

“There is still a lot of work to do in reducing barriers to female participation. But this is changing. In my final year as President of European Squash we had a majority female Board, which must be a first for an international federation other than for all-female sports.”

Q: Does your status as a female leader in squash contribute to the weakening of those barriers?

“I hope so. Role models are important and we now have far more female Presidents of National Squash Federations, so those role models are growing. This reflects a change in culture and attitudes across the sport. It can’t be just female driven. For example, William [Louis-Marie, WSF CEO] is very supportive of WSF’s inclusion agenda, which helps build a culture and emphasises the World Squash priority of providing greater leadership opportunities for females. Although we have more female national federation presidents, in areas such as refereeing and coaching we still have a long way to go.”

Wooldridge says having visible role models like Sarah Fitz-Gerald and Andrea Santamaria (pictured) are vital.

Q: What needs to happen to increase the number of female referees and coaches?

“We now have a coaching commission, which is chaired by [World Squash Vice President and Commonwealth Games gold-medal-winning former professional squash player] Sarah Fitz-Gerald. Who better to chair it!? Very high up on the coaching commission’s strategy and approach is the need to develop more female coaches at all levels. It’s great having people like Sarah, Jenny Denyer and Karen Cagliarini on the Coaching Commission, who really understand the role of coaching and of female coaches, contributing to a coaching strategy that complements the importance of inclusion within the World Squash strategy.

“As for refereeing, we’re in a very serious situation which in recent years has got worse. In the past I think there has been conscious and unconscious bias about the capability of female referees. But I sense that’s changing. The work being done by the WSF with the PSA [Professional Squash Association] for World Squash Officiating [WSO] is critical. Hats off to the PSA, who are now really supporting the pathway for referees like Andrea Santamaria. There has to be a really conscious enormous push to ensure the necessary fundamental change.

“This is an area where our Member National Federations [MNFs] are absolutely key partners. WSF, PSA and the WSO system can provide the infrastructure to help, but it’s important for all the MNFs to really be very consciously identifying and encouraging prospective female referees and using WSO resources and support to push them up through the refereeing system.”

Q: How important is it to have female role models like Andrea and Sarah?

A: “Role models are critical., emphasising the importance of creating female role models out there in order to influence change. Change to the whole philosophy and culture in coaching and refereeing is vital.

“If you look at the contribution that Sarah makes to the WSF board, it’s phenomenal. She has huge value as a board member and ambassador with all the skills, the experience, the expertise and the profile she brings.

“Similarly with Andrea, having a great referee like her as a role model will hopefully encourage more females to consider the fantastic experience you can have as a referee. For former decent players, who may not make it to the top as a player, they can achieve top world status as a referee, and guarantee having the best seat in the house. Referees such as Andrea will help our strategy, whilst she is also fully supported by our best male referees in the world.”

Q: Who were your role models throughout your career?

A: “I’ve had lots of role models, and I think it changes over time. When you grow up with sport it might be those female athletes a couple of years ahead of you, who act as role models and inspire you to achieve more. So many people have opened doors for me along the way, people like [former Chair of UK Sport] Baroness Sue Campbell, [President of the Commonwealth Games Federation] Dame Louise Martin, people who have encouraged and been so generous in the sharing of their experience, advice and networks. Susie Simcock, the first female president of the WSF, who sadly died last year, was fantastic in really encouraging and supporting females to come through, and was really supportive of me moving up through the squash structure.

“Having said that, there have been lots of male colleagues who have done the same. Those allies who just see your capability and your commitment first and that you can make a valuable contribution to the sport. Sadly. there are also those who see you as a threat, and being female sometimes causes some to feel more threatened. Fortunately they are becoming rare in a changing society.”

Wooldridge tries out a mini court ahead of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Q: What else can men do to be allies to women and girls in squash?

“I think it’s about appreciating that the sport’s leadership is stronger and better aligned with the future of the sport when it’s more inclusive. I certainly think decision making in boards is far better when you have a balanced board. It’s not that females are any better or worse at decision making. But you just have a broader perspective on the issues.

“The WSF Board [currently consisting of three men and two women] we’ve got works really well together. They’re very good at listening to each other and respecting each other’s views, and appreciating the fact that we’re much stronger and make better decisions when we share a range of different views.”

Q: What advice would you give any women or girls who want to get involved in squash leadership?

“Just get involved wherever you can, in whichever part of the sport you have a real interest for, and make a valuable contribution. From my experience, I have a passion for the sport and always got involved at a grassroots level. I suppose I was noticed because I made an effort to understand the sport and how it worked. I learned from others and their experience, and gradually moved up because others opened doors and pulled me through. One of those first big moves was Jackie Robinson opening the door to become a member of the England Squash Board, and then encouraging me to succeed her as Chair.

“I don’t think I’m ambitious for myself. I’m ambitious for my sport. Other people have been more ambitious to see me progress and have either nudged or pulled me into new roles, and it has presented the opportunity to work with others to try to make a real difference to squash. By nature I am a pretty democratic, collaborative leader, but recognise sometimes we have to make some tough decisions in the best interests of the sport which not everyone will agree with. It’s those occasions when we sit in a tight corner and the buck stops at the door of the President that you thank your friends for persuading you to go for the job! At the same time, it’s reassuring to know most of the sport is in fact very supportive, and I’ve particularly appreciated the support of other female leaders in the sport. Which brings us back to the start of our conversation.

“The other aspect of developing future female leaders is our responsibility to open doors and pull others through. My role models were all so generous in sharing their experience, in sharing the mistakes they’ve learned from (because we all make them) and in being a support network when you need advice. We have a duty to identify and encourage the next generation of female leaders in our sport and give them the confidence to take the next steps in their leadership journey.”

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