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The Boat Race: Why is gender parity taking so long?

In 2015, the women's Boat Race will use the men's course. But the pace of change in this global spectacle is still coming far too slowly for some

Come 2015, Oxford and Cambridge's female rowers will meet at the Thames starting line to row the same course as the men. For according to many in the rowing world, it's about bloody time.

After years of paying their own way through training and transport – which the men have long been receiving for free – both universities’ male and female crews have been awarded the same funding through the support of BNY Mellon and Newton. Without the proper funding, the women had to fork out over £1,600 per rower each year for the train fares, kit and the coaching necessary to compete.

“I'm thrilled to see the move to complete equality between the races. The Women's Boat Race has a long tradition of its own and this is an exciting new chapter,” said Helena Schofield, the president of the CUWBC. However, 'complete equality' is for many still a distant goal.

“There’s a long way to go still, but given how much progress has been made since say, the 1970s, which was when women's rowing was introduced to the Olympics for the first time, the future's looking bright. At least concern for women's supposed frailty has diminished,” said Alice Carrington-Windo, an Oxford rower studying an Msc in Medical Anthropology.

Melissa Wilson – the youngest rower currently in the Cambridge boat at 19 years old – could be rowing in the women’s blue boat come 2015.

“We are incredibly grateful,” Wilson said. “The move is definitely one initial step in the right direction for the sport.”

She is, however, realistic about the challenges ahead in their reception on the tideway and the need to now train for the 7km rather than the 2km distance raced at Henley. In moving to the tideway course, there has also been fear that the female rowers will be seen as the warm-up act to the men’s race, due to the prevailing weight of this old Oxbridge tradition.

A long, hard, watery road ahead

Regrettably, the road from here for the female crews is not going to be plain sailing. Persisting stigma surrounding female sport continues to dog attempts to raise the profile of highly-skilled sportswomen. Comments like: 'people want to watch men playing sport because it’s better viewing. Sorry girls, genetics are not on your side', and 'arguing for equality in uni sport in ridiculous' were posted anonymously on one article’s feed in a Cambridge student newspaper last year, showing some of the opinions still prevalent even at university level.

Bridget Fryer, the president of the OUWBC, said: “It’s sad that people have those sorts of opinions – we aren’t racing the men – we’re racing Cambridge.” Carrington-Windo also defended the teams against such stigma, saying that 'unfortunately sport is still a very misogynistic environment, so negative reactions are inevitable from traditionalists'.

“Women's football is not as fast as men's and even in areas where there is more equality, like athletics, men have the advantage that the distance they throw or the time they run will be the best distance or time in the competition,” said John Owen, former captain of Wadham College Boat Club. Owen added that rowing has made good headway in contrast to other sports, but that the change to the tideway in 2015 wouldn’t be making much impact elsewhere anytime soon.

“Men's football (and indeed cricket and rugby) are much too self-serving and self-obsessed in their outlooks to want to change things significantly.”

Breaking the media barrier

Even with the female crews’ increased funding and status this year, the media coverage has lagged behind the plans for the men’s broadcasting this Sunday.

This is one of the first times that the six Henley races have received broadcasting attention. There was an online live-feed and a slot for the highlights of the race in the Rowing World Cup programme on Sunday, BBC2 – highlights that lasted less than 10 minutes. The men’s race, on the other hand, is being given over two hours worth of BBC1 coverage on 31 March.

“Human endeavour and great athletic performances give meaning to sport, not gender,” argues Alison Gill – a former Oxford student who went on to row for Great Britain in 1992. Now the chairman of the Oxford Women’s Boat Club executive committee, Gill spoke of the need for greater representation of sportswomen in the press: “the Olympics – particularly 2012 – has become the role model of equality. Since then the coverage of women’s sport has become woeful again. It’s changing, but change is slow.”

International figures such as Katherine Grainger, Anna Watkins and Helen Glover show the potential for widespread gender equality in both this sport and more generally, and yet the Boat Race has lagged behind in its representation of women.

The disparity in this year’s Boat Races’ coverage should change in 2015, as both events will share the same potential 250,000 strong audience lining the banks of the Thames and the TV domestic audience of around 7.3 million. “The common perception is still that the boat race is an exclusively male event – people often don't realise a female equivalent exists,” said Carrington-Windo.

But when will we see a Women’s Boat Race that equal’s the Men’s in coverage and prestige?

“These problems are perhaps more cultural than the raw spending of money can overcome – it will be a long process of change,” says William Pimlott, Oxford Waterpolo half-blue and editor of university newspaper, Cherwell. “Inequality of gender, much like inequality of class at Oxford, is a problem that has developed well before students arrive at Iffley Road.”

Many have also expressed the catch-22 of the Women’s Boat Race’s exposure – that the female blues teams will become as elite and highly selective as the men’s, making university-level rowing possibly even more inaccessible. Whether this becomes a side-effect in 2015 or not, we will have to wait and see.

This article was edited to reflect that Katherine Grainger's name is not Harriet.

Samantha Hunt is an undergraduate finalist at the University of Cambridge and acts as both Senior Arts editor and columnist for the university newspaper, Varsity. She blogs here and Tweets here.