2019 World Rowing Cup II, Poznan, Poland
2019 World Rowing Cup II, Poznan, Poland

They remain an anomaly in sport – women leading high performance programmes. But for Great Britain and New Zealand – two of the top rowing nations in the world – their high performance programmes are being led by women.

For 2022 International Women’s Day, World Rowing interviewed British Rowing’s Director of Performance, Louise Kingsley and Rowing New Zealand’s General Manager Performance, Judith Hamilton.

Kingsley stepped into the role just three months ago to become the first female since the start of Lottery funding to lead the British high performance programme. She comes into the role after leading rowing’s GB’s Paralympic programme.

“I felt I had the required experience to lead the performance directorate into a new era,” says Kingsley, who sees that there is already good gender parity across the support team.

When Kingsley went through the interview process, she was fully aware of the opinions floating around the British rowing community, which were made louder by the calibre of the candidates applying, including Sir Steve Redgrave and Martin McElroy.

“There was a lot of opinion being offered from the rowing towpath about who should or should not be offered the role,” says Kingsley.

Judith Hamilton started her role just over three years ago. At that time she could count on two fingers the number of women who had ever been in high performance roles in New Zealand sport.

“I had always thought that this is what I wanted to do,” says Hamilton who came in initially as an interim position to fill in for the departing high performance director. Hamilton was then made permanent and she believes some contenders for the position were put off by the workload, responsibility and the perception that the role was a ‘hard gig’.

The workload has been big. “You’re the face of a national sporting organisation,” says Hamilton. “We have to keep our funders abreast of what we’re doing. We have to make sure the high performance staff’s work is aligned with our strategy. We are managing a lot of people; coaches, support, admin and athletes”.

Kingsley knows that there is pressure to perform but says it is there, regardless of whether a male or female is in the role. She lists a long description of what her role covers including Olympic and Paralympic performance, Talent ID, formation of age group teams, and evolving coastal rowing.

Hamilton credits her attainment of the role in a big part to Rowing New Zealand’s (RNZ) former CEO, Simon Peterson.

“Simon saw something in me and gave me the opportunity. He was looking for opportunities for females as well as males, but he was aware the organisation was male-dominated.”

At this time high performance sport in New Zealand was putting policies into place to encourage more opportunities for women.

“For rowing I think it was certainly leading the way to have a female in this role. That was brave of Simon (to select me) because I think as an organisation we were moving quicker than the rowing community.”

Under Hamilton’s leadership, New Zealand went on to become the top rowing nation at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Hamilton credits the people involved in the programme and using a collaborative leadership approach.

“I’m really proud of the team. Everyone was ready to change when I came into the role and everyone put their best foot forward and we got the results in Tokyo. The people enabled the success.

“We’ve got excellent people and we allow them to just get on and do their job,” says Hamilton. “I want to get the best out of everyone so now we don’t have a head coach model, rather we have an approach that uses the expertise of each person.”

Hamilton is aware that the world of sport is changing. “We’re dealing with a different society and a different athlete voice. The world is changing and we’re trying to change with that. The key is having excellent people around you and then allow them to do their job.”

“It’s important to have a diversity of thinking in the room,” says Hamilton who stresses the need for people with a variety of skill sets.

Both Hamilton and Kingsley are aware of the need to get more females into coaching roles.

“We’ve run a career coach programme of only women,” says Hamilton. “We’re trying to find out the barriers to coaching for women. We’re starting to see some come through.”

“We need to identify and then support female coaches at all levels, as we do with athletes,” says Kingsley. “So identify those with potential and work with them to support their development and provide opportunities. This could include things like a flexible approach to child care or positive discrimination with team selection.”