Read our Q&A with Dr Juliet McGrattan, the Women’s Health Lead, Master Coach and UK Director for 261 Fearless, a global non-profit network working to empower women through social, non-competitive running. You can see Juliet speak at our Empower Conference on 18 October.
Q. What’s your first sporting memory?
My memories are from school sport and are very mixed. I recall winning the sack race on sports day when I was about five years old and feeling so proud. I also remember having to be fished out of the pool, at a similar age, whilst nearly drowning trying to swim a width and feeling ashamed and embarrassed. Sport at secondary school was a mix of hating cross country running, leading and loving the dance club and being grateful to our teacher who learnt the rules and let us play football, inspired by the World Cup fever of Italia 90!
Q. Who or what inspired you to get into sport?
I always watched the London Marathon on TV as a child and knew I would run it one day, but my life was all about dance and I didn’t make any commitment to running until I was in my thirties. I just wanted to feel fit and healthy and living in a rural village, with three pre-school children, running was the only thing I could realistically fit into my life. I needed to be able to do it from the door, for ten minutes here and there. I was inspired by the runners in the annual village 10k race and publicly declared I was going to do it the following year. Thankfully my friend agreed to take up the challenge too and we supported and inspired each other.
Q. When you talk to other women, what is it they hope to achieve or what motivates them to get involved in running?
To be honest, the majority of women that I talk to, take up running as a way of losing or controlling weight. I admit that was one of my initial drivers too. But, running isn’t always a good way to lose weight. For one thing, it makes you really hungry and you often eat more and gain weight! It’s therefore easy to get disappointed if you don’t meet that goal, but the great thing about running is that you discover that weight control is only one of the possible side effects. Once you experience how it can benefit your mental and physical health, give you new opportunities, memories, fun and friends, then the focus moves away from how your body looks to how it feels, and staying motivated becomes a whole lot easier.
Q. Is there a time in your sporting experience where you felt that you faced a barrier because you were a woman?
I have a vivid memory of a professional cricketer coming to our primary school and feeling very aggrieved because he only picked the boys to have a go at bowling. That memory has stayed with me. Growing up as a dancer I didn’t face any barriers as a woman. I was also in the Venture Scouts where boys and girls hiked, shot air rifles and played games in the mud as equals. I’m grateful to the female running pioneers of the sixties and seventies, such as Kathrine Switzer, for paving the way and making my journey as a runner easy.
Q. What do you think of when you see the word ‘Empower’?
I see a woman who stands tall, who has an inner confidence and self-belief, who is willing to try new things, make changes and isn’t afraid of failing. In my mind, to empower someone is to give them the tools they need to follow their dreams.
Q. Who or what empowers you?
I am very fortunate. I have so few barriers to living the life I want, compared to many women in the world. Throughout my life it’s the people around me that have empowered me. My family, my teachers, my friends and colleagues. Being supported, encouraged and loved. I think this is where we need to realise that we all have the capacity to empower others in our day to day lives.
We don’t need to be part of global campaigns, we just need to notice those around us, to reach out to them, offer a compliment or a helping hand. There are many disempowered women in the world but we aren’t just talking about women in developing countries, it may be the woman down the street from you. For me personally, learning to run has been incredibly empowering. Fully understanding the physical and mental strength and endurance that my body is capable of, has made me realise I can do anything I put my mind to. Helping other women to experience that, through 261 Fearless has been life changing for me and the amazing people I have met on that journey further empower me.
Q. 261 Fearless is all about empowering women through non-competitive running, what other ways do you think sport could be normalised for women and girls?
I think my 13-year-old son nailed this when he said: “I don’t understand why people don’t want to do it when it’s fun. Why would you not want to do something fun?”.
We need to make being active and using our bodies part of everyday life. Something we do because we want to, not because we’re trying to put a tick on a to-do list. The very word ‘sport’ actually puts so many women off. They don’t see themselves as ‘sporty’ so it’s not for them. Whether that’s from childhood experiences of sport or from preferences and personality structure, they just don’t associate it with having a good time. It’s the women who aren’t on the playing field that we need to target. Trying to understand what their barriers are is crucial. They will be many and varied and different for every woman.
Getting someone to change their behaviour is a difficult thing and the road isn’t straight. New barriers crop up all the time and motivation goes up and down. Widening what we view as sport, offering choice and creating environments within which women feel comfortable to step outside their comfort zone are some things that will help. Changing behaviour is hard and changing a culture is even tougher but I do believe the tide is turning.