by Emer Carton – Women in Sport Lead

‘As ‘Women in Sport Week’ draws to an end, I am compelled to reflect on the journey women have been on throughout history; the struggles along the way and how far we have come to be celebrated as leaders, have our voices heard, and be valued in sporting organisations.

Bridge the Gap, what is it? Canoeing Ireland’s Women in Sport initiative. In its 3rd year now, it encompasses 5 focused programmes: Ambassador Leadership Programme, Ment’Hers, Paddle2Progress (club improvers), Get Paddling (club beginners) and Teen Connect; aiming to reach nationwide women of diverse ages, backgrounds, disciplines and be relevant to their unique life journey.

While Bridge the Gap continues to grow legs and a legacy, it is important to remember its roots in the original Ambassador Leadership Programme: a group of passionate and committed individuals wanting to improve experiences and opportunities for all women in the paddlesports community. The leadership training, networking, and connections resulted in incredible actions impacting many paddlers both on and off the water. Canoeing Ireland becoming a healthier, stronger, more diverse organisation in the process; recently electing its first female president, Lynda Byron, is a great example. Not only is Lynda an incredible leader for all, but she is also actively engaged in delivering leadership training for Bridge the Gap ambassadors. 60 women will have directly benefitted from this training since 2020.

This weekend it is with immense pride that I get to both experience and witness the launch of CI’s newly developed innovative Ment’Her Programme. Designed by Hannah Craig and I, as a way to connect and further develop the original ambassadors with the incoming group and expand the impact of the network. The Ment’Her training is delivered by Lisa Clancy, who undertook the research and produced the recommendations for the Women in Sport Strategy for Sport Ireland. Once the ambassadors and Ment’Hers have completed their training, they will be matched based on the outcomes they’re seeking to achieve on their leadership journeys.

Welcoming a second group of ambassadors has been both heart-warming and uplifting; individually coloured by their own experiences of being a woman in sport. Being aware that the journey has been easier for some than others, and the respect and acknowledgement demonstrated of the validity of each experience shared, has been inspiring. The honesty, humbleness, and passion that each has shown are the foundations upon which high impactful actions will be built in the near future.

As we move forward together towards gender equity in all sports, I value the network of incredible people of all genders who are championing this journey. There is a strong recognition for the women who paddled before us; and the importance now of creating collectively relatable opportunities for those to come.

I want to know a world that offers gender equity at every layer of the organisation: all paddlers of all abilities…coaches, instructors, athletes, judges, referees, committee members, board members, event organisers… Visible relatable diverse leaders; role models for all children to be inspired by, and see their potential in.

In my role as Women in Sport lead over the past 3 years there are two crucial lessons I have learned. Firstly, being inclusive to people regardless of gender is acknowledging that safe spaces need to be created for individuals who have had negative experiences of sport. While feeling safe they can express their vulnerability which enables them to find their confidence, their style, and integrate further into paddlesports. The Bridge the Gap Ambassador Programme is one of these spaces.

Secondly, no matter how insignificantly small an action may seem, a positive impact on one person, can ripple into waves and immeasurable life-long change.

In the spirit of this past week, I would encourage everyone of all genders to reflect on our biases towards women. Collectively we should discuss and examine our expectations and intentions for what experiences our sport wants to offer, and how we can be the change.’