International Women’s Day interviews with Shani Palmer and Leshia Hawkins

To celebrate International Women’s Day, we caught up with two inspirational women at England Athletics: Shani Palmer, former elite athlete, Commonwealth Games medallist and our Event Group Lead in Speed; and Leshia Hawkins, chief executive officer at Cricket Wales and a non-executive director on our Board.

Q: “What do you like most about your role at England Athletics?”

Shani: “I really love the performance side, which involves competitions and working with coaches to bring out the best in their athletes. That’s when I can draw on my experience of being an athlete.”

Leshia: “As a non-executive director in athletics and a CEO in cricket, I find it fascinating shifting my lens from sport to sport, from a primarily strategic level in the England Athletics Boardroom to a primarily ‘in the trenches’ view in my day job. I think they complement each other, and I hope I bring value to both roles.”

Q: “Going back to where it all began, what were your first experiences of sport growing up?”

Shani: “Athletics has been part of my life since forever! My Dad was Head of Athletics for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and took a team to the Commonwealth Games. Athletics was constantly on the TV in my house whether you liked it or not. When I went to secondary school, my PE teacher spotted that I was half-decent and suggested I join Bromley Ladies Athletics Club, as it was then. My parents are massive athletics fans and supported me, travelling all over the country, doing all the club competitions. It was a fantastic grounding. I moved to Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers and it took off from there. I was really fortunate and made my first GB junior team a week after my 17th birthday.”

Leshia: “Career-wise, as there was virtually no visibility of professional sportswomen outside of tennis and athletics at major events, I actually wanted to be an air hostess when I was about seven – but then I discovered I had a fear of flying, which abruptly ended that dream! I also very seriously considered trying to be a sports journalist – combining a love of writing and communicating with my love of sport. Ending up in sports administration is less glamorous (and you don’t have to fly very much!), but I think it is worthy work and extremely rewarding.”

Q: “What advice would you give to any women thinking about pursuing a career in sport?”

Shani: “One, I would say ‘go for it’. Two, I would say ‘share your vision’. If you have aspirations, a vision, a goal and you keep it to yourself, the people around you can’t support you. Share your vision and think about who can help you and support you in where you want to go. Your vision may be massive, but there will be steps along the way so it’s about who can help you on each step. Share your vision, support others and you will grow.”

Leshia: “Do it! I have been so lucky to do what I have done, meet the most amazing people, and experience all I have. It’s a privilege to work in something which is way bigger than yourself and which brings such positivity to individuals and communities the world over. We need more diversity at every level of the industry, especially around Board tables. The industry is getting better at seeking out talent in under-represented groups, but we need people to apply. And don’t be put off if you are no good at sport. You do not have to be an amazing athlete, cricketer, footballer etc to be a good administrator or promoter. I am the poster girl for making it in the industry, despite my enthusiasm for sport FAR outstripping my playing ability!”

Q: “What does International Women’s Day mean to you?”

Shani: “To me it just helps to focus peoples’ minds and highlight that there is fantastic work happening around the world by women, whether it’s at home, at work or both. Unfortunately, the work that’s done by women is often underestimated and underappreciated. Once we bring attention to a particular area in our society, we can help it thrive and flourish. Women deserve to have their work appreciated and celebrated.”

Leshia: “In many ways, I look forward to the day that we don’t need an International Women’s Day in the world anymore. It may not come in my lifetime, but I hope it does – for the sake of my three nieces, more than anything, but it is an opportunity for everyone to stop and take a moment to reflect and appreciate the role women play in societies, communities, busines and, in our case, sport. I particularly enjoy seeing women’s unique strength highlighted. I still remember, and occasionally reuse, a quote from a meme I found a few International Women’s Days ago which resonated with me: ‘Women are only really helpless while their nail varnish is drying’”.

Q: “Which woman in sport inspires you the most?”

Shani: “Merlene Ottey. She is a trailblazer of her craft, her technique, her nutrition, the fact that she was making semi-finals and finals at international championships in her 50s. Being one of the best in the world at that age is just so commendable. Merlene won 35 international championship medals – she was just an excellent athlete and somebody I looked up to when I was coming up through the sport.”

Leshia: “Megan Rapinoe. Not so much for what she has done on the field, although that is impressive, but more as an activist and an orator and lending her platform to her chosen cause so powerfully.”

Q: “What do you consider your biggest achievement?”

Shani: “I have two. Winning a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games [2002] was the icing on the cake for me. I was the women’s track team captain for those Games. It was on home soil and the crowd in Manchester were just incredible. I will never ever forget it. Winning a medal and being on the podium in that environment, it just doesn’t get much better than that. Secondly, competing at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. I didn’t get on the podium but being in the 100m and the 4x100m relay, that experience comes close to winning a Commonwealth Games medal.”

Leshia: “Nowhere near as impressive as Shani’s but actually getting my role on the England Athletics Board – it’s a great intellectual challenge and has certainly changed my outlook and perspective and heightened my own professional ambitions.”

Q: “This year’s International Women’s Day hashtag is #ChooseToChallenge – what do you #ChooseToChallenge?

Shani: “For me, it would be research and development around eradicating type 1 diabetes. It’s personal to me because my seven-year-old son has it. He wants to be a runner and knowing the kind of person he is, he will work hard at it. I want to be in a position where he can do absolutely anything he turns his mind to. I don’t want his diabetes to get in his way so anything that can help eradicate that horrendous disease and bring awareness to it. It’s key that people, whether they have a disability or not, are given the opportunity and the choice to do whatever they want in life.”

Leshia: “I would challenge the perception that some girls might have that their gender precludes them from certain sports, careers, or certain positions, especially those of leadership.”

Q: “Leshia, you have enjoyed a successful career in sport – on and off the pitch – how have your experiences changed from when you first started on your journey and do you think it’s any different now for women looking to forge a career within the industry?”

Leshia: “If you saw me bowl these days you wouldn’t describe me as a talented cricketer! Seriously, though, there is still WAY more the industry can do to diversify, but there have been strides made in the last 20 years – and particularly the last five. And sport, at all levels, is far better for it, in my opinion. While I possibly didn’t realise it at the time, I have spent far too many hours in my career being the only female in a meeting room (and more than once being assumed to be a PA / tea-maker), but we are making strides, even if they feel like baby steps in isolation. Normalising female leaders in sport – and indeed in all under-represented groups – will take time, but once we have a few more ‘first female CEO of ‘x’ organisation’, you know they won’t be the last.”

Q: “…is there anything you’d like to change about the sport from an inclusivity perspective?

Leshia: “From my position, I actually think athletics and running is one of the most inclusive sports, especially from a gender perspective (in terms of numbers participating, it’s nearly 50/50 - most team sport governing bodies dream of those stats). But I would also love to see more of our young and female participants take an active role in volunteering and administration / councils, so that the sport reflects it communities and participants from top to bottom and from inside out, across its structure.

Q: “Shani, when you were competing, did you ever consider yourself as being a positive role model for other females in the sport?”

Shani: “As an athlete, no. Athletics was something I loved and at the time I wasn’t aware that I was being a role model for anyone else. I remember when I was selected for the Olympics, my mum got so many bunches of flowers from people who said, ‘your daughter has made the Olympics!’, I kept thinking ‘how are you getting the flowers?!’ That was a real moment for me because I realised how much it meant to other people. I knew how much it meant to me and I worked really hard to get selected but at that time I was just doing what I loved.”

Q: “…do you think the profile of women’s sport has changed since you competed?

Shani: “The profile of women’s sport in general is improving, but I wouldn’t say it’s balanced. In certain sports, unfortunately, it’s still vastly inequitable for women. Women’s sport is being spotlighted more on television, which is a step in the right direction. Things are improving but there is still a long way to go. In terms of the athlete focus, absolutely it’s more balanced than it used to be, but from a coach perspective we still have some work to do. We have excellent female coaches and having that lack of representation on teams is a massive issue that we have to tackle. There are women able to do the job, so we need to address the system to make sure the right people are being selected. Obviously, they have to be the right person for the job, it’s not just a tick box exercise, but we are pushing really hard to make that happen because it has to change.”