With women making up just 11 per cent of the construction workforce, Manon Bradley, Development Director at the Major Projects Association, draws on her experience as a World Champion Powerlifter to re-examine the role of the role model, and explains why the "accepted wisdom" of setting examples and showing the way may not be exactly how it works.
We talk a lot about the importance of inspirational role models, particularly when it comes to showing women what they can achieve. On their website WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) say “positive female role models are important if we are to transform some of the preconceptions that the public, young girls, their teachers and parents have.” They encourage others to become role models to “inspire more women into STEM”. If you Google the phrase “Female Role Models” you will find list upon list of hugely accomplished women showing us that the pinnacles of success can be reached.
And in all of these lists and websites the underlying belief is that they are showing the way, setting examples, demonstrating what is possible so that others can follow their approach – match their toe-holds and use their pitons in order to climb the peak after them. But I am beginning to question this particular “accepted wisdom”. My experience in sports tells me that’s not exactly how it works.
I started powerlifting competitively in 2004. At that time there were only a handful of women on the international competitive circuit. At the British championships in 2005 there were a total of seven female lifters. And we were good. We broke records. We set standards; high standards.
We believed that our records were the limit of performance, that we represented the peak of ability. There was always the risk that someone we knew might add 1kg to our records but we believed that we had already reached the top – or close enough to the top that improvements would be tiny increments.
When I benched 70kg for the first time in competition in 2006 not only was I amazed but so was everyone else. Very few women in the UK at my bodyweight had done that before. I remember hearing the spectators gasp with surprise as I walked out to take the lift. They had assumed that the bar was loaded for a man.
Don’t get me wrong. My 70kg benchpress wasn’t the best lift ever. Cecile Reynes – a French lifter in the weight category below me had lifted more and Mary Anderson in the weight category above me was (and still is) consistently powering out huge lifts. But it was still a significant milestone. And in the UK I was one of the first to achieve it. It was a pretty big deal.
Fast forward 10 years and in my capacity of President of the British Drug Free Powerlifting Association (BDFPA) I attended a relatively small divisional comp last weekend (31 lifters). Many of the lifters were novices. All of the nice women were very new to the sport.
The first thing of note is that there were nice women. NINE women! At a divisional competition!? I’ve been to World Championships with fewer female competitors than that.
The second thing of note is the amazing catalogue of lifts that they squatted, pushed and pulled. I saw a 57.5kg woman benching 67.5kg; a 61kg women deadlifting 130kg; a 62kg lifter squatting 92.5kg. Back in 2006 not only would this sort of lifting only have been seen at world level, but these would have been record breaking lifts. In 2004 I won the European Single Lift Championships with a benchpress of 62.5kg whilst weighing 68kg. Last week that wouldn’t even have been enough to win the divisional qualifier.
I am pretty sure that none of the women at that divisional competition knew who I was – there were no muffled whispers of “there’s Manon Bradley – she’s that amazing bench-presser”! They didn’t come into the sport because of my “inspirational performance”. They came because they’d found their way via their friends, their partners, their families. They came because they had experienced lifting weights and they loved how it felt. They came because they got the opportunity to test themselves against other athletes.
And they stayed because they were allowed to succeed; because the environment was welcoming and inclusive; because their performance was celebrated as highly as the men’s.
I have come to realise that our job as “role models” is not for others to doggedly follow in our wake. Instead we are gatekeepers. Our achievements have simply opened the doors to enable others to pour in. Some may choose the same route as us, and others will find their own way. The important part of our job is not just to inspire them to enter but also to create the environment which encourages them to stay. If we do that then the young women who come after us won’t stand on our shoulders or walk in our footsteps. They will take a running jump and soar far above us.
Manon is the Development Director of the MPA, ensuring day to day delivery of the association. She is the lead on the Gender Balance initiative which aims to support members to improve the gender balance within their major projects. In the 14 years that she has been competing as a competitive drug-free power-lifter, Manon has won 11 World Championships, 9 European Championships and held 6 World Records and a myriad of British titles and records.