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IMOCA reaches milestone in gender equality, with more than half Route du Rhum teams managed by women

by Ed Gorman / IMOCA Globe Series 13 Oct 2022 09:38 PDT
IMOCA reaches a milestone in gender equality, with more than half the Route du Rhum teams managed by women © Eloi Stichelbaut / Jean-Louis Carli / Ricardo Pinto

IMOCA is constantly changing and evolving - you only have to look at the new generation of boats to see that. But the people who work on them are also changing... and in a good way.

Sustainability and diversity are watchwords of all right-thinking modern businesses and so is equality of opportunity for men and women. And in that respect things have been changing dramatically, with women increasingly playing key roles in IMOCA teams and with more of them employed by the Class than ever before.

In the 36-strong IMOCA field for the Route du Rhum-Destination Guadeloupe, that sets sail from St Malo on November 6th, no less than 20 of the 37 teams entered are led by female team managers.

This is a remarkable state of affairs when compared to just a few years ago, when women managers tended to be mainly the wives of skippers running low-budget programmes. These were very much the pioneers in this area and some teams are still being run in this way by women who commit long hours, often running families at the same time.

But now many of the leading teams, including some of the ones with the most ambitious race programmes - for example, those taking on The Ocean Race as well as all the other races in the IMOCA GLOBE SERIES - are now being run by women at the head of ever more professional outfits.

Among them is Frenchwoman Marine Derrien, who runs what will be a 25-strong Holcim-PRB team, led on the water by Kevin Escoffier. Derrien is well known in world sailing as a super-efficient operator with an unmatched work ethic, who can be relied upon at all times.

"I think now the projects are bigger and that's why it is not only wives in the management role, but people like me who have been in the industry and have grown through the years with different projects," commented Derrien, whose CV includes a shore team management role for Dongfeng Race Team, logistics management roles with the Extreme Sailing Series and with Luna Rossa in the America's Cup and event management positions with the Route du Rhum and The Transat. "I think it also underlines that the world is changing - women have more responsibilities and we are more involved and the skippers are into diversity in sailing too," she added.

Over at the Hublot Sailing Team, that supports the Swiss skipper Alan Roura, Allysson Mousselon has been in post as team manager since January. An engineer with a background in production and process engineering with the French multinational, Fives Group, this is Mousselon's first job in sailing and she's loving it.

"It's great," she said. "Actually for me there is a part of the job that is very similar to what I did before and this is the reason I was hired. To organise the drum beat - to make sure that everything is happening on schedule and that we anticipate stuff...and to manage the budgets."

Mousselon, 37, who is married to the Lorient-based naval architect Olivier Mousselon and is a keen F16 catamaran sailor, is not sure why women are now coming to the fore in team management. "I haven't really thought about it," she said. "But my first thought, I would say, is that maybe we find it easier to manage a team and we have a different way of doing it. We are not men. It is not a matter of acting like a man would do. We can be strong and smooth at the same time and maybe this is a reason why there are more women.

"And also in terms of skills," she adds, "there is no reason why a women wouldn't be able to manage the preparation of a guy to go racing, or conduct discussions with the IMOCA class and with race organisers."

Roura says he was impressed with the confident way Mousselon approached the job and the experience she could bring to it from industry. Never having worked in sailing before was not an issue.

"What for me was the answer, when we started talking, was that she said 'I know I am the one for this job; I can deliver something that the others can't,'" he recalled. "That was something that no one had told me before and I really like that way of thinking that says 'you know what, I've not come from sailing, I am from industry, but I know that I can help and this is how I want to do it."

Like many other women in senior positions in the IMOCA ranks, Holly Cova, a 33-year-old English former corporate lawyer, who runs Boris Herrmann's Malizia-SeaExplorer team, found that to start with people she came across in her job assumed she could not be the team leader because she was a woman.

"It's not as bad as when I joined the team in 2018," she said, "when people assumed I was Boris's wife, or his PA, or maybe his social media person. But I still get people saying 'oh, you must be Boris's wife.'" I say 'no, that's another woman. I actually run his team.' That happens a lot. If I had a pound for every time someone has looked at me and has not assumed I do the job I do, I would be very rich!"

Derrien says it took time for her to impose her authority on her team and that, initially, being a women did not help. "Historically team mangers have been people who have been sailing and then become team manger," she said. "So the shore team believed more in those guys than me - to start with. But then they saw that I brought different elements to the role - more management, more team spirit and an emphasis on helping people to find the best way to do their job. So now, after a year-and-a-half with my team, they fully understand my role. At the beginning they thought I was just filling out invoices, now they understand I am running the show."

Having female team managers is already causing a trickle down effect that is helping more women take up jobs in IMOCA teams. Cova says the women she knows in the sport love the fact that female professionals are leading and that they can be themselves in the role.

"It's a super-nice vibe," she said, "and it's also refreshing because maybe in the past, as a woman in that role, you were expected to be quite serious, you had to dress the right way and all that stuff, which is obviously nonsense. Now it's like you can still be a women, and still do just as well and the look the way you want to look, and it doesn't matter because we are all here and we respect that about each other."

Another of IMOCA's goals is to promote women sailors and increase the number of female skippers. There were six women skippers in the 33-strong field in the last Vendée Globe and the Class wants more in future. Derrien applauds female pathways, in events like the Women's America's Cup and SailGP, and she wants to see more women take on the skipper's role in IMOCA, but an all-women project would not interest her.

"I would love to be more involved in helping women to be more involved in the sport," she said, "but I don't want to be a girl team manager with a girl team, working for a female skipper; I think diversity and a mixed approach to teams is important."

Cova believes the increase in female participation in teams can only help to attract women sailors to the Class. "I feel that it will bring more female skippers into the sport because in our team, for instance, we now have almost 50-50, men and women...and I feel the same with the sailing side - you make it more possible for women to join the team," she said.

When it comes to the qualities women bring to managements roles, it is hard to generalise, but Mousselon agrees that emotional intelligence is a big asset in an IMOCA team. That is because the IMOCA world is far from normal - it is about sending sailors, either on their own or in pairs or small crews, off onto the ocean to face everything that gets thrown at them.

"The big difference between this and my old job, and this is what I love," she explained, "is there is a lot of emotion and feelings involved in this role and this is something you don't have in normal companies. If we lost a project or it was a week late in industry, we might be disappointed or our boss might be annoyed. Here, if Alan fails in a race or there is a technical issue, everybody is very involved. And the opposite is true when things go well - if he starts in the middle of the fleet and gains in the ranking, it is a source of great satisfaction to us."

We asked Mousselon if the emergence of so many women in key roles has changed the gender balance of IMOCA - is the Class still a man's world? "I would say it is still a man's world," she said. "But it is changing in a good way and I don't see a way back."

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