By Kat Busby Hicks

The Skydive Tilstock Freefall Club – of which I’m DZO – recently hosted the second-ever Tilly Takeover Women’s Weekender. It was – well – special. Very special.

When I tell you it was “special”, I kinda need you to understand my full meaning. It was absolutely one-of-a-kind.

The all-star roster that converged on Tilstock on a rainy July weekend shared a single mission: to gather women with every qualification in the sport to lead as inspiring examples for other women. The Takeover – exclusively by women, for women – brought together an all-star team of Britain’s top women organisers and coaches for a weekend of jumping, mixers and seminars: Sara Orton came down as the Takeover CI; Vics and Becs Bradley, with Cara Pritchard, held court for AFF students and FS coaches; Lucy Mancey, Kate Lindsley and Julie Murray coached FS; Réka Szőts coached FF and led morning yoga classes; Rigger-Examiner Karen Saunders – the only person Tom Cruise will trust to pack his rig – was on hand with essential packing tips and matchless gear expertise. A team of top-notch skydivers generously gave of their time to (literally) uplift other women in the sport: Sara Jayne Orton, Cath Leather and Laura Dixon Crilly among them. And it wasn’t just the organisers, either: from manifest staff, packers and ground control, through to Di (our cook!) and me (as DZO), we strove to ensure that every position on the DZ was led by women.

In the run-up to that event – the only UK skydiving event of its kind – I’ve had some blunt questions put to me. They’ve generally revolved around a theme, and that theme goes like this:

Why women-only?

It’s a question that has been rising in pertinence lately, not only in our sport but far beyond it. This is, after all, not as simple a question as it seems. Organising a women-only event is not just about creating a container that provides safety from the spectre of harassment, patronising treatment and/or any other unacceptable behaviour. It’s about using the watering can of complete attention to nourish the roots of what should, ideally, be a cohort that represents a full 50% of our sport.

Some people argue that women-only events are counterproductive; that they create unnecessary siloing. I do not. I sincerely believe that women can only benefit from participating in them.

Here’s why.

“You can’t be what you can’t see”

Women are now, and have historically been, critically under-represented in spaces predominantly occupied by men. Skydiving is certainly not immune. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” in the words of American children’s rights activist Marian Wright Edelman, and that kōan points at the heart of the matter: people of all kinds are simply less likely to be inspired about the possibilities hidden in their future if they don’t have visible role models to whom they can directly relate. They lose the will to strive. They quit.

The ethos of the Tilly Takeover is simple: women supporting other women, not only to grow as skydivers, but also to form – rapidly and organically – a genuinely supportive network for women to come together across the UK. The heart of it is not anti-male. It’s pro-women.

Solving for Asymmetry

Sure, exceptional women perform at the top levels of skydiving in all disciplines. Even so, the numbers point at a big asymmetry: only 16% of British Skydiving members are women. (We’re doing relatively well. In the USPA, that number is just 14%.) Within that cohort, women proportionately fail to progress with instructor ratings at the same rate as the men.

For a woman, even making her way in a male-dominated space can be exhausting. It might feel almost impossible to truly thrive. Research has shown, time and again, that women engage less in groups where they are a small minority. Women also, statistically speaking, face more barriers to participation and retention than men do. Not only do lack of confidence, money and time figure in, but also additional family responsibilities and medical concerns leading to long uncurrencies (particularly, pregnancy).

Women-only events are superb opportunities for a woman to explore ways of bringing her whole, authentic self to the dropzone, without the pressure to perform masculinity. At a women-only event – that is to say, in a woman-only space – she can foster new connections with athletes who share her experience more closely, unite to support women newer to the sport and celebrate the achievements of role models she might then start to emulate. In this intentional container, women can feel free to offer informed advice on handling the specific challenges other women might face: how to adapt a physical task originally invented to suit a male physiology (such as packing); how to navigate conversations that encroach on boundaries; when to get outside help; when to report incidents; and when to walk away.

Need more? Women-only events have an electromagnetic effect: building the profile of women in a traditionally male-dominated sport also allows curious outsiders to start to see a place for themselves in the sport. That means that we’re do the groundwork to grow that 16%.

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