Juggling act: motherhood in racing under the spotlight *H&H Plus*

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  • A report exploring the challenges of being a working mother in the racing industry has provided a host of recommendations as to how the sport — which is facing a stable staff crisis — could better help those juggling careers with children. Find out more about what the study found, the things that would make a real difference to both individuals and the industry, and real experiences from those working in the racing and equestrian industry...

    Outdated attitudes and structural barriers have created a “drain on talent and resources”, a report into the challenges faced by working mothers in the racing industry has found.

    The study, by Women in Racing (WIR), Oxford Brookes University and Simply Racing, looked to explore the practicalities of being a working mother across the industry, including working practices, maternity leave, managing perceptions and work-life balance.

    “It is generally recognised that women form an increasing proportion of the horseracing workforce, though this shift has not been widely acknowledged or catered for,” states the executive summary, adding that perceptions and support vary by employment setting and skill level.

    “Both attitudinal and structural barriers have been causing many women either to leave the industry prematurely or to decide not to join in the first place. This creates a drain on talent and resources with cost implications, often for employers operating on tight margins.”

    Set gallop times and unavoidable hours travelling on race days were among the structural barriers highlighted. Addressing the attitude of “we’ve always done it this way”, perceptions that “women can’t have it all” and “by wanting both shows an unreasonable ‘sense of entitlement’ or is ‘not necessarily something that the racing industry has to deal with’” were also among the discussion points.

    The report found combining riding as a jockey with motherhood “was seen as close to impossible”.

    “A lack of specific support to help women jockeys to stay in the industry following pregnancy and maternity [leave] was felt to be an important negative factor,” it stated, adding that others identified there is no specific support package for jockeys on this, where other areas of the industry have structures in place to help.

    Professional Jockeys Association (PJA) chief executive Paul Struthers told H&H the body looks forward to working closely with WIR and the wider sport to effect meaningful change.

    “For our female members, the challenges posed by pregnancy and motherhood are significant and it is clear that much more needs to be done,” he said.

    But while the focus of the report was “challenges”, the findings were not all negative. It found there are “pockets of good practice” and sharing these, along with positive role models, are among the recommendations. Shifts in attitudes towards the importance of work-life balance, better performance and loyalty from staff treated well, increased flexibility and how the Covid legacy has led to opening up more discussions around this, were also cited.

    Improving the quality, usefulness and access to industry-specific and national guidance on what help is there, both for employees and employers, was a frequent theme throughout the recommendations. Increasing affordable childcare in the racing hubs and further afield by looking at what the industry actually needs, as happened in Middleham, was another.

    WIR chair Tallulah Lewis told H&H ensuring the research was independent was “very important”.

    “We very much discussed the project with Oxford Brookes, but the team there are the experts in this area. Being able to have empirical research in this area is essential as it really makes people sit up and look at the work and recommendations, as they are coming from evidence,” she said.

    “We’ve had a really in-depth set of meetings to talk to all racing’s stakeholders about the report, who have welcomed it in terms of setting in stone what the problems are and the solutions out there.”

    Seeing a change

    The split of women/men joining the industry through racing colleges is around 70:30, whereas the stable staff ratio is closer to 49:51. In the wider equestrian industry, the ratio of female/male members of the British Grooms Association (BGA) is 85:15.

    “With improved employment conditions, we are seeing the beginning of a change in culture – working as a groom is now considered a career choice,” BGA and Equestrian Employers Association director Lucy Katan told H&H. “As with any profession, finding a work-life balance with a family is always a challenge, but employers are recognising the benefit of allowing some flexibility with working patterns for parents in order to retain experienced employees.”

    One racing employee told H&H that more information in terms of both equestrian or racing-specific advice and wider government support would be helpful.

    “My husband and I have made it work through trial and error. We both worked in racing and don’t have family nearby, so childcare was the area we struggled with the most. We were lucky to find an amazing person to help and, but it was so expensive and one of our wages was going fully on that,” she said.

    “An old man once said to me, ‘You can’t do both’ and that made me more determined than ever as I love my job!”

    She left racing to work shifts in a non-equestrian role, but missed her former career. Her husband then secured a job with regular 9–5 hours, and a yard offering shift patterns to fit in with the afternoon school run meant she could return.

    “That flexibility is a massive help and I’m really grateful,” she added. “They are very good and also understand if I want to have a few hours out to go and watch a Christmas play, for example, and allow me to make those up another time.”

    Another, who has worked in the racing and equestrian industry for 14 years, told H&H that even before starting a family, the hours made it difficult to lead any form of “normal life”. While she accepted this and loves her work, she believes this is why the industry struggles to retain staff.

    A change of location meant she was pregnant while looking for work, but nobody wanted to know when she mentioned she was expecting and some even cited this as the reason in replies to her applications.

    “In some ways I felt let down by the industry I’ve worked hard in for many years – and I know I’m good at what I do – so why should I be penalised for wanting to have a family with the man I love?” she said, adding she fully understands the need to run yards efficiently and would not want to tar all trainers with the same brush.

    Looking for jobs for after the baby was born, she found nursery times unsuitable while private childcare would cancel out her earnings.

    “This isn’t a sob story, it’s a very real problem that many women face in the industry,” she said, adding she is now “truly blessed” to have started her own equestrian business, which is still a challenge but means she and her partner can continue to do jobs they love.

    “I still believe it is such a taboo subject and there is so much that still needs to be done regarding motherhood and working life, both in the racing industry and in equine sports as a whole. But it’s brilliant that these conversations are now happening.”

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