Meadows: "If women see other women as leaders, they will believe it's possible"

Jenny Meadows
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Great Britain's Jenny Meadows in action over 800m at the Prague 2015 European Athletics Indoor Championships

European Athletics continues its series of profiles of prominent women’s athletics leaders on the continent by talking to Jenny Meadows, from Great Britain.

Meadows, now 39, retired from competitive athletics at the end of 2017 after an international career spanning almost two decades. She was the 2011 European indoor 800m champion and also won medals at the European Athletics Championships, World Athletics Championships and World Indoor Athletics Championships.

What was your first involvement with athletics?

I started athletics when I was aged seven.  A coach came into my school to tell the children about the local athletics club and ask if anyone wanted to come along. I was a fast runner, so I was very keen and my Mum had been a club athlete. I went that week and my athletics journey started. I was completely hooked and loved everything about it: meeting new people, challenging yourself and trying to improve your performances. I am still a member of the same athletics club, Wigan & District Harriers, some 31 years later.

What is your current role?

I now work on a Talent Development programme, geared towards U23 athletes. I also deliver workshops and courses for athletes, parents, and coaches in the sport. In addition, I have a Master’s degree in sports marketing and business management, and  I am also a director of a company called Totally Runable, which helps to identify if schools have a ‘gender sport gap’ and then I work with the teachers at that school to rectify this.

Let me give you an example of what we do. The company goes into schools and do workshops with girls about sport. It is an additional workshop when girls are allowed out of their usual class – during regular school time – and get the chance to talk amongst themselves about sport.

Some of the girls are already afraid of running in front of boys due to body issues. Within the workshop, they do a little bit of sport together and then we ask them to rate their confidence. We have workshop sessions with the girls where they talk about confidence and establishing a ‘growth mindset’.

One of the results of these workshops is usually the girls start supporting one another. Luckily, many schools have identified the problem and we are being asked to do more workshops, and more often.

So how did that seven-year-old girl get to where you are today?

I have an international career that stretches back to competing at the 1999 European Athletics U20 Championships in the Great Britain 4x400m team. We just missed out on a medal then, finishing fourth, but later I was a medallist over 800m, both indoors and outdoors at continental and global championships, and I represented Europe at the 2010 IAAF Continental Cup. 

It gave me such pride to represent my continent and, coincidentally, I met Svein Arne Hansen at that competition and really appreciated that he introduced himself to me, was very knowledgeable, understanding and had the personal touch that many others in leadership positions do not have. 

He gained my respect straight away. A year or so later, after the Russian doping scandal emerged in 2015, I was nearing retirement and wanted to do something proactive to help promote athletics in a more positive light than how it was generally being portrayed in the media; and I also worried about the impact that it may have on children wanting to get involved in the sport. I reached out to Svein Arne, who by that time had been elected European Athletics President, to ask if European Athletics intended to do anything in this area. He met with me and got me involved me with I Run Clean.

After I retired, I took six weeks and completely shut myself off from the sport but after that, I couldn’t resist, and I was working in athletics again. I spend at least some of everyday involved with athletics, either professionally or in a voluntary capacity. In 2019, Svein Arne then asked me to become part of the European Athletics Development Commission which I was thrilled to accept. 

You were at the Women's Leadership Moderator Seminar in Belgrade last December. What did you get from your six days there?

The Seminar was a topic of discussion at the Development Commission meeting a few months earlier, so I was keen to attend. My goals were to meet new people from other nations and to share examples of current practice so we could learn from each other. I also wanted to develop my own understanding of issues that other nations face in relation to women's leadership; and discuss solutions and suggestions as to how we can work collectively to rectify and improve this, as well as developing resources to work on these issues within Great Britain.

I met some wonderful hard-working, honest, open, passionate, and inspirational women. We have stayed in touch via a WhatsApp group and have been a good source of encouragement to each other. Some examples of this include celebrating promotions, sending condolences during losses, and supporting each other during the coronavirus pandemic. I also benefitted from the two excellent tutors in Belgrade. They encouraged us all to have a go at a variety of tasks and projects and were non-judgemental in their approach.

What are your current goals and hopes now?

We have amazing women in a variety of roles within athletics and I think we should have a campaign to highlight this as often these women often don't ask for any recognition or don't believe that there are opportunities for them to progress and be a leader within their area.  I also believe that if women can see other women as leaders then they will also believe it's possible.

I am running a campaign for girls in British schools called #SeeSportyBeSporty meaning that if girls don't see other girls being sporty then they won't think that's what girls do. I appreciate the stance that European Athletics has taken in promotion women's leadership and the gender balance on its commissions, but I hope that more national federations will embrace this.