Conquista may not have made it to the top of pro cycling, but we know a thing or two about working in "high-pressure, high-performance environments" . . .
I started my City career in the late 1990s, in one of the UK’s best-known investment banks. On the graduate training programme I got to know, slightly, a young woman called Fiona. Not long after the introductory programme ended, she approached one of the senior traders at the same bank for some help. She was greeted with the words “’Ello, big tits!”.
I can still remember the stunned expressions on faces around the trading floor when it was announced, less than 24 hours later, that the guilty party had been sacked for his conduct. This was partly down to Fiona’s bravery in reporting a much more senior male colleague. But it was also a sign that things were changing, and some forms of behaviour would no longer be tolerated.
Sexism still exists in the City, just as it does almost everywhere, and it remains the case throughout the corporate world that not enough women are in senior posts. But while things are far from perfect, they have improved dramatically over the last twenty years.
The same cannot be said of the world of cycling. If the allegations made by Jess Varnish and others about the way they were treated and spoken to at British Cycling are true, this will be a shock, but hardly a surprise.
Cycling is by no means unique for hosting sexists. There was a time, not that long ago, when it was suggested that a woman could not run a marathon, because if she did her uterus would fall out. Even more recently, there were still those who claimed that due to the shape of the female pelvis, a woman’s body could not cope with competitive ski jumping – even though women have been jumping competitively since 1863, only a year after the first ever competition was held.
But of course none of this utter hogwash has anything to do with concern for women’s uteruses or pelvises. When Kathrine Switzer was spotted running the 1967 Boston Marathon – having entered as “K Switzer” without specifying her gender – the outraged organiser rushed onto the course and attempted a flying tackle. This is assuredly not because he feared for her uterus.
While this is dismayingly recent history, it is at least history. None of the thousands of female runners at last weekend’s London Marathon risked being physically assaulted by the organisers. And in 2014 women’s ski jumping was – at long last – included in the Winter Olympics.
But cycling has not moved with the times in the same way. Writing in the Guardian this week, Nicole Cooke points out how cycling’s governing bodies continue to cripple the women’s sport with absurd and condescending rules limiting how far women can ride and what events they can compete in. The strong implication is that, like the organiser of the Boston Marathon, cycling’s authorities just don’t think women belong at the highest levels of the sport.
But there is another issue at work in the British Cycling case. This one also leads back to the authorities, but in a different way.
After Varnish’s allegations were published, some commentators asked why no one had ever spoken out before. The ignorance behind this question is astonishing. For one thing, it is not hard to figure out why riders might feel disinclined to report bullying and intimidation by people who control their competitive futures. But, more importantly, people had spoken out. Lots of them. Sarah Connolly has put together a long list of riders – including World Champions and Olympic Gold Medallists – who reported offensive behaviour over many years. And it seems nothing was ever done about it.
Anyone who has worked in a high-pressure, performance-based environment – like, say investment banking – knows that people in those circumstances behave badly, fall out, call each other names and say awful things about each other. And this sort of environment attracts a certain sort of person. At one annual assessment, my boss told me, “You’re very talented . . . but . . . what is talent? TALENT IS BULLSHIT!”. This counted as a positive review.
It is not necessary to be difficult to be a successful manager in challenging circumstances. But the uncomfortable reality is that difficult people often make successful managers, because they can be extremely good at getting the best out of others. The equally uncomfortable reason for this is that some people simply respond extremely well to their behaviour.
In his biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson reports that Jobs’ abrasive style “infused Apple employees with an abiding passion to create ground-breaking products and a belief that they could accomplish what seemed impossible. They had t-shirts made that read ’90 hours a week and loving it!’ Out of a fear of Jobs mixed with an incredibly strong urge to impress him, they exceeded their own expectations.” It is partly for this reason that Steve Jobs is widely regarded as "the greatest businessman the world has ever known".
But buying success by hiring people like this brings risks. When a proposed loan was turned down by the credit committee of another bank I worked for, my then-boss – a recent arrival from another bank – was scornful, declaring that at his previous institution he would simply have had the credit officer fired and made the loan anyway. Indeed, at his other institution, he himself had been allowed to approve all his own lending. The financial crisis of 2007-9 was in part the result of this kind of craven capitulation by the banks’ weak management to the sort of person who likes to think of himself as - I promise I am not making this up - a "Big Swinging Dick".
So anyone who attempts to buy success by putting an aggressive, difficult, demanding, temperamental person into a position of authority over others had better be ready to keep an eye on them, and stand up to them when the limits of acceptability are crossed. That there is institutional sexism in cycling, as Nicole Cooke says, is beyond doubt: but the kind of personal, day-to-day sexism alleged by Varnish and others is different. It is a kind, indeed, the worst kind, of bullying: an attempt to control and diminish others, behaviour of exactly the kind that Fiona faced in 1998, and which, if left unchecked in a professional context, can destroy people’s careers and lives.
If Connolly’s list is anything to judge by, it looks very much as if, in speaking out, British Cycling’s female stars have been just as brave as Fiona was. Their allegations deserve full, independent and public investigation. Let's hope they get it.