Meet Shruti Saujani: The ECB leader creating safe spaces for women in sport

Shruti Saujani

With the ninth series of the game changers podcast now underway, host Sue Anstiss continues to explore the remarkable stories of influential women in sport.

The latest episode featured Shruti Saujani — the City Programme Manager for England and Wales Cricket Board.

She detailed her mission and first-hand experience of bringing more South Asian women into cricket and how the sport can be diversified for women of all backgrounds.

The landscape of sport is constantly transforming and one of the most notable changes in recent years is an increased inclusion of women.

But while it’s easy to acknowledge the boost in women’s sports as a whole, a lot of work below the surface goes unrecognised.

Implementing measures to see female athletes provided with equal opportunities, correct facilities and appropriate kit are just a few of the hugely important — but often overlooked — details that ensure women’s sport continues to flourish.

Saujani plays an important part in ensuring these details are not forgotten. She explained how it all began with a strong love for cricket as a child, something she said created a bond between her and her family.

She was heavily supported by her father and brothers when she played the sport growing up, even when people outside of her circle would question her involvement.

“At the time, I represented U11s and U13s at Leicestershire County Cricket,” Saujani explained. “When I was training, initially I was the only girl at the local cricket club, which was hard at the time.

“But again, my brother came with me to the sessions and we used to go together. So that was a lot of fun.”

I remember it did feel awkward at times. It did feel that there was no one like me there, but luckily I had the support of the coach who was a female and she really supported my journey into cricket and trialing for Leicestershire County Cricket at the time.

With the love of cricket coursing through her veins and the backing of her family, Saujani expanded on her passion and began working on how to make sports more accessible for women just like her.

The importance of cricket in South Asian culture

“I remember when I shouted to my extended family, that I got a job in cricket and every single person was so happy me. It’s a way that connects us to our origins and back home.

“And it’s just a lot of fun and a lot of competitiveness. Everywhere I go, everyone I speak to, there is something that draws them to cricket.”

South Asian countries like India and Pakistan adore cricket and the sport is heavily followed by millions in the region. It is not uncommon for children to grow up completely engulfed in the sport’s culture.

For Saujani, she has made it her mission to encourage women in South Asia to get involved and to provide them with a safe and supportive community.

Through Dream Big Desi Women, Saujani identified South Asian women as “least likely to be active or get involved in sports or even volunteer.”

She wanted to change this narrative, and in turn, change the game for good.

“We basically target Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan women,” Saujani explained. “Our youngest activator is 14, our eldest is 69. It’s just amazing to see the whole mix of women that are getting involved.

“Some are students, some are full-time workers, some are part-time, and some are just grandparents who want to inspire their granddaughter to pick up a bat and ball.”

“At every stage of this Dream Big project, we’ve put the women at the heart of everything we’ve done. Dream Big actually came from feedback we’ve had from the women. So they told us they wanted something that was inspirational, aspirational.”

Growing the game for women

The main focus when it comes to shedding light on women’s sport is making sure the athletes have a platform to be seen.

Across a number of different sports, new partnerships and broadcast deals are propelling female stars into the limelight — but at everything less than elite level, sometimes it’s even a struggle to meet basic requirements.

Over the last few months alone, there have been discussions regarding a number of issues within women’s sport — from the standard of officiating to inadequate sportswear.

Women having to settle for men’s sizes in kits, or not being supplied with training gear, is unfortunately still an ongoing problem.

“Clothing was the biggest barrier,” Saujani admitted. “If you look at a sports kit in general, they’re very fitted, they’re tight, and I knew that if we wanted to target, especially the audiences we’re going after, we need to make change.

“And that was one of the key things that ECB changed.”

Within the first three months, we made an order around appropriate head scarfs, longer t-shirts skins to wear under t-shirts so they’re not exposing any arms, as well as looser jogging bottoms.

“We’ve taken feedback on board from looking at what is the appropriate kit we could provide them for them taking part in sports [and] what’s the appropriate timing for training sessions to take place,” Saujani divulged. “Because we know, in the South Asian community or culture, family plays a heavy weighting.

“So we know there’s a lot of expectations around women being at home, looking after the family, or having an job in like accountancy, doctors, lawyers.

“So [playing] cricket or volunteering [in] cricket was never on the top of their agenda. So we’ve made cricket a part of that agenda.”

We’ve made cricket a welcoming space where you gain more than just cricket skills. So we’ve trained over 200 mental first aiders who are now giving back to the community.

Saujani highlighted how difficult it can be for women who do not see someone who represents them competing at the highest level of sport.

Through Dream Big, cricket has been taken to the women, rather than waiting for them to make the first move. Through the movement, a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment has been created to allow women to find their people and flourish.

Saujani reflected on one story that has stayed with her since starting her work — a mother who was eager to get involved but had never worn Western clothing and was fearful of what others would think. But after the admiration of her five-year-old son was soon made clear, her mindset changed.

Creating somewhere for women of all ages and backgrounds to feel accepted and valued is perhaps the most important thing required to make women’s sport successful.

People like Shruti Saujani continue to change the game that spans beyond the public eye. Providing crucial platforms, springboards and safe places for female athletes may seem like a given, but a lot of women go without these necessities.

Saujani’s dedication to her work has also seen her become a trustee with the Miss Kick Foundation.

Through the passion and dedication of making sport a more equal and welcoming place, women continue to empower, inspire, and conquer.

This article was produced in partnership with the game changers podcast, which is supported by Sport England. You can listen to the full episode with Shruti Saujani here.

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