Josie West: High-Flyer!
Kitesurfer Josie West knows about confidence. We chat to her about sport, female empowerment and her social enterprise She Flies to find out her secrets of success
By Emma Taylor
Kitesurfer Josie West is no stranger to taking leaps of faith and turning her passions into successes through a crushing force of will. From the maths degree (a subject she loved but didn’t feel clever enough to study, but graduated with a first) that ultimately led to her current position as a director for a global tech consultancy, or plunging her all into kicking down barriers for women in extreme sports through founding social enterprise: She Flies. Shaping female identity is at the root of She Flies, and is hammered home with its ‘showing off is a superpower’ message, which goes against the ‘don’t draw attention to yourself’ grain most of us heard as children. “We as women have a responsibility to redefine what women are seen as, change the definition of being a woman,” Josie says. “Showing off brings confidence, confidence brings progression, progression brings growth and change. I think it’s very powerful for a woman to take their mind away from themselves and give it to someone else. If you show off, and someone’s watching you, you’re going to change the way they think,” she adds.
Despite growing up landlocked, Josie found a deep love for the sea as a young adult and describes herself as a natural water baby. She explains: “I hate to admit it, because this is the case for so many women, but my ex-boyfriend was a kitesurf instructor. He taught me just after uni and I really didn’t take to it initially.” The wind, obviously a crucial element of kitesurfing, was usually in trinity with the cold and the rain. Josie says the sport took ages to learn and was “an absolute f**king nightmare.” However, an urge to compete with herself pushed that determination to see through those difficult beginner stages with her then-boyfriend’s tutelage.
“When we broke up he said to me, ‘Do you know what – I don’t think you’ll continue kitesurfing.’ That was enough. It was literally like a red flag,” Josie adds. “From that moment onwards, my progression was exponential. That’s why She Flies is so important, it’s a perfect example of our minds being much more powerful than we think. If it wasn’t for that comment, I probably wouldn’t be kitesurfing now.” “I remember meeting up with him a few years later and he was like, ‘Oh, so you’re now better than me?’ Yeah, yeah I am,” she adds.
The She Flies organisation, in Josie’s own words, is about creating environments that solidify women as a default in extreme sports across surf, snow, skate, climb and bike. “What it isn’t, is another community of women,” she says. “I want it to be a philosophy. A feeling that when you see someone on the beach, or at the park, and they’re wearing a She Flies top, you can go up to them and say, ‘Hey, yeah, me too. Let’s go shred it.’ There’s so many amazing communities of women, they’re really supportive and they really help, but what I want women to know is that we’re not less than, we are incredible and we’re different. We’re so different, particularly in kitesurfing.”
Josie elaborates: “When pro-women ride, they have an elegant strength, a divine femininity that comes through. Like women in surfing — the way you think of a surfer, they’re crouched down with their bum out and ripping through waves. But there’s a woman, Leah Dawson, she’s a surfer in Hawaii at the moment, she surfs with her hips. She brings her hips forward, like a ballerina, surfing in a completely different way and she is f**king beautiful.”
Nonetheless she makes a point that the differences of men and women in sport aren’t binary, there is a scale. The graceful energy women bring to wakeboarding and kite surfing, like something as small as an elevated chest, might be missed by spectators if unfamiliar with technique. “Men go really hard, really big, really fast and that is also incredible. If you don’t know the sport, it’s probably more impressive to watch. But if you know the sport, and you watch a woman doing something different, in a different style, you’re like, ‘Oh my God, look, she points her toes’ and she becomes this queen, doing this refined position with her body,” Josie explains.
It’s not just the physical contrasts between the sexes which impact a sport; Josie came to realise the mental polarity is just as important, after being quite against women-only initiatives within both the sporting and business spheres. She admits she didn’t get it, and felt they isolated women to go away and talk about issues but didn’t actually achieve anything. A career break in 2018, travelling and teaching kitesurfing, shifted her perspective and overall approach which now forms a pillar of the She Flies ethos.
“When you teach men the theory of it (kite surfing), some of them listen, but they want to feel it in their body. They want to try, fail, and try again, that’s the way men learn, almost like immediate muscle memory. Whereas women are analytical. We want to understand, we want to visualise, and then we try,” she says. Josie details that would-be kitesurfing instructors are encouraged to teach all students in a manner that suits a male way of learning. Whereas Josie’s coaching gives space for women to ask questions and have ‘why this, equals that’ click in their head before even stepping foot on a board.
“I got into this mindset where I changed my teaching for women, and they suddenly shot up in their progression. That’s the key,” Josie says. “Equality doesn’t mean treating everyone the same. If you were to build a football stadium, and you didn’t have disabled access, you’re treating everyone the same, but you’re not making it equal.” A further illustration of her argument is the ‘Red Bull King of the Air’ kite surfing competition in Cape Town. “‘King’ being the operative word,” Josie laughs.
“Before the last three years, they never let women in. There’s been one particular woman who’s got in twice. She’s brilliant, incredible. As a bit of description, when you kitesurf, you’re harnessed and it sits in the middle of your core. Men’s centre mass of gravity is above it, in their chest. Women’s centre mass of gravity is in their pelvic region. That harness for men is lifting from beneath their centre mass of gravity so they can shoot up. Plus, they’re stronger, and they have a different body to us. Women’s centre of gravity is beneath them. So we’re doing the same action, to do the same thing, but from a different body shape. Women genetically can’t jump as high as men on average, because of the centre mass of gravity. It’s not about letting women compete in a men’s competition. It’s about having a women’s competition.
“If a women’s competition isn’t going to be as advanced or exciting as the mens, and not draw as many eyes, Red Bull aren’t going to make as much money out of it, they’re not going to spend to make it happen. But if they don’t do it, not enough women will see that this competition is possible for them and get better and train all year to compete. What’s going to break first? We’re all humans, we’re all selfish in how we make things change. Unless someone does something first, this is going to continue for the next 10 years,” Josie explains. This drive for level opportunity is mirrored in her day job, as she says tech is crying out for more women to join its ranks. As the industry has slowly increased the intake of female employees, Josie estimates the split is roughly 50/50 for those coming up through the junior cohorts; the gap is in attracting the talent pool of women out there to the senior roles.
An example she gives is some senior positions have certain rules, ie. you can’t give someone a salary increase from their previous job of more than 10%. She says: “That’s treating everyone the same. But if you’re giving a woman, who’s already most likely underpaid, a 10% rise to join your company, she’s not going to join you. Because she’s still underpaid.”
We discuss the backing of She Flies from one of the best kitesurfers in the world, Lewis Crathern. Recalling a recent meeting, she says: “His view, his opinion, and his want to get more women into kitesurfing has changed, because he’s had a little girl. He wants the best for her and he wants to know what she needs. Suddenly, he’s interested. He wants to know about how we learn and what we do. “You can’t blame him. He’s a very busy, very successful kitesurfing professional. Kitesurfing is a very difficult industry, it doesn’t have much money in it and he never found time to focus on attracting more women until it benefitted him,” Josie clarifies.
However Josie’s clear she doesn’t want to play the angry feminist. “People don’t change if you’re angry. The one thing that women have is emotional intelligence. If there’s a situation where I feel that women are underrepresented, or the decisions being made aren’t reflecting my needs and my views, I’ll make a joke out of it. I’ll say, ‘You know, token female view here, but do you think maybe…’ and I will come up with some kind of smart wit that makes people laugh. When they leave the room, they might think maybe that’s something we do need to change. Because unfortunately, you have to manipulate. You have to make people feel the pain for them to change. If it doesn’t benefit them, they’re not going to change,” she says.