Meet the woman who aims to change the UCI
Our Movers and Shakers series features Q&As with women trail blazers in the sport and industry of cycling. These are women who often go unnoticed but make the world of (women’s) cycling go round.
The women we write about in this series include team owners, key industry players, race organisers, cycling advocates, journalists, inventors, designers, business owners and the professional athletes that often play a huge role in advancing their sport. See our past interviews here.
When Amina Lanaya first walked through the doors of the Union Cycliste Internationale headquarters in Switzerland, it was January 2006. Tom Boonen was the road racing world champion for the men, Regina Schleicher for the women. Lance Armstrong was still cycling’s biggest star with seven back-to-back Tour de France “victories”.
But Lanaya was only a casual sports fan then, and probably wouldn’t have recognised any of these riders if she were to encounter them on the street. An international lawyer, she joined cycling’s governing body only by chance, seeking a new direction in her legal career rather than a cycling-specific job.
What she found, was an organisation facing challenges around every corner and in need of change. From cycling’s biggest doping scandals to new technologies and an ever-changing media landscape, the past decade has teemed with hurdles for the UCI to work through. Serving first as legal counsel and later as deputy Director General, Lanaya helped the UCI survive them, all the while battling some serious obstacles of her own.
“For many years it was difficult for me to exist amongst all the men in cycling.”
Today, Lanaya is the recently appointed Director General of the UCI and looks forward to watching the Tour of Flanders as much as her husband, a retired professional cyclist she met at the UCI. And if her seven-year-old daughter or five-year-old son want to become a professional cyclist when they grow up, she’s optimistic that it will be a viable career option for either of them.
But a lot has to change before her daughter and son will be considered equals in the sport — something she knows all too well. The mere feminisation of her title, “Directrice Générale”, is an indication of how the sport is changing.
When Lanaya arrived at the UCI, to work as a lawyer in legal services, she said it felt like a man’s world, with her being the first one looked to when coffee needed to be made.
They were looking at the wrong woman, however. A self-proclaimed “woman of strong character”, Lanaya fought for her place at the UCI and now aims to do the same for more women in cycling governing bodies everywhere.
In her first interview since her appointment as Director General, Ella CyclingTips talked with Lanaya about working her way up the ladder, her Women’s Development Plan and the state of cycling in general.
This is not a transcript. This Q&A was edited and curated for clarity.
Ella CyclingTips: As an international lawyer from France, how did you end up at the UCI?
Amina Lanaya: Actually, it was by chance and I would say that it has turned out well. I arrived in Switzerland 15 years ago and worked for a law firm in Lausanne. After two years there, I wanted to experience something different that went beyond purely legal aspects and by chance I came across a job ad for a sporting international federation — the UCI — and they were looking for legal counsel. I applied and I was recruited. To be honest I was not particularly into the sport. I knew about the Tour de France and I knew about big names like Eddy Merckx and so on. I’ve always been a big sports fan in general so I knew about the basics of cycling but nothing more.
Ella: Are you a cyclist now?
AL: [Laughs] Not really. You know when I started at the UCI almost 13 years ago, I, as every single new staff member of the UCI, was very keen to buy a bike. I bought a road bike and a mountain bike and I started to ride on the track as well at the velodrome. So yes, the years before I had my first child I was riding a bit but since having children it is more complicated for me to continue cycling.
I’m trying now to find a balance between my professional life and my personal life and sport has a big part in it. I’m sure that in the coming months I will make sure that I have some availabilities to ride my bike again.
Ella: After working in the Legal Service, you were appointed deputy Director General in 2013, then acting Director General and now, Director General. What exactly is your role as Director General?
AL: As Director General of the UCI, the overall task is, of course, that everything is running well and that the organisation is in a good shape. This means managing all of our competitions, all the regulations, all the marketing activities, strategies, communications and of course, everything has to be in line with our budget. I have to say as well that I am a trouble-shooter but that is part of every CEO’s position!
And then, of course, I want our staff to be proud of working for the UCI, happy to come in the office every morning and feel instrumental in the development of our sport.
Ella: And how does your legal background fit into all that?
AL: As a lawyer of course you are focused on being rigorous, being precise, respecting deadlines, having processes in place so it’s very important for me to have this background and I apply all of what I have learned in my legal background into my day-to-day activity.
Ella: What was it like for you, a woman, to enter such a male-dominated work environment?
AL: When I arrived at the UCI, I started as a lawyer working in the legal services. Cycling is a man’s world and I noticed it from the first day.
It was quite difficult for me in the beginning because, to be honest, doing external meetings with stakeholders for example, I sometimes was not even acknowledged or greeted and it’s difficult to impose myself. For example when men during meetings needed coffee or needed water I was the first one to whom they were looking. Because I was a woman it was me who should bring the coffee or make a photocopy of a document.
A lot has changed but for many years it was difficult for me to exist amongst all the men in cycling. And this is a problem in all the international sports federations and that’s something we need to work on. That’s why we, in the UCI, need to change the place of women to ensure they hold leadership positions as well.
Ella: If you weren’t respected, what made you stay?
AL: Because you know I think I have a strong character. I am not someone to give up, especially when I have this kind of challenge. I want to prove that I’m here because there’s a reason why I’m here. I have the skills, I have experience, I am very good at building relationships and to me, that’s key to succeed in the sport.
I know that it’s not always easy, and we have a lot of work to do in cycling. One of the things I would like to achieve in my position is to foster those relationships and bring people together and work together in unison as much as possible.
Ella: How many women are working at the UCI today?
AL: Good question. We have many women. We have more than 40 women out of 87 staff. The problem is that the majority of these women don’t have high level positions, they are not in top-tier management. There are but a few of them. That’s also something I need to work on — it’s one of my main objectives to bring more women into top management positions at the UCI.
I am personally involved with the work of the Women’s Commission and for the next four years we are building up a strategy to address this. I really want to start with the UCI because we have the chance to be an example to national federations, to teams and organisers. And we are working very hard on this topic.
In the past few years we focused on the formation of the UCI Women’s WorldTour and now it’s time to focus on governance and leadership.
Ella: Tell me a little bit more about this women’s development plan.
AL: So we have a few projects in mind. First, as it relates to what we have already talked about, is a women’s policy at the UCI. I really want, for the first time in an international sporting federation, a policy that states, in black on white, that women staff have to earn the same salary as men.
I also want to support as much as I can the change UCI President David Lappartient wants in the way people are selected to be members of management committee of the UCI, which means we will have to add more criteria based on universality, gender priority and so on. So, it’s certainly not all based on gender but currently there are only two women on the UCI Management Committee — Tracey Gaudry, president of Oceanian Confederation and Katerina Nash, president of the UCI Athletes’ Commission. I believe her election by her peers is a great signal for the development of women’s cycling. In the future I would like to see more women involved in our Management Committee, at least three or four members out of 17. It will take some time but let’s say that in eight years’ time, four members are women.
We also need more woman presidents of national federations and confederations. So we need to focus on training more women, and that’s where we, the UCI, can be useful.
Another topic that has been in the news these past few weeks is podium girls. We don’t want to prevent women from being on the podium, but we do want to structure it. We want to have a framework, a protocol, to make sure that all people are respected.
For me, personally, a woman kissing a man on the podium doesn’t bring any added value [to the spectating experience]. But we don’t want to say that you can’t have any women, any hostesses on the podium either. It’s important to me that everyone involved is respected.
Some protocol around podium celebrations will be implemented this year, Lanaya said. It’ll start with UCI events like the UCI World Championships and UCI WorldTour races and then trickle down into all international events.?
Ella: A lot has happened in the 12 years that you have been at the UCI. In your opinion, how is the sport doing today?
AL: I think that cycling is growing a lot in terms of visibility thanks to live streaming and social media. Also because of new champions like Sagan or new disciplines like BMX Freestyle, our sport is attracting a new generation of fans. Let’s be honest, cycling used to be watched by old(er) people and thanks to these characters, spectacular events and social media we are reaching a younger audience.?
Also with the UCI, we have been investing a lot of resources in social media and videos and we have never before reached this level of visibility before in terms of our events.
Ella: When it comes to the women’s side of the sport, there are two different trains of thought. One is saying we should approach the women’s sport the same way as cycling has always been approached, and grow it alongside the men’s side of the sport. The other idea is to approach women’s cycling a little differently, as it’s own, and have stand-alone practices, policies and events. What is your opinion?
AL: It is my personal view that women’s cycling has to be coupled with men’s cycling. We have strong races for the men and we need to take advantage of these strengths and these races to promote women’s cycling alongside them. In my opinion, we should have WorldTour teams with both a women’s and men’s component, and race organisers should have an event for both. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel.
Ella: How far off are we from seeing the women’s sport be financially sustainable?
AL: We are far off. But we are investing in a sustainable future.
First, we equalised prize money at our championship events, and we acknowledge that we have to do something about minimum salaries for women. We have to regulate this and professionalise the teams and the sport — and that is a project we are actively working on.
We are working with UCI Women’s WorldTour teams to set strict criteria and that’s something you’ll start seeing as early as next year. But we are far from financial stability and it takes a long-term strategy to address that.
In terms of publicity, at least for the UCIWWT, we have all the races either live or with highlights. That is something we are creating, and pushing the organisers on. Visibility is very important to us and we have invested a lot of money in social and videos and will continue to invest in the future.
But it cannot all come down to one stakeholder, we need the media, race organisers and public entities [like RedBull Media House does for XC mountain biking for example] to invest as well.
Ella: What advice do you have for women reading this. How would you encourage them to pursue careers at sports governing bodies?
AL: If I can give advice to a woman who wants to succeed in a sport, I’d say be confident in yourself and your abilities. If I had listened to other people’s opinions or even advice, I wouldn’t be here speaking to you today. You have to trust in yourself.
I think as women, we always think we can be better or aren’t as good as others. But we are! What is lacking is courage. We don’t dare to make demands, we don’t dare to ask for positions, don’t dare to ask for promotions.
That’s why I always say to myself and to my little one to be self-confident, to dare and to trust only one person, herself.
… So then, to go back to your earlier mentioned example of fetching coffee, would you go get the coffee and serve them the best darn cup of coffee they ever had, or do you say ‘no, get your own coffee’?
Al: To be honest, if someone asks me to serve them coffee, I wouldn’t do it. No, because if you do it, you show him in a way that you are there for that. I know it’s also about being polite but at a certain point you have to choose between being polite and being seen as someone there only to serve a coffee.
Ella: What is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started working in cycling?
AL: Everything is about building relationships. You can be the most clever man or a woman but if you don’t have the support of key people in cycling, you can’t succeed. If you don’t have a connections with people or a network in cycling, you can’t succeed. So start by building relationships.
Ella: Do you have any aspirations to be the next UCI president?
AL: No. To be honest with you, when I arrived 13 years ago, I never imagined being Director General some day.
I’m already very happy to own this position. I want to do a good job. I want to bring harmony to the UCI and solve problems through contacts, through sharing my experiences — both good and bad — and my knowledge. I really want to change this part of the sport because it was too male dominated for too long, I think. I hope with me, it will change a little bit as I will bring more women into leadership as well.