I have been very lucky, in all my years of doing various sports, that I’ve never really encountered sexism. No “women can’t run marathons,” no “it’ll make you bulk up” when I’ve been lifting weights in the gym, and definitely no patronising bike shop mechanics (special shout-out to Stirling Cycle Repairs who are beyond lovely and always take the time to educate me even when I’ve done something stupid!).
I don’t deny, however, that sexism in sports – particularly professional sport – is rife. Look at the paltry media coverage of women’s sport, the vast differences in salaries paid to sportsmen and sportswomen and the discrepancies in prize money in many sports. Things do seem to be improving, but there is still a huge amount of inequality out there. In particular, there are still various sports where women race over a shorter distance than men. There’s an interesting article here on the BBC which highlights a few examples – apparently women can compete in a 10k marathon swim, but can’t swim 1500m freestyle at the Olympics!
I don’t really want to get into the pros and cons of all this – in fact, I’m not really knowledgeable to make an informed argument about whether women should, for instance, be allowed to compete over the full distance of the Tour de France (although I’m inclined to think, why not?). I’m offering it as the background against which women come into sport. I’ve been pretty lucky coming into long-distance running and then triathlon, both of which are fairly equitable sports (although not entirely without controversy).
Yesterday I was due to race for Stirling Triathlon Club in our local cross-country league. I’d never run a cross-country race before, and upon looking up the race information on Friday night, I was surprised to see that women were only to run 6k, while the men raced over 9k. Several people assured me that this was normal in cross-country, and a few told me to be glad that I wasn’t running the full, gruelling, 9k course.
Actually, I don’t care what distance I run. I don’t care whether the course is 6k or 9k. I don’t care that I would have been at the back of the field either way.
What I care about is that by discriminating between male and female competitors, amateur sports are sending out a message that women’s races are less important. That women are weaker than men. That my race is a less important race than the men’s race.
Earlier during the year, during my first foray into crit racing, I thought about doing a local crit series. What put me off was someone telling me that the women raced over a smaller circuit than the men (with tighter turns and poorer quality road surface), and that the women didn’t get chip timing, while the men did.
I didn’t enter the series this year. I might next year; I need the practice. But I will still be left with the feeling that I am not valued as much as a man in that event.
I didn’t run yesterday. I’m sure it would have been a fun day, competing with my club. But I would have had, all day, the sneaking feeling that, in the world of cross-country, I am viewed as less important, less strong, than my male clubmates.
If we want full parity between men’s and women’s sports, it has to come at all levels. Making women feel undervalued is going to put them off competing, and we can’t afford that. Not if we want equality.