Are Women-Only Races Sexist? No. Are They Good for Women? Yes.

bigstock-Water-Start-1455231In July, Sam and I are taking part in the Kincardine Women’s Triathlon.  It’s a women’s only event that happens annually.  The founder, Janet Bannerman, established the race to raise money for the local community and

 “to give the women the opportunity to have a race where they could feel empowered. They could compete against other women and feel comfortable.”

We might react more negatively to races for men only, wondering why they were excluding women. We might even go so far as to say that they are sexist because they discriminate against women.  Why should we regard women-only races any differently? To answer this question, we need to think about the reason for them.

The idea of spaces for women only has been around for a long time.  Author Virginia Wolff talked about the need for women to have “a room of their own.” She reasoned that the women of her day had been discouraged from pursuing an education, let alone having careers as writers, because only boys were expected to produce art or seek employment that might require an education.

In the sixties and seventies feminists sought refuge from the demands of patriarchy by setting up women-only spaces.  Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Shelters often conceive of themselves as providing women-only spaces where women can feel safe from the threat of violence from male partners and family members.

Girls-only schools and women-only colleges and universities are premised on the often contested yet enduring idea that girls and boys, women and men have different learning styles and that girls and women are more likely to thrive when they are not sharing their learning space with men. Why are they more likely to thrive? Numerous reasons get cited, from same-sex schools having fewer “distractions” once the kids enter adolescence (if they’re straight kids, that is, which most of the research assumes) to girls-only or women-only environments providing them with more opportunities to participate and to lead.

They also assume that boys and men are more competitive, or at least that girls and women compete differently, less aggressively, than boys and men.  Whether or not that’s true, it’s widely assumed.

There is a great deal of evidence in the research on implicit bias that in co-ed environments, boys and men are taken more seriously in classrooms, tend to dominate discussion, get called on more frequently by their instructors.  This sends the subtle message that they have more of a right to be there. In a girls-only or women-only context, this tendency to pay more attention to the men cannot occur.

The reasoning for women-only and girls-only spaces flows from the assumption that they have been structurally and systemically disdvantaged by a society that implicitly privileges men. [this is not to say that male privilege is the only sort of privilege operating in our world — we might also note the existence of white privilege, class privilege, non-disabled privilege — for now I’d like to focus on gender].  Creating opportunities for women as a systemically disadvantaged group is not the same as doing the same for men, who already enjoy social privilege and entitlement in all sorts of public arenas, including sports.

Does the idea that women might thrive more easily in scenarios where men are taken out of the equation translate over into the women’s only racing events?  The founder of the Kincardine Triathlon says it gives women a race in which they can feel empowered and feel comfortable.  Other women’s only triathlons promote the idea of “racing with your friends” and “celebrating women’s sport with the beginner in mind.” It’s less about competition and more about solidarity.

Sam has written about women-only cycling events, such as the Cupcake Ride and Heels on Wheels. One of her reservations about these events was the way they associate women on bikes with femininity rather than focusing on athleticism.  She acknowledges that if that’s what gets women out on bikes, then so be it, but laments the downplaying of cycling as a physically demanding sport.

The women’s triathlons that position themselves as fun events where women can feel empowered and comfortable don’t include pink cupcakes and high heels. In this respect, they focus on the triathlon as sport. Nevertheless, they down play the competitive aspect.

The “Race for Life” (a run to fundraise for cancer research) in the UK has a page on its website that addresses the issue of “women-only” for its event:

“We regularly review our events to make them the best they can be. Two years ago, we seriously investigated the possibility of including men in Race for Life. However, our research shows that a significant number of our Race for Life supporters would strongly prefer to keep it a female-only event as it is a unique opportunity for women to come together in a non-competitive environment within an atmosphere of ‘sisterhood’.”

Why is an event with only women attractive to women? This question has more than one answer.

I confess that in my own case, the idea of a triathlon is pretty intimidating. If I had to compete in the same race as men and women, I might feel just that much more intimidated. Why? It’s more of an attitude than anything else, hard to generalize about without seeming to stereotype. I’m more comfortable doing poorly in the company of women only. I don’t mind as much if I mess up, if I completely blow the cycling part of the race (which I fear is just what will happen), or if I take too long to make the transition from the swim to the bike ride.

I feel as if my women friends are more likely to say “great job!” regardless of my actual performance.  I know at least a few men who would be more inclined to say, in a well-meaning yet still demoralizing way, “you could have done better than that!”

As an aside, women aren’t always supportive and can also say the wrong thing in a way that hurts.  When I told a woman friend of mine who used to be quite competitive in 5K races what my time was in my first 5K, she laughed, or rather scoffed.  I immediately jumped in an felt the need to defend myself: “I wasn’t really competing. I just wanted to try it, with the goal of finishing the race.”

But generally speaking, a woman-only environment feels more like a “safe space” for taking risks. As I noted earlier, there’s a long tradition of women-only or girls-only spaces. We’ve spoken a lot on the blog about the statistics about sport. Women in general tend to be less represented in sports from crossfit to triathlons.  Certain areas of the gym, such as the weight room, tend to attract fewer women.  As philosophers, Sam and I like to press these facts and ask “why?”

One answer to the question of “why?” has to do with the kinds of expectations we have for girls and boys that lead us to socialize them a certain way. I wrote a whole post about why deeper social meaning of the color pink can be harmful to women. Ideals of femininity include soft, nurturing, supportive, non-competitive, and, more perniciously, weak and uncoordinated (as we see in the fact that “throwing like a girl” is an insult).

These assumptions about femininity have an impact on social expectations of girls and women and, in turn, on what we expect of ourselves.  So some of us enter these arenas (e.g. the gym, the track, the velodrome, the triathlon) with caution.  They tend to be dominated by men and we don’t always feel welcome.  We’ve blogged about this here.

Women-only events are a great middle ground between acknowledging that women are also entitled to engage in these activities, on the one hand, and that for many women these are new pursuits that might feel intimidating, on the other hand.  Participating with women only helps to take the edge off just a little.  And since few of us have fully escaped our socialization into at least some feminine qualities, these sorts of events do tend to be supportive and empowering. That makes them more fun and less stressful.

At the same time, I’m wary of spending too much time celebrating the idea that women don’t like competition or that we compete differently (in a more friendly way? in a way that is more concerned with how our co-competitors feel? in a less aggressive way? I’m not sure that’s always been my own experience competing with other women.). I’ve blogged about why competition can be a good thing for women. We don’t have to crush our opponents or relish in their defeat, but we can enjoy winning.

Competition can be healthy and enjoyable. We expect men to engage in it, but women should engage in it too.  Races are a great opportunity to do just that.  If women-only races, such as the Kincardine triathlon that we’ve signed up for, encourage more of us to engage in these sports they play a positive role.

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