Spare a Thought for Women in Highly-Gendered Sports

I have been thinking a lot lately about how sports perceived as “more for girls” are undervalued, even in sports where they dominate.

In North America, at least, the vast majority of amateur equestrians are girls and women, yet the story is much different at the elite level. Since 1964 women and men have competed together at the Olympics, but no woman has won a gold in show jumping or eventing, though almost as many women as men have won at dressage. Dressage is widely seen as the “girliest” of the disciplines.

A consequence of this may have been the undervaluing of equestrian as a “real” sport. No, the horse doesn’t do all the work; riding is intense and demanding, and it requires strength and bravery as well as athleticism, a good connection with the horse, and many many hours of hauling tack, shoveling manure, and getting 400-600 kg horses to go where you want, even when you aren’t riding. The size of the rider doesn’t seem to be a major factor; the key is how well they can manage their horse.

Other sports have also suffered from male flight (the term for men and boys being less likely to enter a domain once it becomes associated with femininity). They include cheerleading, which was a male sport as valued as football before women took it on during WWI, gymnastics, figure skating, dance and artistic (formerly synchronized) swimming.

These athletes all must all be strong and flexible; most compete in close formation so precision matters, and artistic swimmers do half of their their four-minute routines under water. Concussions and other injuries are common. But because they are women-dominated sports where costumes and make-up have a role, they are routinely mocked as not being true sports. Interestingly, all, including equestrian, are places that have traditionally been more welcoming of LGBTQ+ athletes, as well.

However, the most egregious undervaluing of women’s sport this week was at the men’s World Cup.

Soccer is not gendered at the early stages of learning the game; over 40% of all players in Canada are girls, and boys and girls play together on the same teams. As they age and become more skilled, the girls and women are relegated to a distant second place in the minds of some (check out Wikipedia to see just how little attention the women get). At the same time, the most-watched event of the 2020 Olympics in Canada was the gold medal women’s soccer game won by Canada, led by Christine Sinclair. Sinclair is the world’s all-time leading international play goal scorer among both men and women, and the second player in history to score in five World Cups (after Brazilian legend Marta).

The Canadian women have played in every women’s World Cup since 1995, reaching 4th place in 2003. They scored twice in their very first game in 1995, against England. In total, they have scored 34 goals. So when a TSN sportscaster gushed about the first goal for Canada at the men’s World Cup the “greatest moment in Canadian soccer history” while sitting beside Janine Beckie, a member of gold medal Olympic team, it’s not surprising this was her reaction:

Woman with long blonde hair and a black sweater holds a microphone while seated in a broadcasting studio. There is a crowded stadium in the background. The woman has an extremely sceptical look on her face.
Janine Beckie gives her co-host some well-deserved side-eye.

We all need to be more like Janine Beckie, every time we hear such nonsense.

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She grew up watching or attempting every one of these sports, and still does some of them, so she knows just how hard they are.

fitness · inclusiveness

Gender is weird, or Sam’s first reflections on her fancy new gym

So I’ve joined a fancy gym. You know, the kind with fitness classes you book online using an app, wood paneling, gentle upbeat music in the lobby, and a coffee/juice bar. There are even blow dryers and mirrors with good lighting for getting ready for work after your workout.

I actually appreciate the app but the rest of it isn’t anything I need in a gym. My usual workout spaces are university gyms, the Y, or, for a time, a CrossFit box (as they say.)

I’m there because they have a pool and aquafit classes but also spin classes and hot yoga, a decent weight room, and a sauna and a hot tub. It’s lovely really and I’m spoiling myself during my winter of mostly indoor exercise as I rehab the left knee after surgery and pre-hab the right one before it too is surgically replaced.

One thing about these kinds of mainstream fitness spaces that I find jarring is that they do gender in ways that aren’t usually part of my world.

What do I mean by that?

Well, it’s not just the change rooms.

They also have a women’s fitness room within the gym. It’s not as nice as the main gym. There aren’t as many options. Likely I won’t ever use it. It looks like lots of women do though. But it also means there are fewer women in the general weightlifting area. So a space that can feel male dominated feels even more male dominated because some women opt for the women only space. And then, as a result, more women opt for the women only space. I find that frustrating.

I get that you want to include women who for religious reasons can’t exercise around men but the upshot for the rest of us isn’t positive. And it’s certainly not positive for those people who identify as gender non-binary.

There’s a webcam from the fitness center daycare to the women’s only fitness space that got me wondering about dads who bring their kids to the on-site day care while they work out. It’s like when there are infant change tables only in the women’s washrooms. I’m not sure if there is a web cam of the daycare accessible from the main fitness room or the men’s locker room. My guess is no.

I was happy to see though that the aquafit classes that take place in the women only pool are more gender inclusive. They’re open to women and gender non binary members. There are also ‘open to everyone’ aquafit classes in the regular pool. I’m glad because lots of guys have injuries that could benefit from exercising in the water.

Non binary aqua bootcamp class description

I’ve been feeling more and more that I don’t belong in women only spaces. It’s not that I don’t identify as a woman. I do. But lots of the people I want to spend time with don’t. I don’t want to be in spaces that exclude them. Lots of my friends identify as gender queer or gender fluid or gender non binary and it feels different excluding them than it does excluding cis men.

I’m still thinking lots about this and I’m not sure what this means for me and my future in women only environments. I used to think it was okay as long as they were trans inclusive but that’s no longer enough for me, I think. And it’s not that I don’t think there should be such spaces but I am wondering more and more about my place in them.

Juice bar image from Unsplash

fitness · inclusiveness · running

Are women’s feet special?

I shared the following article to Facebook, Finally, Women’s Running Shoes Are Being Made for Women’s Feet, not sure what to think about it.

On the one hand, what’s special or different about women’s feet? On the other, if all running shoes–even women’s running shoes–are based on models of men’s feet, that may be a problem.

I’ve written about gendered cycling shoes in this post here on the blog, Is women’s specific anything just a bad idea? What’s the issue? If women’s cycling shoes are narrower then some men, those with narrow feet, will end up needing to buy women’s shoes. Some women, those with wide feet, will end up buying men’s shoes. But, I asked in that piece, why even bother with the gendered labeling? Why not just call them wide and narrow shoes?

I love my Pride Hunter rainboots which come just like that, no gendered sizing, just wide and narrow.

I came to this point because I’m a woman who rides a men’s bike. A men’s bike just fits people with short legs and long torsos better. And guess what? That’s me.

And you know, I wouldn’t think it would bug me but it does. Each time I go to buy a bike someone in a bike shop, or a well meaning friend, recommends a women-specific frame. I have to tell them that it won’t work. As far as bikes go, I’m a dude since all women’s frame means is longer legs WHICH I DON’T HAVE. Grrrr. It’s a very minor exclusion in the grand scheme of things but it grates.

I don’t mind that the men’s and women’s bikes sometimes come packaged with different components and the men’s bike is the better deal.

What about running shoes? How different are men’s and women’s feet really?

“Shoes are designed around foot-shaped molds called lasts, which dictate the fit and feel as well as the aesthetics and proportions. For a long time, those lasts were based only on molds of men’s feet. But “female feet … are not algebraically scaled, smaller versions of male feet, as is often assumed,” a study in the Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association declared way back in 2009. As a result, more and more brands started using female lasts based on the mold of a woman’s foot. For what it’s worth, some have opted for unisex lasts—an approach Katie Manser, the Supervisor of Research Operations at Heeluxe Footwear, an independent shoe research lab, dismisses. “There’s no such thing as a unisex foot—it’s anatomically a man’s foot or a woman’s foot,” she explains.”

But again, I’m not sure this gets it right. There may not be a ‘one size fits all’ foot but it seems unlikely all women have similar feet, or that the difference between men’s and women’s feet will be larger than the differences between different women’s feet.

The article I shared goes on to describe all of the different ways in which women’s feet differ from men’s but in each case there’s likely lots of variability between women. Also worth noting that some women were assigned male at birth and lots of people don’t identify as male or female at all.

In the end that article acknowledges that it’s not really about gender, it’s about variety and fit.

“The more knowledge you have about your body, the more empowered you are to make a decision regarding what you put on it. At the end of the day, the best shoe for you—no matter your gender—is the shoe that feels most comfortable on your feet. “

And with that, I think we can all agree.

Thanks to Christopher Sardegna @css for making this photo available freely on Unsplash 🎁