The title of this blog is a quote from vice-chair of the South African Women’s Basketball Association, Kornelia Semmelink, at the South African Women and Sport Foundation last week, courtesy of Dr. Sheree Bekker, who researches gender-inclusive sport.
I follow Dr Bekker on Twitter, and here are a few more of her thoughts from that conference:
“Which actions/measures must we take to enforce long lasting changes in women and sport? Huge focus on building and supporting next generation leadership, transparency, values, and a national policy that has teeth.”
A national policy that has teeth might be something like Title IX in the USA. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, Title IX was established in 1972 to provide everyone with equal access to any program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance, including sports. This means that federally funded institutions, such as public schools, are legally required to provide girls and boys with equitable sports opportunities. Before Title IX, one in 27 girls played sports. By 2016, that number was two in five.
Dr Bekker also noted “Let’s remember that it’s not only about elite sport. It’s about community sport, organizations, sport for social good, health and peace.”
That point led me to recall past efforts to encourage sport for all children as part of international development efforts. While those efforts seem to have faded away, I did come across an article prepared for a side event to the Women Deliver international conference in 2016. It was on the power of girls’ involvement in play.
Here’s what Women Deliver had to say: “The evidence is clear that sport and physical activity provide a myriad of physical and mental health benefits….perhaps equally important, sport represents a mold-breaking departure from the traditional scripts of femininity that girls are often given. Well-designed programs can begin to transform gender norms, challenge traditional roles, and break down gender stereotypes.
By increasing girls’ visible, active presence in the public arena, sport can transform the way girls think about themselves and the ways their family and communities perceive them. In short, sport can be an empowering force in girls’ lives….We know that sport provides girls’ access to female mentors and role models, as well as an expanded network of friends, group membership, and social capital. These connections are extremely valuable and often lacking for girls in many settings.”
As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of this blog, these reflections remind me of what drew me to it in the first place. Though it started out as a blog about being as fit as possible by 50, it has morphed into something much more. Here’s to another 10 years of reflection and advocacy for the rights of people who identify as girls and women to enjoy sports and healthy lives.
Lia Thomas’ recent win at the NCAA swim meet has sparked another round of debate about the rights of transgender athletes to participate in sports.
Here is what Sarah Sardinia wrote on Twitter: To all those pushing this false narrative that Trans People have an advantage in sports, and are using Lia Thomas as “proof”, let me lay down some stats here …
1650 yard distance Lia pre-transition: 14:54.765 Lia post-transition: 15:59.71 (lost 65 seconds) Male record: 14:12.08 (Kieran Smith) Female record: 15:03:31 (Katie Ledecky) She was 40 seconds behind the male record, now she is 56 behind the female
500 yard distance Lia’s best pre-transition, 4:18:72 Lia’s current, 4:34:06 Female record (Katie Ledecky), 4:24:06 Male record (Kieran Smith), 4:06:32
200 yard distance Prior to transition 1:39.31 Male record, 1:29.15 After transition 1:41.93 Female record of 1:39.10
See a pattern here? Not advantage, consistency
There’s a reason that with all the Trans Women competing in sports for years, she is one of the only top ranking ones, because she’s always been one of the top ranking. You can read more here about the data.
To put it another way:
And those images really need to be juxtaposed with the next one, which includes a photo of Olympic champion Katie Ledecky. Katie is 6 feet tall, which makes her one inch shorter than Lia, and two inches shorter than Missy Franklin, who set that NCAA 200 yard record in 2015. There is a lot of talk about how height, and size, and arm span give men natural advantages over women. Swimmers like Michael Phelps have natural advantages, including height, huge feet and flexibility, arm reach, long torsos and relatively short legs. That’s true both among men and women.
The reality is that the vast majority of youth athletes of any gender don’t compete at the elite level. However, even as amateur athletes they face discrimination, so few participate, especially trans girls. A recent Reuters article noted that “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2019 that just 1.8% of high school students in the country are transgender, and the Human Rights Campaign has said that, according to surveys, only about 12% play on girls’ sports teams.”.
Some do do compete as boys or men without too much attention, such as Schuyler Bailar, the first openly trans swimmer in the NCAA men’s first division, and Chris Mosier, the first openly trans athlete to qualify for Team USA and who competed in the Olympic Trials in January 2020. Others, such as Mack Beggs, the Texas high school wrestler forced to compete against girls even after starting to take testosterone, are forced into the same unwelcome spotlight as Lia Thomas. By focusing so much on biology and physiology, the impact is the dehumanization of those kids.
Lots more research is needed on the impact of hormones on performance, and there are legitimate concerns about putting competitors of significantly different sizes/abilities in the same categories when there is a risk of injury. The Christian Science Monitor has done a decent job of trying to summarize the latest research and how it is interpreted. But the bottom line for me and most of the people I know can be summarized like this:
Recently the Toronto Star ran an article about women’s hockey at the Olympics, with the conclusion that it shouldn’t be there because only the American and Canadian teams are serious contenders. Not everyone shares this view.
I agree with The Gist. I grew up in the era when girls’ and women’s hockey was in its infancy. I wanted to play, but wasn’t allowed. Instead, I have watched the game grow from the sidelines, cheering on the women every time I knew they were playing.
My biggest thrill when visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame was seeing Hayley Wickenheiser’s jersey on display. When my son played in a league during a Winter Olympics year, the motivational speech was to get out there and play like girls. They knew that meant to skate hard, play as a team, and keep their sticks on the ice. And win the game if at all possible.
Women’s hockey is still growing in other countries, but it is getting increasingly competitive as more girls and women take up the sport. We absolutely should not shut down their opportunity to grow the game. We didn’t do that for men’s hockey in the early days, or basketball, which is now completely dominated by the American NBA players.
The Canadian and American teams will meet on Wednesday in the gold medal game. I’ll be cheering for the Canadians, of course. But I’ll also be keeping an eye on Switzerland and Finland as they face off for the bronze. I’m willing to bet it will be pretty great hockey too.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is still a hockey mom to her grown son, and a recovering Toronto Maple Leafs fan.
Last week, FIFA, the international soccer federation, recognized Christine Sinclair as the greatest goal scorer ever. Period. Male or Female.
Astonishingly, although she has been shortlisted as FIFA player of the year seven times, she has never won that recognition, despite playing in five World Cups and four Olympics (bringing home two bronze medals and a gold). This year, she didn’t even make the final cut.
It was almost two years after she broke the record. She scored her 185th goal in international play back in January 2020. She now has 308, along with 53 assists. She scored her first goal in her second game as a member of the Canadian national team, when she was just sixteen.
Over twenty years later, she is still going strong, playing with both her Portland professional team and the Canadian team. And she is not done. In addition to plans to play at the next Women’s World Cup in 2023, and committing to another two years with Portland, she is pushing for a professional women’s soccer league in Canada. Canada is the only FIFA top 10 ranked country without a professional women’s soccer league.
A pro league wouldn’t solve all the disparities between the men’s and women’s games. But as Sinclair explained just after that gold medal win “We’re hoping that this platform will give us the opportunity to start that change and plead to Canadians that have the ability to make the difference to invest in women. The young little kids, they deserve to be able to go watch their heroes on a week-to-week basis and not [just] every four years.”
Starting a league, or even a team, takes a lot of resources. I get that. But I also note that soccer is the most popular team sport in Canada, with over 750,000 participants in organized programs. It ranks among the most popular sports for girls, and as long ago as 2012, more than 360,000 females played the game (41% of all players).
Approximately 4.4 million Canadians tuned in to watch that gold medal game in Tokyo, making it the most watched event of the Games. It seems to me that there is an audience. I, for one, would love to follow teams regularly, instead of a World Cup of Olympics tournament every few years.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is an enthusiastic watcher of World Cup and Olympic soccer, and looks forward to catching a live game when the Men’s World Cup comes to Canada in 2026. She still regrets missing the Women’s World Cup sole Ottawa game in 2015.
I recently had the opportunity to tramp (that’s what New Zealanders call hiking) the Tongariro Northern Circuit in the Central North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. The TNC is a four-day, three-night 43.1 km loop that partially overlaps with the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The TNC takes place in the shadows and volcanic fields of the mighty active volcanoes Ngāuruhoe (which you may recognise as Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies) and Tongariro. While I had done plenty of day hikes and a handful of overnight trips before, this was my first multi-day trip, and I decided to do it solo. Aotearoa New Zealand has several tramping tracks that are billed as Great Walks, which means they are well-maintained, monitored by rangers, and usually well-equipped as far as huts and campsites go. The TNC is one of those walks, and as such, is well-populated with trampers and rangers alike. That made me feel fine about going solo. I had previously spent a long time wishing I could do something like this, but it wasn’t until I saw these wise words of a kid from the hilarious blog Live From Snack Timethat I decided it was time to go do it: “You can make a wish, but then you have to do the wish. It doesn’t just happen.” I decided it was time to do the wish.
Here’s the thing about tramping in Aotearoa New Zealand compared to other places: pretty much nothing here will kill you except the weather. There are no large predators like bears or mountain lions, there are no snakes, there are no particularly venomous spiders. The water is usually clean and plenty of trampers just go ahead and drink it without treatment and are usually fine. (Note: that’s risky. Don’t do it. Or do. But also, don’t.) What puts people at risk in the New Zealand backcountry is when weather closes in quickly—particularly common in alpine environments—and natural disasters like avalanches, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. (There are also risks like falling and breaking your leg and being unable to get to shelter.) Those are serious risks, and I don’t mean to be flippant about them. You must prepare for them as much as you are able. Now, admittedly, there’s not a whole lot you can do if a pyroclastic flow is headed your way, but I’m of the mind that life is inherently risky, and if the only thing that ever figured into your decisions was how risky an activity was, you’d never get off the couch. That’s not the life I want, so I’m prepared to accept some calculated risks. I went to an outdoor equipment shop and asked for advice from them and from experienced friends, rented and borrowed the gear that I could, bought what I couldn’t borrow, and set out.
The track was absolutely incredible and the trip was well worth it. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to make it happen. The photos don’t capture the scale and vastness of the landscape. They don’t capture that mixed-up feeling of achievement, relief, and “Well, that wasn’t so bad!” that rises up when you arrive at the hut. It’s hard to explain the introspection that goes on when it’s just you, your boots, your pack, and a volcano to keep you company. It was transformative. Really.
But a peculiar thing kept happening while I was tramping, and kept happening after I returned and told people about having gone. People seemed very concerned that I, a woman, was doing this tramp solo. At first, I thought it was a bit funny. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it reflected some weird assumptions people have about women’s ability to manage risk. When I told others about the experience and wondered whether people would have said the same thing about a male soloist, a male friend was quick to tell me that “it wasn’t about gender” (a bold assessment from someone who wasn’t there) and that going solo was “potentially foolhardy.” He’s right, in some sense: the risks of tramping—things like avalanches and volcanic eruptions—aren’t about gender. The volcano does not care about the genders of the trampers walking on it when it erupts. Dehydration and hypothermia don’t care about your gender. Venomous snakes don’t care about your gender. Flash floods don’t care about your gender. I’m totally with him on this one: the risk is not about gender. But if that’s the case, then why were the comments? Why were so many of the comments of the scandalized “A woman, alone?” variety? What is it about being a woman that leads people to assume you can’t look after yourself? (If I sound annoyed, it’s because I am.)
I want to be clear about something: I certainly don’t think I know everything about tramping. I’m still very much a novice and will be for a long time. But I’m a sensible novice: I consulted experts while planning my trip, followed their advice, and did every single thing I possibly could do to mitigate my risk. I left detailed trip and route plans with a trusted contact, and I carried a personal locator beacon, a first aid kit, emergency shelter, all-weather clothing, an extra day’s food, and so on. I also respect the power of nature and know that ultimately, sometimes things go wrong and no amount of preparation can save you from that. Nevertheless, I did what was, by any reasonable metric, a good job of making sure I was going to be okay, barring a volcanic eruption. (And let’s be real, having a buddy isn’t really going to help you much in that situation.) It struck me as odd that my friend immediately concluded that what I was doing was foolhardy, when he knew nothing about the precautions I’d taken, and made no effort to ask.
A couple of women tramper friends of mine say they’ve had similar experiences. One says she, too, finds that people are either amazed or concerned when they find out she’s tramping alone, and that something about it rubs her the wrong way. How about you, fellow women soloists? Have you had this kind of experience? How does it make you feel?
I’ll finish off with this photo of sunrise on the ascent to the Red Crater of Ngāuruhoe. I left my hut dark and early to catch this special sight, all by myself. It was glorious.
Earlier this week the Swiss Supreme Court denied Caster Semenya’s appeal of the IAAF’s decision to impose chemical modifications on the runner. Told in June that she would need to medically reduce the levels of testosterone in her body, Semenya said she would not comply and she launched an appeal of the decision.
The Swiss court had said earlier Semenya could still compete, unaltered, while a final decision was pending, but now the court has reversed that decision.
What that mans is that Semenya cannot compete in her preferred races (800 metres) because the IAAF says she she can only run in her natural state in races less than 400 metres or more than a mile in length.
With the Worlds coming in September and prep for the Tokyo Olympics next summer, there is no time for Semenya to comply with the medical demand (six months in treatment is required before she can race) even if she agreed to do it.
This is a problematic decision on a couple of fronts. One, supposing Semenya agreed to the chemical alteration while the Swiss Court continued its deliberations, if they decide to dismiss the IAAF ruling, she would have undergone medical intervention unnecessarily and perhaps negatively affecting her performance in the long term.
Two, upholding the IAAF ruling as an interim measure already gives the medical intervention some weight as a legitimate approach to dealing with individuals who have higher than expected levels of testosterone and who identify/consider themselves female.
Since the ruling only affects females (there’s no issue with males whose hormone levels don’t fall into the range considered acceptable for men), we have here another example of how medical intervention is being used to manage women’s behaviour.
Don’t get me wrong — I think there is a time and place for medical intervention when warranted. I know many people who have benefited from drug therapy and not only for mental health issues. However, we also know how often medical intervention has been used to control or modify women’s behaviour in the past, from hysteria to forced sterilization.
I think it is worth noting too, that Semenya as a black woman, is also facing a racialized challenge to her physical excellence on the track. While we may think we are more civilized in the 21st century, is the IAAF’s ruling that distant from the gynecological experiment performed on enslaved black women in the 19th century?
The IAF based its decision on limited science as discussed in this CBC article. In many respects, forcing Semenya and other athletes classified as having differences of sexual development (DDS) to undergo medical alteration through drugs is experimentation. While we have evidence documenting the effect of drugs used to aid transition from one sex to another, we have limited evidence on how above average levels of testosterone benefits athletes. To quote my earlier post on Semenya and the IAAF ruling:
There is a lot of disagreement about what the advantage means, and a key part of the legal argument put forward by Semenya’s legal team was the lack of rigour used by the IAAF in setting its standards. The CBC referenced a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal that cited several problems with the IAAF’s own methodology, and most damningly they said the IAAF’s results could not be reproduced:
“… the authors noted the criticisms of an analysis commissioned by the IAAF which found that women whose serum testosterone levels were in the top third performed significantly better than women with levels in the lowest third. Those results, Tannenbaum and Bekker claim, could not be independently reproduced, and the data does not reliably mirror the source track times of athletes from the 2011 and 2013 world championships.”
We should be worried about this latest development in the Semenya case. The value of women’s contribution and performance in sport has been questioned, with the most recent examples being the women’s World Cup in soccer, the Tour de France, and Serena William’s accomplishments in tennis. We should be asking why people, especially the men at the executive levels in sport, are afraid when women aim to be and succeed at being faster, higher, stronger? And yes, sometimes that means you will have someone who dominates a sport, like Semenya in track or Michael Phelps in swimming, but I see no effort to hobble him so others may exceed as they are doing with Semenya. Most importantly, we should be very concerned when courts and official sports bodies are making decisions, not based on science and established evidence, but on fear and emotion.
MarthaFitat55 is a writer based in St. John’s whose rage at injustice often fuels her workouts.
And apparently, it’s been around since at least 2009! Mercifully, I’m to RBF as Sam was to “Camel Toe”— living in a bubble where, until a couple of weeks ago, it wasn’t part of my vocabulary or conceptual scheme.
It’s gained recent prominence again because Bennett’s article came out on August 1st. In it, she says:
For those who need a review, RBF is a face that, when at ease, is perceived as angry, irritated or simply … expressionless. It’s the kind a person may make when thinking hard about something — or perhaps when they’re not thinking at all.
It’s got its origins in a parody of a PSA that talks about “bitchy resting face.” If you want to catch up, here’s the PSA, posted on Youtube in May 2013. Just over 2 years later, it’s had close to 6,500,000 views:
It’s a thing that celebrities are especially vulnerable to scrutiny over, since they are often caught on film and live in the public eye, where the adoring public is always looking for something to criticize about them:
Other celebrities caught in serious repose: January Jones, whose “absolutely miserable” face made headlines this month at a ComicCon event; Tyra Banks, who has famously advised women to “smize” (smile with your eyes); Victoria Beckham; Kristen Stewart; and Anna Paquin, who has defined RBF as “you are kind of caught off guard and you’re not smiling, and it means you look really angry all the time, or like you want to kill people.” (Also, in the less-chronicled male RBF category: Kanye.)
One use for it is to keep people away. As Bennett says, it can serve as a kind of “protective armor.” So that’s on the pro side of the RBF. On the con side, it’s yet another thing that women get criticized for and it can actually work against them. Alarmingly, Bennett says that the NJBiz, a New Jersey business journal, wrote a report on the phenomenon. The journal called around to see what impact this could have in the workplace. They were thinking people would laugh them off the phone. But instead, here’s what they found:
“But, after calling around the state asking more than a dozen C-suite women in multiple industries to weigh in on the subject, we noticed one thing: No one ever scoffed or even asked, ‘Why would this matter?’ ”
It is, indeed, a serious thing. It’s so serious, that cosmetic surgeons are now offering to fix it. This report offers “hope.” Michigan-based cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Youn, says:
“Bitchy resting face is a definite phenomenon that plastic surgeons like myself have described, just never with that term,” he says. “Basically many of us have features that we inherit and/or develop with age that can make us look unpleasant, grumpy, or even, yes, bitchy.”
Youn says many plastic surgeons perform what he calls “expression surgeries,” procedures meant to improve resting facial expressions.
“One procedure I perform in the grin lift, used to turn a permanent frown upside down,” he says. “As we age, some of us – myself included – find that the corners of our mouths droop, giving us a grumpy look. This is usually present with a resting face.”
Aside from a downturned mouth, what makes a face look angry or bitchy?
Youn quickly points to the deep vertical lines between eyebrows (often referred to as 11s) as another culprit that can produce an angry or unhappy vibe. Droopy or overly arched eyebrows can also work to create a wrong impression.
He estimates that he performs about 20 “grin lifts” in a year as well as 100 filler procedures to turn up the corners of the mouth. Botox injections to relax those vertical “11s” are much more prevalent. “I probably do 1,500 of those Botox procedures a year,” he says. “We do a lot. We’re very busy with that.”
Whether you call it “bitchy resting face” or “resting bitch face” makes no difference. What this whole thing says to me is that this is a recycled version of the imperative on women to smile all the time and be cheerful. Here’s something: I don’t have to smile all the time. Neither does Anna Kendrick or Anna Paquin or Kristen Stewart.
Lately, with Renald retiring to live on the boat, I’ve been spending more time walking downtown by myself. I have become aware in recent weeks that I’m on guard — not hyper-vigilant or anything, but always just a little suspicious whenever random men say anything to me, even if it’s as innocuous as asking for the time or commenting on the weather (it happens more than you would think).
In the end I try to be as polite as possible even if it’s mildly alarming that men I don’t know feel it’s okay to engage me in any sort of exchange or conversation of any sort while I’m walking alone, downtown, even after dark. What I would really prefer is to be left alone so I can make it safely and unhindered to my destination.
And this, I think, is where RBF could actually come in handy. Rather than thinking of it as a malady in need of repair, I much prefer the idea that it’s a protective cloak against being approached. And what, I ask, would be wrong with that? That a perfectly good defense mechanism has now been turned against women as a criticism is yet another example of the double bind that we so often find ourselves in. If you look too approachable, you set yourself up for harassment. If you look too unapproachable….you set yourself up for harassment.
Nat’s article two weeks ago about belly patrolling and how the simple act of dressing yourself comfortably on a hot summer day leaves a person vulnerable to all manner of unsolicited “input” (at best) and abuse (at worst) drives home the point that people seem to feel entitled to offer comments willy nilly to women who don’t conform to the expectations of appearance that we have of them.
To me, RBF is one of those things we can and should reclaim. I once heard of a lab on campus where the faculty member in charge was a woman. She posted a sign in the lab that said something along the lines of, “That’s ‘Dr. Bitch’ to you.”
Rather than seeking surgery or botox or some other sort of “corrective” for a resting face that isn’t welcoming or cheerful enough, I think a better stance would be: “Don’t like my RBF? Well f**k you!”
It’s been a horrible week on my Facebook timeline for people drawing body shaming stuff to my attention. First, we get another zinger from Lululemon founder Chip Wilson.
Those poor quality yoga pants, remember the ones that are practically sheer and needed to be recalled? There’s nothing wrong with the pants. It’s just that “some women’s bodies don’t work for the pants.” Say what? Here he is saying that in all seriousness on Bloomberg TV.
And then someone sent me this piece from the Jezebel archives (it’s dated April 11, 2012) about a special vaginal cleaner marketed in India that includes a bleaching agent to lighten vaginas that are “too brown.” Not new, but new to me. What’s especially troubling about this product and its marketing is that the couple in the ad are incredibly light skinned to begin with.
As if vaginal odor, floppy labia, and pubic hair haven’t been constructed into sufficiently unattractive to make women self-conscious about what’s happening down there, now we’re supposed to add color to the list. Here’s what an ad executive said to dismiss people who find the vaginal lightening cream to be offensive and even racist:
It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer-so what’s the problem? I don’t think any Youngistani today thinks the British Raj/White man is superior to us Brown folk. That’s al” ad l 1947 thinking!
The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light. I found this amazing difference when I directed Kabir Bedi, who is very fair and had to wear dark makeup for Othello, the Black hero of the play. I found I had to have a special spotlight following Kabir around the stage because otherwise the audience could not see his expressions.
Good grief, has this man been talking to Chip Wilson or something?
And finally, there is this creepy dude in Venezuela who is so arrogant that he literally takes credit for promoting a beauty norm that has women rushing to go under the knife for breast enhancements, liposuction, and other cosmetic adjustments to their bodies. As Upworthy says, “within 5 seconds you won’t like him” and “by the time he laughs at the end you’ll hate him.”
He says that “inner beauty doesn’t exist. It’s just something that unpretty women have invented.” Why have the unpretty invented “inner beauty”? One reason: “to justify themselves.” Oh, because if a woman does not succeed in being attractive to superficial men who think that outer beauty is all that matters, she cannot justify her existence on the planet?
A couple of things are worth mentioning here. First, there must be a lot of other pressures influencing women in the direction of cosmetic surgery in Venezuela. And also, it’s not as if cosmetic surgery to correct “flaws” is endemic only in Venezuela. So dude can’t take all the “credit.” But that he thinks he can makes him seem awfully sinister.
Venezuela’s wildy mis-proportioned mannequins have made the news lately (see here and here), and some think there’s a relationship between them and the surge of interest in cosmetic surgery.
I can’t say one way or the other whether the link is really there.
But I can say that men like this, who body-shame women and try to convince them that they are somehow inadequate if they do not have surgery to “correct” their natural shape, or that the yoga pants don’t fit because there is something wrong with their bodies, or that they need to lighten the color of their vaginas, should just shut the fuck up. Pardon my language.
Want to get more room on the road while riding your bike? Here’s one way. Have drivers judge that you’re female.
Study after study shows that drivers give more room when passing female cyclists. They also give more room to riders without helmets but that’s another issue.
The original study was done in England by Ian Walker.
“Research suggests drivers tend to believe helmeted cyclists are more serious and less likely to make unexpected moves … the helmet effect seen here is likely a behavioural manifestation of this belief. The gender effect could be the result of female cyclists being rarer than male cyclists in the UK, or it may again be related to drivers’ perceptions of rider experience and predictability.”
His results have since been duplicated in the United States. The US study found that on average drivers passed cyclists more closely when cyclists were dressed in “bicycle attire” and if the cyclist was male. The study was unable to determine the reasons on this passing behavior and the authors of the study speculated that, “it [was] possible that motorists perceived less risk passing riders who were in [a] bicycle outfit.”
It’s a bit of a double edged sword really. Who doesn’t want to be safer riding in traffic? But there’s no explanation of the why of this phenomena that doesn’t give off a whiff of sexism. Some researchers speculate it’s old fashioned chivalry, being nice to the ladies. But others raise the more worrying possibility that it’s because female riders are judged less competent, more wobbly, and less able to hold their line.
And like the implicit bias studies with which philosophers concerned with equity in academia are familiar, the sex of the automobile driver doesn’t matter. Both women and men behind the wheel of a car give female riders more room.
There are lots of example of unequal treatment about which we’re unaware. It’s not like people set out to pass men more closely than they do women. Here’s another example of a very small inequality that’s trivial really, interesting only because no one knows they’re doing it.
In “Ladies First? A Field Study of Discrimination in Coffee Shops” American economist Caitlin Knowles Myers, with her students as research assistants, staked out eight coffee shops in the Boston area and watched how long it took men and women to be served. Her conclusion: “Men get their coffee 20 seconds earlier than do women.” And it’s not just women who wait longer. The researchers found that black women and men wait longer than white women and men, the young wait longer than the old, and the ugly wait longer than the beautiful. (and of course this has nothing to do with who ordered what and the propensity of women to order half caf, soy lattes, no foam, etc. Economists are smart people and they took that into account.)
Originally I thought of the close passing example on analogy with the coffee example. Implicit bias yields small inequality. But I’ve been reading David Benatar’s book Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys and I started to wonder if it’s more serious than that. No one’s died waiting for coffee but cyclists do die when cars pass with insufficient room. Though it’s the kind of accident all cyclists fear fewer than 20 % of car-bike crashes occur this way. That said, the stats on close passing make me wonder if more of those accidents happen to men, proportionally speaking. Benatar has some chilling stats on the higher accidental workplace death rates of men and boys (and not all from risky behavior, as you might want to insist.) It’s a frustrating book in many ways bit certainly what it makes clear is not all victims of implicit bias are female.
This makes me a bit nervous coming into spring. I have broad shoulders and short hair. I might consider a clip on extension ponytail! Wearing pink won’t help as plenty of male cyclists do that and all cyclists shave their legs. There are motorbike helmets with added fake ponytails. Why not bike helmets? The group I rode with last in Australia were the Valkyrie Vikings. Blond braided pigtails maybe?
Since reading the studies, I’ve tried to observe my own behavior as a driver but that turns out to be as tricky as it is in the cases that involve the evaluation of one’s own bias in ranking academic work. It’s surely a case of implicit bias, rather than explicit, since few people would say that they make a conscious decision to give women cyclists more room on the road.
Curious about the phenomena of implicit bias? You can take the Harvard Implicit Association test here and read about the international research group of which I’m a member at the link below. I’m off to Sheffield this week in fact to take part in a group workshop.