This is a post I found a bit hard to write, so stay with me. If you’ve ben around for awhile you’ll know I have some big thoughts on issues around women in sport. My career is built around understanding the experiences and identities of women in sport, the barriers to participation and educating others about these issues. I am outspoken, and passionate, but I am also an academic and am trained to be critical and reflective about issues and, especially, my own thoughts. Earlier this week there was an explosion of comment on social media about the introduction of an Iron Girl race as part of the IMUK weekend in Bolton. A sister event to Ironman, Iron Girl is (at least in Bolton) a woman only 5km that will run parallel to Ironman Bolton. As you can imagine this provoked a lot of feelings. People were outraged about nearly every aspect of the event, and when I first heard about it so was I. In many respects I still am, but I also want to understand WHY the event organisers made the choices they did about this event. Yes it could just be out and out sexism, but I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and consider how gender ideology might be at play.
The Science Part
A quick refresher on gender ideology. Gender ideology in sport is pervasive. I would argue that modern sport is a symbol of masculinity that creates a powerful form of sexism in society. As a result women's participation is deemed inappropriate and unwelcome outside of narrow parameters designed to protect the interests of men. While historically the exclusion of women has been based on biological facts, it can be argued that social and cultural ideas around gender roles and behaviour in society play a greater role. Ideology around gender is problematic and impacts on how we think about our selves and others, creating inequalities.
It is vital through all of this to remember how our own experiences and lens on the world. Just because we’d have no problems entering an Ironman doesn’t mean that everyone would have the same confidence. Arguably women who are already heavily involved in sport are the exception, and there are many more people who see the idea of participation in a very different light and who experience other barriers to their participation.
Now to pick apart Iron Girl…
This is probably the element that caused the most contention on my Twitter feed. Iron Girl is aimed at women over 16, yet it refers to them as girls, a phrase that is both infantilising and patronising when directed at adults. Think about it, the statement 'throwing like a girl' has become synonymous the the idea that if you're doing something like a girl, then you're doing it the wrong way. It's an insult. A slight. It emphasises the idea that for sport to be legitimate it must encompass masculine traits. Statements like this perpetuate the idea women's sports are second rate, it trivialises it and undermines steps towards equality. It can be argued that the use of negative language can also be seen as re-emphasising the repressive stereotype that women aren't as good at sports as men, thus perpetuating the idea that endurance events like an Ironman just aren’t for women because they’re not as athletic as their male peers.
So far, so fair. However my question is why isn’t the community as outraged by the idea of This Girl Can? The concerns are just the same - I’ve written about them before, and even lifted some of the arguments I’ve made above from this post. Yes the world is much more awake to this type of causal sexism than it has ever been, but This Girl Can is still praised with little thought given to its name.
Bottom line, if we’re going to criticise events and initiatives for using phrases that infinities and patronise women lets be consistent.
Ironman is actually just a brand which offers a variety of different races, but the longest is 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 mile cycle with a marathon as a finisher. Iron Girl is a 5km fun run. They are starkly different events and the gendered nature of Iron Girl has provoked anger at the idea the event is suggesting women aren’t up to or for the more arduous Ironman events. I can understand this, but I don’t think it’s the organiser’s intention. Iron Girl is aimed at a very different crowd to the Ironman, outside of the UK it offers sprint distance triathlons and is designed to encourage and empower women in sport, not to tell them they’re not good enough to do an Ironman. It is arguably an effort to increase the diversity of events on offer over the IMUK weekend. It is disappointing that Iron Girl aren’t offering more than a fun run, it would’ve been good to see a sprint triathlon on offer and hopefully this will be the case in future years.
Bottom line, I’d argue that we should think of the events as a gateway to an active lifestyle, after all many of us started our careers by taking part in a fluffy fun run like Race for Life, Iron Girl isn’t really that different.
Women only events are polarising, but personally I think that women only spaces are important. Ideology is taken for granted in society. It's a form of cultural logic that we use to make sense of the world. This is especially true in relation to gender, and as a result it can be hard to transcend traditional assumptions about difference between genders and the notion that sport is a traditionally masculine domaine. We know that fewer women then men participate in sport, and Sport England has suggested that this isn’t because women don’t want to participate, but because they’re afraid of people judged when they do. This is where gender ideologies come in - while as a society we're pretty on board with the idea of women getting physical, we've still got pretty traditional ideas about what 'appropriate' behaviour looks like, and some sports are more 'appropriate' than others. As ideology is ingrained it can be hard to persuade women that they can breach the boundaries of what is perceived as appropriate, and to persuade men to allow them into these spaces. In fact, if you are a woman in sports that aren’t traditionally considered feminine then you’ve done something pretty radical by pushing against established ideology, and not everyone has the confidence or support to do that.
Ironman is a particularly macho brand (the cut offs! the tattoos! the bravado!) and arguably an event like Iron Girl which is marketed as less aggressive could introduce women who haven’t previously been active or who may have been put off by the image of events like Ironman. It has been argued that this logic is flawed because the people who would hear about Iron Girl have some sort of link to the Ironman community (perhaps a friend or partner who is participating) and therefore are less likely to be put off, but I’m not so sure. It looks like the 5km is being supported by Bolton council and marketed outside of the endurance sports world. Even then, we can’t assume that those who have connections into the Ironman world would necessarily consider these events within their grasp.
Again, we can arguably think of these events as a gateway to an active lifestyle or participation in competitions, and they could be a key stepping stone to participation in mixed events for some women. Of course there are great mixed events that are perfect for those who’ve never taken part in something like this before, but I see it as positive that a wide variety of events are available to meet everyone’s needs.
Really no comment here other than it is shit. Pink. Insipid. With a butterfly. Grim.
I know I sound like a wonk when I say this, but the issues surrounding women in sport and participation are complex, and there are no easy answers (if there were I wouldn’t have a job. So on reflection maybe I am a bit bias). We continue to struggle against sticky ideological issues and it is right that we draw attention to and discuss these, but we also need to be balanced and from time to time work with the system to benefit our long term aims. There is a lot not to like about the way Iron Girl is presented, and I think the recent discussion across social media have made that clear to Ironman, but there is also value in events like this if they are successful in reaching women who may not have engaged in sport otherwise. I will be curious to see how Iron Girl goes in July, but for now I’ll be mindfully critical while also seeing the potential benefits.
Many thanks to the glorious Lisa for her input on this one, I couldn’t have written it without her. Read all her thoughts on all sort here.
* image: Anna Rachel Photography