Set Up To Fail? Women and Sport Science

Women in Sport Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

One of my biggest passions is advocating for women in sport. I firmly believe that gender ideology around sport undermines women’s participation, whether that’s giving girls the impression that sport isn’t for them, selling the idea of cosmetic fitness above performance or sports science that privileges men.

Writing in The Telegraph, Caroline Criado Perez explains (extremely succinctly) the ways that sports science fails women and draws specific attention to ‘the gender data gap’. The gender data gap is the difference between the amount of data and research we have in relation to women verses the amount we have in relation to men. Where a gender data gap exists we risk drawing conclusions that potentially favour one gender over the other. Caroline outlines a really great example of this in relation to carb-loading (something very close to a lot of runner’s hearts, especially in the run up to London Marathon!):

The general advice for endurance athletes is to carb-load, with at least one expert specifically advising against fat-loading.

But it turns out that this standard pre-race advice is based on studies in men. And it does not hold for women, who have to eat 34 per cent more calories than they usually would to achieve even 50 per cent of the performance benefit men experience from carb-loading. Which may not be an “appropriate strategy” given “the potential deleterious effects on performance” of overeating. Rather, the authors suggest, because women burn more fat than men during endurance exercise, they might be better off fat-loading. Might. We do not know, because, of course, “few studies examining the effects of fat loading […] on performance have included women”.

In short, because of the gender data gap the pre-race nutrition strategy used by a lot of women might actually be undermining their performance. Not cool.

Women and Sport Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

This isn’t to say that the advice to carb-load is necessarily wrong, it just might not be right for women, because the majority of sports science research is carried out on men. More concerning is the impact the gender data gap could have on advice relating to more serious health conditions, which Caroline explores in relation to high blood pressure and highlights that if more sports science research included female participants we might take a different approach to managing this condition in women.

So why does this happen? You’d think scientific rigour would demand thought be put into sample populations when carrying out research, and it probably is, but in my mind the issue comes back to gender ideology. Gender ideology in sport is pervasive, modern sport is a symbol of masculinity and in turn that creates a powerful form of sexism. We see it everywhere, media coverage that is saturated with images of male sporting performance, interviews where female athletes are quizzed about their personal lives over their athletic interests, the challenge of securing coverage for women’s events (and accompanying mutterings that, really, they’re a bit crap). The world around us constantly reinforces the idea that sport is for men, so why would sports science be any different? Academics aren’t infallible, our choices are always informed by our experiences, that is ideology at play.

Women and Sports Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

The challenge in this scenario is that by its very definition ideology is a set of beliefs or principles on which social organisation is based. As I’ve mentioned, in my work I argue that modern sport is a symbol of masculinity which plays out as sexism in society. When I talk about gender in my work I am referring to the socially constructed roles of men and women. In British society gender has historically been categorised based on biological definitions, focusing on the idea that there is a ‘natural’ difference between people in each category. Overlaying this is the idea that men in British society experience privilege, and this is used to determine and justify the difference placed on people in each category.

Sport as we know it emerged during the Victorian era and were very much the domaine of men. They were symbols of masculinity, chauvinism and power. Women for the most part were excluded. If they did engage in sport they were deemed unattractive (aesthetic rationale), acting in opposition to femininity (social rationale) and at risk of endangering themselves psychologically and physically (medical rationale). The belief that there's innate biological and psychological differences between the sexes created a form of sexism so pervasive and powerful that the exclusion of women from sport felt like common sense. And so women’s participation was restricted to whatever activities society (men) felt were acceptable and outside of these narrow parameters was unwelcome.

Women and Sports Science - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

Although we’ve come a long way (and this post explains how), social and cultural ideas about how the genders ought to behave remain pervasive and continue to play a role in the choices we make, for example whether we choose to participate in sport, what sport and to what extent. Arguably ideology has had the effect of protecting sport as a masculine domaine and we are still in the very early days of overcoming this, which could be one of the reasons why there is such a significant gender data gap in sport.

You can help overcome this gap by challenging assumptions, share articles like this one and Caroline’s piece in The Telegraph, participate in sport and share your experiences, go to watch women’s sport, watch women’s sport on TV and encourage others to do the same, support publications that actively promote women’s sport and generally make some noise! If you come across someone who is disparaging help educate them, it’s chipping away that makes change.

*images: Kaye Ford





Iron Girl

Iron Girl - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

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…

The Name

Iron Girl.

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.

The Distance

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

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.

The Branding

Really no comment here other than it is shit. Pink. Insipid. With a butterfly. Grim.

Final Thoughts

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

Crisis Icebreaker at Brockwell Lido

Crisis Icebreaker Cold Water Swimming Challenge - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

F**k. F**k that’s cold. Bloody hell. Christ it’s freezing.

Just a few of the phrases yelped by myself and fellow swimmers as we leapt into Brockwell Lido on Saturday afternoon. It was really bloody cold. And it was raining. And I’d definitely do it again, because it turns out there’s nothing like the rush of immersing yourself in cold water.

Huddled by the side of the pool wearing all the layers I was getting nervous about what I’d signed up for. I’m used to pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but maybe a dip in a freezing pool in the middle of December was a challenge too far. What if I wussed out and couldn’t do it? What if I froze (metaphorically) and just couldn’t face the jump? What if this was all a really bad idea? I tried to remember why I’d signed up, as I mentioned in my last post you do some funny things when you’re a couple of thousand words into an essay and have been indoors for much to long, but there was more to the decision than that. I was doing this to support Crisis. If I was cold from the half hour I’d been outside, knowing that at the end of the day I’d be going home to my safe, warm flat, then how must someone who’s homeless feel in the middle of winter as the temperatures drop? I wasn’t pushing my boundaries for myself, I was doing it so at least four other people could spend Christmas somewhere safe and warm where they can access support and advice to begin the journey out of homelessness. I don’t know these people, but I had them in my mind as I plunged myself it to the icy pool.

Ok, plunged is probably a bit much. It wasn’t that elegant. Think of it more as tentatively throwing myself in alongside a reindeer and an elf I’d made friends with in the changing room (I love the camaraderie that doing dumb sh*t creates!). My skin stung as I hit the water and a gasped for air as the people around me swore and cursed. Pushing off into breast stroke other people waded across the pool, staggering through the water to where friends and family were waiting with towels and hot drinks. I kept pushing, but it’s shocking how poor your form becomes where your freezing your tits off. The side of the pool was in sight and Mike was primed with a towel and my big down coat, ready to start operation warm up. I kept paddling, each stroke more and more effort, hauling myself to the wall as my shocked body felt around for the steps out. Shuddering, shaking and beaming I’d done it. I’d broken through my comfort zone and it felt AMAZING.

Crisis Icebreaker Cold Water Swimming Challenge - A Pretty Place to Play, London Running and Fitness Blog

As soon as I got out of the pool we started working on getting me warmed up. Following Adam’s advice I dried my feet and clumsily attempted to put on my warmest socks. It was insane how quickly my feet froze up once I left the pool. I’ve never felt anything like it, my toes burnt with numbness and it was really difficult to get them into my socks. Next up Mike threw me a hat to pop over my swimming cap (which didn’t come off until I was in the bath about half an hour later!). I layered up gradually, hoodie, leggings and coat got thrown on over my cossie as I sipped herbal tea from a flask (points to Mike for thinking to bring that along!). Other swimmers darted in and out of the sauna, but it was packed out and I was too chilly to wait.

As I thawed out I realised that I felt amazing. After a week of not really being all there following a concussion I suddenly felt brilliant. My mind and body felt alive. I’d always wondered why people did this - the obvious reaction when someone tells you they like to dunk themselves in cold water is to call them a nutter - but now I understood, there’s a crazy rush that comes with both putting yourself out there and braving the elements. You feel invincible. It gets your blood pumping and your energy surges. You become capable of anything. I don’t think I’ll be becoming a a regular cold water swimmer, but I will definitely take the plunge again. Everyone should, it’s amazing!

There’s still time to sign up for upcoming Icebreaker events, or to DIY your own, you can find out more information here. Try it, you might like it (and either way you get a swimming badge, which is epic!).

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