Systematic Sexism in Sports: How it Works

Sometimes when I think about systematic sexism and how we’re all at a complete disadvantage because of it, I just feel so hopeless. And then, I let the thought pass because change doesn’t happen to those who just sit and let the system stay the same; those are the ones who reinforce it, and help it pass onto the next generation.

I think it’s time we uncover, and examine how systematic sexism exists in the cycling world. What’s interesting though is, the more I research “sexism in sports”, the more I realized that the system is the same in every sport. Like someone made a cookie cutter for institutionalized sexism, and just replicated it into every sport. Some women’s sports have equal coverage and sponsorship to the men’s, but that’s because the women of their history fought hard at an earlier time for that coverage. It was never unconditionally given, it was never easy, and to this day, none of the fights are over.

So what is systematic sexism you might ask; well, let’s start by clarifying a few things. Systematic sexism and institutional sexism are two terms that essentially mean the same thing. So when I use them, I’m referring to the same thing. And what is systematic sexism? In its most simplistic sense, when you examine the system of something, you’re looking at the cumulative history of that thing, and how it has evolved and affected the people involved in it today. So when we talk about systematic sexism, we’re talking about the way in which sexism has evolved throughout the history of cycling, and how it is woven into the fabric of our sport. It’s woven in how we talk about women/girls, how we talk about gender stereotypes, it’s woven into how we distribute funds in clubs, or how we distribute funds on the national level; it also has to do with how we choose the people involved in leadership roles. It’s in how we broadcast our sport, and how we have documented our history of the sport. I wouldn’t even think it’s too far fetched to consider how women even started in this sport, and how the way in which women we viewed still affects us to this day in the sport. When were women allowed to compete? And I say “allowed” because the men who were in charge of the sport had all of the power to decided who gets to represent the sport. If women were thought to be inferior (and blatantly spoken about in such a way) in society at that time, what was their fight like to be taken seriously as athletes? I wonder, did anybody record that part of our history? Because I highly doubt it was peaceful, and I highly doubt the women were taken seriously.

Our experiences today are not mutually exclusive to our history in this sport. A history of discrimination doesn’t exist in a vacuum either; oppressive ideologies and practices evolve and change over time, which reinforce the patriarchal system that has always existed. Here’s another term we should all learn; patriarchy. In a nutshell, it’s referring to a system where the men are the superior benefactors of said system, and when you are the primary benefactor, you tend to hold the power, and govern how the rules work, who they work for. One great example of this in action is Rugby Canada’s recent decision to increase club membership fees; they wanted more money to support the men’s national team, albeit, the women’s national team has out-preformed them on the national stage. And yet, no money was being allocated to support their team. The kicker to this is: under the “World Rugby model, which doles out funds to members each year largely based on the performance of the sport’s biggest draws — the national men’s teams.” So there it is. Men’s team has a bigger draw, therefore, they are the primary benefactor of funds in the sport, even though they aren’t performing as well as the women on the international stage. Now, at this point I can hear the retorts: Yes, the men’s team is the bigger draw, but who is in charge of elevating them to BE the bigger draw. The organization, the promoters, and the stadiums. You need to put money into something in order to get money out of, and I know these large institutions aren’t doing anything remotely equal in promoting the national teams equally. This is the same in all women’s participation in sports, unless we’re talking about a sport where the women are almost on an equal playing (and earning) field as the men. Think tennis. And we fought hard for that one beginning in the 70’s.

Systematic sexism exists because we have regulation that enables the cycle of said system, and the only way to elevate women, is the break the means of operation in the system. Here are some ways the different parts of our community can help break the system, and make it better for everyone who want to be apart of our lovely sport:

Clubs

  • Get more women in leadership roles, the token VP Women or Director of Women’s Programs isn’t enough, you need more female voices on your board. Encourage more women to get into these roles. Build your leaders, and recognize women bring a whole new enriching perspective to your community.
  • Reach out to community shops and work together with new female youth riders and get them involved in young riders programs.
  • If you want more women in your club, make a plan on what your space is going to look like once they’re there. And for the love of the bike, have kits for women in all sizes and pieces; a men’s skin suit is not the same shape as a women’s skin suit.
  • Get all forms of sexual harassment out of your social circle now, and hold all members accountable for their behaviour. Make sure nobody is above this rule, take all accusations seriously. Be prepared to kick people out, and cancel memberships. That’s the only way we can tell you take any of this seriously.
  • Emphasize youth programs that support young girls in the sport. They’re up against a lot of pushback and dissuasion in sports when they’re going through the tween and teen years, so work hard at encouraging them to stay in sports.
  • Bring women in without the expectation of racing.

Races

  • Continue to give us our own start line.
  • Appropriately equivalent distances. Always.
  • Equal prize money.
  • Don’t start tearing things down as we’re crossing the finish line. That’s just rude.

Shops

  • Not all women are going to fit the mould of what you think she should look like as a rider/racer/commuter and how she participates in the scene. It’s not your scene, it’s our scene, so act accordingly. I think we can all agree, a sale is a sale, and teach your sales staff that.
  • Not all girls like pink, but some girls really do. Some boys like pink too!
  • For the love of the bike, always have sports bras in stock.

This is a long battle, and it doesn’t happen over night, but it’s important to know what we’re up against. We’re up against a history of discrimination; we’re up against an entire group of people who have benefitted from the status of things, and who probably don’t want to admit it exists, which doesn’t help anybody. We’re up against an entire industry that benefitted from using our sexuality to sell their products, then to want us to use our athleticism to do the same thing. In a short period of time, there’s a bit of whiplash there. We’re up against people denying the history, or having no record of it. We’re up against myths that people think are the “real problems” of why we’re not on the same tier as the men. And worst of all, we’re up against apathy too.

2 thoughts on “Systematic Sexism in Sports: How it Works”

  1. This series is dealing with an important issue in an engaging way. Thanks for investing the effort.
    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thank you so much! We’ll keep talking about these issues because it’s about the integrity of our beloved sport. Where we’re at is nothing to be proud about, and it’s time women start speaking up!

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