Working an aid station at the Leadville 100 MTB last weekend, one of the coaches pointed out the women’s field seemed smaller than it used to be. Another coach, who was tracking down race results to confirm CTS Athlete Larissa Connors had won her second consecutive title, confirmed there were a total of 142 women finishers. Women represented only 9.2% of the 1538 finishers (out of 1561 starters)*, and that’s a problem.
Representation vs. Inequality
In an article earlier this year, Jason Koop talked about a similar problem with the disparity between the number of men and women in some of ultrarunning’s most prestigious races. In it, he used the term “inequality”, but in hindsight that may not have been the best term to use. Paying women less prize money than men for winning the same event is an example of inequality. Fewer women entering an event is probably better described as a problem of representation.
Why Representation Matters
Speaking about representation in the entertainment industry, actress and activist Geena Davis said, “If she can see it, she can be it.” When more than 90% of the riders on the start line are men, it is literally difficult to see there are women present. Figuratively, it becomes difficult for women who aren’t racing to see a place for themselves in that environment.
For part of the day, Ayesha McGowan joined us in the CTS tent at the aid station. You may recognize her name from stories in Outside, ESPN, and Bicycling; she is an emerging elite cyclist pursuing the goal of becoming the first African-American woman in the professional peloton. It was her first time attending the Leadville 100, and her first impression was that women were conspicuously absent from the race. The absence of women tells aspiring racers: this is not a place for you.
Rebecca Rusch, a four-time winner of the Leadville 100, has spoken of the need for female representation at events, in bike shops, and in boardrooms throughout the cycling industry. The presence of women changes attitudes and behaviors toward women, which makes the environment more welcoming for the next female mechanic, product manager, engineer, or executive. She wrote, “Significantly changing the culture of cycling won’t happen from the top down, but rather from the ground up. Bike shops, group rides, and event directors are where real change needs to start, because that’s where the next generation of elite athletes, mechanics, engineers, marketers, and business leaders are going to originate.” It’s not that only women can design products and services that other women will buy; it’s that women need to be included in the design process, and they often are not.
CTS is not immune to this problem. Over the past 18 years women have played crucial roles for the company as coaches, managers, and executives, but at the moment women make up 23% of our coaching staff. Two of our next three coach hires are women, and our Sponsored Athlete Program is evenly divided between men and women (27 each). As our Coaching Director, Jason Koop, put it in his earlier article: “We are committed to taking steps toward gender parity in our coaching staff, however, because we see the substantive impact our female coaches make on the athletes they work with and the professional organizations they interface with. For the most part it’s not that men actively work against the interests of women in sport; it’s that we don’t recognize or consider that women may have a different – and equally valid – view on a particular subject.”
If we want women’s participation numbers to grow, we have to address the issue of representation in the sport’s biggest mass-participation events. And there are good reasons we should all want more women at Leadville, as well as gravel events, gran fondos, and traditional road and track races.
What Representation Yields
I am not crusading to make every event have a 50:50 split between men and women on the start line, but there are good reasons why we need to do better than 91:9.
Getting more fast women to the start line increases the level of competition, and that pushes athletes to achieve their absolute best performances. Larissa Connors has been crushing 100-mile mountain bike races for the past two seasons, and won the 2018 Leadville 100 by 27 minutes. She’s awesome, but a deeper and stronger field would elevate her performance level as well as the performances of everyone chasing her. Historically, the women’s field has never been more than 11% of the entire field at Leadville. It is also worth noting that while the percentage of female representation was roughly equal between 2017 and 2018, the absolute number of women in the field was higher in 2018 than 2017, by five riders.
Women didn’t compete in marathons until 1967 when Kathrine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon, and it took a long time after that for the number of women runners to grow substantially. As more women took up running, apparel and gear companies recognized the opportunity and developed new products. Race directors recognized the opportunity and created events and categories to encourage greater female participation. Now, many marathon and half marathon fields contain more women than men. If a similar model worked for cycling, getting more women to the start line of cycling’s biggest mass participation events would spur investment in the cycling industry, and result in more products and services to support the growing base of female participants.
A healthier sport
A vast imbalance in male/female participation is bad for any participatory sport, even if you have events that sell out registration (like Leadville does). Bringing more women into the sport doesn’t decrease the number of men participating; it increases the total population size. That opens up more opportunity for event directors to put on great events. More balanced male/female participation can also help create a more inclusive community within a sport, as demonstrated by the running and triathlon communities.
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How to fix the problem
There is no single silver bullet solution to increasing female representation at Leadville and other events, or in the cycling and coaching industries. It’s not a new problem, and despite many efforts from across the industry, it persists. Nevertheless, here are my suggestions.
Specifically invite women
After talking about this subject with a number of race directors and coaches, the ones who proactively invited women to attend had been more successful recruiting more women participants. One woman told me, “If you ask us to come, we’ll show up.” Why do they need to be asked? Because of all the years of male-dominated events and environments they’ve already experienced. Women are not demanding invitations, but they appreciate them and respond to them. Rebecca Rusch’s proactive efforts to invite women to Rebecca’s Private Idaho pushed women’s representation to 30% for 5 straight years.
Keep the events equal
Endurance events don’t have to change the offering in order to draw more women. Don’t change the courses, distances, or difficulty. This is something Leadville, other marathon MTB events, and gravel races have done very well; and something marathon running, ultarunning, and triathlon have been doing for many years.
Designate entries specifically for women
The Dirty Kanza 200 launched the “200 Women Riding 200 Miles” campaign prior to the 2017 race, setting aside 200 entries specifically for women. In its second year, the 2018 campaign brought 208 women to the start line – 22% of the field – for a 200-mile gravel race. Not only were women invited, but designating entries also meant they would be part of a sizable group, and they showed up. If Dirty Kanza could get to 22%, so can Leadville.
Like Leadville, Dirty Kanza awards entries through a lottery and, based on the comments on Jason Koop’s article, some people strongly believe event lotteries should remain gender-neutral. They get even more adamant when the number of available entries is capped by permits and the organizer can’t just add more entries to the total. In my view, the long-term benefits of greater representation and inclusion are worth the proactive effort of designating entries, with the goal of reaching a point where the practice is no longer necessary.
Leadville is a great event and it helped drive the growth of 100-mile mountain bike races throughout the country. Now it’s time for Leadville to lead again. I’m hopeful Leadville will follow examples like Dirty Kanza and Rebecca’s Private Idaho and make an effort to increase the representation of women racers on the 2019 start line. It would be good for event and good for the sport.
*Source. With a 98.5% finish rate (1538/1561), I’m making the assumption the DNFs followed the same male/female ratio as finishers.
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