My first reaction – what a crock. We’re either male or female at birth and, barring rare genetic disorders, it’s pretty clear which team we’re on. There are obvious physical differences between men and women in both the genitals as well as the tendency for men, on average, to be taller and stronger than women. These boys who ‘identify as female’? Well unless you have a vagina and get crampy once a month, you don’t meet the criteria. Then I started thinking a little deeper. What do they actually mean ‘identify as female’? From mere observation, it seems to mean adopting certain habits that society has defined as female. Things like wearing lighter coloured clothing, make up, long hair and perhaps a skirt. Maybe speaking a little softer or playing with ‘feminine’ toys like Barbie. And ‘identifying as male’ appears to involve wearing shorts and t-shirts, cutting your hair short and eschewing make-up. If that’s the criteria then I’ve ‘identified as male’ for a large portion of my life. I was the quintessential tom-boy growing up and have had crew-cuts at various stages of my life. I rarely wore make up because ain’t nobody got time for that when there were bikes to ride and trees to climb. Plus, growing up in Queensland humidity without air-conditioning, there was nothing pleasant about applying foundation as fast as it slid off your face. In other words, my decision on what to wear or not wear was based on personal preference and lifestyle factors. Not my gender. I'm rather relieved to have grown up in an age I wasn't being rushed in for gender reassignment surgery.
So why does wearing make-up and skirts make someone ‘female’? It doesn’t. It makes them a person (male or female) who prefers to wear certain clothes or cosmetics and SHOULDN’T have anything to do with gender. I was listening to this podcast yesterday which claims that less than a hundred years ago, boys and girls were dressed the same and calling attention to their gender was seen as unconscionable until puberty when it actually mattered. Having pink and blue clothes was a huge marketing ploy to sell more clothes when they couldn’t be handed down between siblings. It would be great to go back to that and do away with boy and girl-specific toys and games. Until the age of 10 there is no physical difference in size or strength between the sexes so why segregate them or treat them differently?
Unless I’m going to the doctor and they’re trying to decide whether to give me pap smear or check my prostate, I shouldn’t, on a daily basis, be asked if I’m male of female because it should make NO DIFFERENCE. As a form of protest, I actually ticked ‘not specified’ on the gender box at the Virgin check-in this morning (which is weird because I don’t recall ever being asked for my gender before? Do female corpses dismember differently in a crash?). This whole concept of being assigned a gender should end with the physical basics that are only really important in very limited spheres. Even in jobs requiring strength, the litmus test should be if you can carry the heavy thing, you get the job. I believe the fire service and similar are the only ones to still have rigorous physical entrance requirements. But I, as a 160cm female, would apparently pass so, clearly, they are not restricted to the top echelons of body builders.
Why does this matter? Because if we can be conned into believing that there is gender specific clothing, we can be conned into believing there are sports, jobs and behaviours that are also unsuitable due to gender. This is where the real inequality lies. And I don’t just mean for women. Whether it’s lack of female CEOs or politicians or the number of men who take their lives each year because talking about feelings and stuff isn’t ‘masculine’, gender stereotyping (or just gender) doesn’t serve anyone.
This all might seem a curious point of view for someone who makes their living from women’s only mountain bike skills coaching. But my industry only exists because our society keeps perpetuating the myth that gender puts people at a disadvantage for certain skills. In terms of being able to manoeuvre a mountain bike around a trail there is no reason that men should be better at this than women. And yet the women who come to my sessions are really bad at this compared to most men. What they ultimately lack is not the ability, it is the belief in their ability. This is not some innate female quality, but the product of 40 years of being treated differently. Of being more protected, of having more risk ‘managed’ out of their lives. Of being sent subtle, or not so subtle, messages that mountain bike riding is dangerous and women shouldn’t do dangerous things. It’s buying your daughter a pink bike with a basket and streamers that is basically useless for actual riding and getting your son a BMX. My brother and I got Malvern Stars one Christmas. I was far more ‘sporty’ than he was but I still got the pink step-through style while he got the one with the high top tube. To be honest there may have been no difference in performance between them, but you never see someone on a step-through racing. The message was clear and still is.
My partner and I took his boys to the park to kick a football around last week. I don’t like to blow my own trumpet but I was nailing the kicks, left and right footed – straight to the hands. It occurred to me there are few women my age who could do that. The only reason I CAN do that is because of year 11 PE. One semester the girls were told they were doing netball and the boys would be doing AFL. Being a feminist far beyond my time, and not really understanding the attraction of netball, I protest loudly and to my teacher’s credit, I was permitted to play AFL. But why weren’t all the girls playing AFL? Or the boys doing a semester of netball? The differences in speed and strength could have been evened out with mixed teams. My other love was soccer but the only girl I knew who played had to play for a men’s team as there weren’t any women’s teams. I finally got to play in senior year as things were moving with the times. The fact we now have women’s AFL and World Cup just blows me away and I don’t think young women today realise what a huge change that has been. (Note, I believe that sports based on physical strength and speed should still be segregated due to the physical differences outlined in the start of this article. And that includes ‘transgender’ women who, despite the same testosterone levels now, possess greater response to testosterone and will never be biologically matched to women. But that’s another blog post!)
I don’t want to focus too much on elite sport. When I was deep in that world it was hugely important. Now I wonder, if all the professional sport disappeared, would that have any impact on the everyday person aside from less time spent in front of the TV and less overpriced branded gear bought. It actually might encourage more community level participation as there is little correlation between elite sport and recreational participation rates.
But there I was yesterday, the only woman in Elite, racing the state mountain bike championships which is a far cry from world cup ‘elite’ level sport. Racing isn’t for everyone and that could be a personal preference. But when women are outnumbered by the men 20 to 1, I cannot believe that can be accounted for by differences in personal preference. Statistically, there is no reason why women should want to compete less than men, unless they are receiving messages from society that competition is bad or not ‘feminine’. Mountain biking is a very male dominated sport, period, and I don’t think anyone – from clubs, MTBA, race promoters – is really aware why. Competence breeds confidence. And everyone, from parents down, is telling girls that mountain biking is not the sport for them. Particularly the technical side of mountain biking which includes steep descending and obstacles. The women I teach have no confidence because they have no competence. They were not encouraged to ride, do wheelies, or take risks as kids so they are now playing catch up. There has been huge progress in mountain bike skills in juniors over the past decade, but the gulf between the average girl and the average boy remains because the messages remain.
I got to ride with some close mates from Brisbane at Maydena recently including my mate Matt, who basically got me into mountain biking. As we were shredding down black trails at similar speeds, he said “I forgot you don’t ride like a chick”. And he’s right. I don’t ride like the average female. I am much more confident in my ability and am still looking to get better as skills don’t have much to do with age. I can’t tell you why, other than speculate that a childhood growing up without a car meant I had a foundation of confidence on a bike. This made it easier for me to transition to riding off road. I rode with people who were better than me and I wasn’t afraid to fail. I didn’t see falling off as embarrassing but a realistic reflection of how long I had been riding and the work I’d put in to learning the skills. I have no competence with swimming so the idea of being with a couple of hundred other thrashing bodies in the open water doesn’t appeal to me at all. My friend Gill is a very competent swimmer so she often competes, although she wouldn’t line up for a mountain bike race. We both compete, but our competence lies in different areas.
Having competence in different areas which influences our preferences and attendance at events is all fine, unless our preferences are being dictated to us by gender attitudes in society. I can cut my hair and wear pants but I’ll still be recognised as female due to bone structure and other physical tells. And your subconscious bias will come into play which is why we need things like quotas for female participation in business and politics. Are the differences in gender participation at mountain bike events concerning for anyone other than race promoters who want more profit from race fees? Doubtful. I’m more alarmed at the drop in participation in sport generally when people transition from childhood to adulthood than I am about the participation difference between girls and boys in physical activity (around 10% depending on where you read). But sport tends to be a reflection of society so the alarm is that, as enlightened as we believe we have become, gender stereotypes are alive and well and perhaps doing away with gender as a concept is a worthy goal. I do not accept that men and women have different preferences and abilities in physical or mental skills so any significant deviation from a 50% participation rate in any field deserves closer analysis of social conditioning. Women are not naturally crap at mountain biking and leading companies any more than men are naturally crap at talking about emotions and nursing. They both conform to expectations and conditioning. It will take many generations to address the inequality so the sooner we start the better.
Check out these podcasts too:
Rethinking evil - on the real reasons for violent crimes by men. Calling bullshit on the testosterone argument
Be the Change - A couple's fight to raise their child free of gender