There are two schools of thought on women-only events, it would seem. Some suggest that having a women-only event undermines the equality movement and that women should be included in all sporting activities in the same time and location as their male counterparts. Obviously at elite levels there is a need to segregate the genders to ensure equality of the playing field, but for mass participation, there is a lot to be said for coed-style events. However, equally as loud are the voices that support women-only events. Now before you go screaming that there are no men’s only events, let’s look at why women-only events exist, and the times they provide a necessary opportunity that would otherwise exclude some women from participating.
Let’s look at triathlon, my sport, as a great example of both these arguments. Triathlon is one of the most equal opportunity sports that exist. Notwithstanding the ongoing debate about the Ironman World Championships slots for professional women (which, when put in context, is a single race organiser in the entire triathlon system), men and women hold the exact same opportunities for participating, racing and prize money at all levels.
On any given weekend, women and men can line up together at races of all distances and formats, enjoying an environment that is challenging and rewarding despite the suffering that it entails. I have long enjoyed the ability to participate alongside my friends and husband and be treated just the same. Unlike sports like tennis or golf where women play either less sets or on shorter holes, triathlon provides a standard format regardless of gender. There is something very empowering about knowing that whilst I personally may not always be faster than my male counterparts, I am equally as strong to be able to cover the same distances.
But not all women feel like jumping straight into that environment. So what happens when we don’t provide an opportunity for them to learn in a safe and supportive environment? Simple. They don’t want to. They might switch to a different sport or take longer to join in the racing element of triathlon, for example, or they try it with a less-than-ideal experience and exit the sport just as quickly as they entered.
For the majority of people, learning a new skill as an adult is daunting to say the least. It takes us longer than children to pick things up. We come predisposed with fear, apprehension, judgements, attitudes, the list goes on. It isn’t like riding a bike – you don’t always just jump back on and remember! Often times it is the simple things that scare us most. List being in lycra for the first time in decades, getting into open water, falling off our bike, etc. And whilst, no, this isn’t exclusively a female issue, it has certainly been seen to be more prevalent in women through both the published literature and my own personal experiences.
We know through extensive research that women are far less likely to put themselves forward for a job until they feel they meet 100% of the criteria required. Men, on the other hand, take the leap at approximately 60% of the criteria. Does that translate into women tackling new physical challenges too? Anecdotally I say yes. I watch women week in and week out question if they are ready at least 80% more often than my male athletes. I watch women wait, on average, three to four months longer to join a race or event than men at their same level.
Triathlon can be intimidating to the new entrant at times and imagine that initial apprehension combined with a bunch of experienced athletes who have already forgotten what it is like to learn to clip in and out with cleats, to ride in a bunch, to tackle big swells in the water – and off they go about their business, leaving you far behind without much in the way of instruction. That’s a regular occurrence for many women entering sport as an adult.
By providing an environment that is nurturing and supportive, women grow in confidence and in turn become advocates for other women to tackle their own challenges.
And this is where women-only events come into their own. There is something magical that happens when women come together with a shared goal of learning and developing together. When they know that everyone around them is just as nervous as they are, their guard drops and they start to believe that they can do whatever is in front of them. And so the rise in women-only events has been predominately at the grassroots level, taster programs and beginner skills sessions. By providing an environment that is nurturing and supportive, women grow in confidence and in turn become advocates for other women to tackle their own challenges.
So where do our fabulous male counterparts come into this? Well they provide a unique opportunity to bridge the gap for women in moving from this stage to mass participation. Men who are attuned to letting go of their need to beat each other, be the fastest, or do their own training, make excellent support systems for women who are learning. They provide confident training partners that can take the lead on a run or ride, provide comfort that someone can get them back to safety if they need it, or give them some tips to make it easier. By taking a support role, men play an important part in not only building up the confidence of women, but often find they are reminded of why they started in the sport themselves. They get a chance to refresh their own skills that they’ve taken for granted and to just swim, ride and run for the joy of it.
Women have already worked this out in the running world but are yet to quite get there in triathlon. As we aim to move our participation levels to a more equal standing, providing avenues for women to learn and develop in a safe space will add to their desire to become lifelong, active triathletes instead of testing and moving on.
So, don’t look at women-only events as taking something away from other events, or excluding men from participating. Look at them instead as a great opportunity to develop a pathway for future athletes who will go on to be some of the best advocates for the sport for years to come.
By Michelle Cooper – Pushys Sponsored Athlete