As a female racer, I think and write an awful lot about the state of women's racing in the US, and the way that female racers are treated. But sometimes I forget that the cycling world is just a tiny microcosm, a demonstration on a smaller scale, of issues that face women today.
According to Jodi Kantor in her New York Times article, there is now a "debate about a new conundrum of female success: women have greater status than ever before in human history, even outpacing men in education, yet the lineup at the top of most fields is still stubbornly male. Is that new gender gap caused by women who give up too easily, unsympathetic employers or just nature itself?"
While she's talking about the workplace and education system, that quotes sounds oddly familiar to any woman who's been trying to race seriously for years. A lot of this article and the others I looked at are based on the whole work-family conundrum that faces women (and these articles fully admit they're based on the experiences of upper-middle class, the women who can choose between work and family if they so choose). While I was reading them, though, since I'm sans children, I couldn't help but strike parallels between the plight of the working mom and the plight of the female racer.
So in that sense, Kantor's question about what causes the gender gap is a valid one in women's cycling. Are we not working as hard as the men? Are some team managers and race promoters purposely trying to avoid paying women what they're worth? Are women racers just naturally not as 'serious' as the men?
Most of the articles I looked at centered around the old feminist adage that women can 'have it all,' if they only work hard enough. Salon.com columnist Rebecca Traister writes, "No, my proposal is this: We should immediately strike the phrase “have it all” from the feminist lexicon and never, ever use it again… And that sucks. It sucks for all of us, who are so very busy – not aiming for complete satisfaction or amassing everything our hearts might desire – but busy working and living and getting by and fighting to pry open more doors so that more women might enjoy more kinds of opportunities than have been available to those who came before."
I know so many amazing women in the cycling scene, both on the professional and amateur level, who spend so much of their time working to promote women's cycling, to make it more accessible, to make a career as a pro woman more feasible, and it seems like most of the time, we're -- pardon the pun -- spinning our wheels.
And the worst part about it is that despite the huge talent pool for women in cycling in the US, I know of so many incredibly talented ladies who struggle every year to find a team that takes them even slightly seriously. And those on teams are often fighting for scraps while the men get the bulk of the goodies. I know this isn't the case for every woman or every team, but anecdotally, I can say that it happens more often than you might think, and infinitely more often than it should. But that isn't even the worst part. I worry that the worst part is that we -- myself included -- have drunk the Kool-Aid. We don't think that women's racing is as exciting, or that it can bring in as many sponsors, or that it has as much of a future. Or, if finding a team is hard, we start thinking that it's because of our abilities, because we're not a little bit better, faster, stronger. And sure, part of that can be true: I freely admit that I'm not as fast or good as, say, Kaitie Antonneau, and I wouldn't bat an eyelash if she was getting paid 18 times what I made. But I know plenty of women who deserving of much, much more than they get. Still, we've been trained to be gracious and happy to get anything, because it's better than nothing.
Because of this, there are some incredible racers out there who've been made to re-evaluate their self-worth. The article that this debate stemmed from in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter mentioned something interesting about this whole self-doubt issue. "I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot)."
Again: she's talking about work and having a family, but when I read it, it applies just as well to women's cycling. It is harder for women to make it in cycling, despite what companies and teams will say. But we've been programmed to believe that we have equality, so anything lacking is due to a personal failure, not a flawed system. And the last bit -- about being thin and beautiful to boot -- just reminds me of another hot debate for cyclists. But that one is for another week.
Slaughter also blasted Facebook's female spokesperson, saying, "Sandberg thinks that “something” is an 'ambition gap'—that women do not dream big enough. I am all for encouraging young women to reach for the stars. But I fear that the obstacles that keep women from reaching the top are rather more prosaic than the scope of their ambition."
Again, the same is true in the workplace and in cycling. I know many women who would love a career in cycling, but it's just simply an impossibility. Being willing to work for little money is one thing, but when that means not earning a living wage, or having to work other jobs to support a racing career, leaving less time for training or recovery, that's a reality, not a lack of ambition, that's keeping women from pursuing a pro career.
When I was doing interviews for my cyclocross book, I had a few great eye-opening moments. One was when not one, but several men AND women told me that the reason women's racing isn't quite as exciting to watch as the men's is because we simply aren't programmed with that 'killer instinct.' They were talking about the instinct that makes us want want to crush our opponents, who are often our friends and training buddies when not on the race course. At first, I scoffed a bit. That's ridiculous, I thought. I always want to beat people, no matter how friendly we are.
Then, I was at a race a few weeks ago. There was a minor crash in our field, behind me. I was in the front with six other women, and we opened a gap as the pack struggled to navigate around the crash. We continued at a tempo pace, and I tentatively asked,"So, do you guys want to attack? Because this is probably a good time." That's when I got a couple dirty looks and the group demurred, saying we should wait and see if everyone was OK. When I relayed this story to my male friends, they laughed and told me that the sound of a crash is a signal to pick up the pace in their field. And yes, I know if I wanted to attack, I should have just gone for it. But that's another column for another time: my acute lack of race tactics under pressure.
Now, I've been in plenty of races *cough* Battenkill and Somerville *cough* where crashes in the women's field did pick up the pace for the front. But I think that's a particularly interesting example worth mentioning. And I've written about it before, but it bears repeating: I consider myself to be a serious cyclist, but when someone crashed next to me at Battenkill, my first instinct was to stop and see if she was OK. I will also admit that I squelched that feeling and rode on. And proceeded to feel guilty about it for the rest of the race. Is it because I don't have that killer instinct? Is there something nurturing in my DNA that I just can't seem to get rid of?
Of course, at the end of the day, rather than turning to feminist scholars or feminist debates when I'm worried about my place in the peloton, I should probably just take a cue from Tina Fey during the next race. "Know what? Bitches get stuff done."
Cycling -- and sport in general -- is one place where we can easily see the difference in treatment of women versus men, and while some of it is simply a biological necessity, a lot of it is simply that when it comes to equality in the workplace, professional sports are just lagging behind the times more ostensibly than most other career paths. I've spent a lot of time talking with racers, promoters, managers, and every industry professional imaginable about this, and no, there isn't a simple solution. But pushing for more discussion on the issues of women in cycling, and looking at it as a whole, rather than a race-by-race or racer-by-racer issue would be a good start.