As the Fight for Equality Continues, Let’s Also Embrace EquityMar 08, 2023
Unless we lift while we climb, many are left behind.
By Selene Yeager
Women have been demanding equal spaces in athletics for as long as there have been women who want to run, jump, swim, bike, and play sports. And in 1972 in the U.S., we made a giant step forward with the passing of Title IX — a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in education programs, including athletics.
And after that point, everything was equal. The end. Yeah, no. That one law didn’t stop the then Boston Marathon race director from literally trying to drag Kathrine Switzer from the course in 1967 because women weren’t allowed. It didn’t mean that Ironman wouldn’t still provide 15 fewer spots for pro women for the World Championships as recently as 2021. That took fighting.
And these are battles we are winning. There are equal slots in Kona (hell, we have the Big Island all to ourselves this year!). Women are not only racing distances equal to the men in many events, but sometimes outright beating them as Leah Goldstein did in Race Across America and ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter did in the Moab 240 and Big’s Backyard Ultra. We’ve made great strides toward equality.
But we’re not there yet. And we won’t get there until we also fight for equity.
Inequity is Insidious
In the fight for equality, you’ve no doubt heard the rumblings: “We have a women’s category, they don’t show up!” “There is a women’s (insert sport here) league, but nobody watches, so we can’t pay them as much.”
When you dig into the why, the answer is inevitably inequity. Sure, the leagues are there, but the players face an impossible Catch-22 where they’re paid a minuscule fraction of their male counterparts because “nobody watches,” but women’s sports receive less than 5 percent of media exposure, so nobody can. (And as the Tour de France Femme avec Zwift proved, when you show it, people will watch!) You may have men’s and women’s basketball teams playing in the same city for the championship games, but their resources for success are radically different, as we saw in 2021 during NCAA March Madness where men had access to a state-of-the-art training facility, while the women’s team had a rack of dumbbells and some yoga mats.
Equal slots to races are nice but are still out of reach for many because the barriers to entry are often much higher for women, especially women with children because women still bear the responsibility for much of the household.
Adding to the challenge, there are many blind spots in the mainstream sports industry and culture broadly. Take the recent Ironman triathlon rules dictating that racers will face a 30 to 60-second penalty for wearing clothing covering any part of the arms below the elbows or legs below the knee in a non-wetsuit event. The goal is to prevent athletes from wearing long-sleeved aero suits in the swim. It blindly threatens to disqualify Muslim athletes like Khadijah Diggs, who has been pulled off start lines for wearing clothing that aligns with her religion.
A sport may appear to offer equal opportunities for women on the surface, but if the average woman in the US weighs 170 pounds and has a 38-inch waist and the clothes made for that sport stop at XL well under that size, how many women are left out? What opportunities exist (or not) for para-athletes? Are we willing to have level conversations about fairness and inclusion for transgender women in sports?
We’re obviously not going to solve every inequity overnight. It will take time to keep pushing for exposure and resources for all women. We’ll have to do a lot of the work ourselves, speaking out, signing petitions, and creating our own opportunities where none exist. But the effort and fight are always worth it.
Fighting for equity for women — all women — is the real path to equality, because it allows all female athletes to reach the playing field and have a shot at realizing their full potential. When women have the same opportunities and resources as men, we can achieve the same level of success and recognition, on and off the field. And that’s worth embracing.
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