Everyday Sexism in Races

Sometimes I feel like women are treated as second-class citizens in races, like we are an afterthought. It’s not that anyone explicitly said to me that women aren’t welcome and it’s not about any one individual slight. When I think about all of the slights, I feel like women are being treated as if we don’t belong. Perhaps it’s this inkling that drives women to want all-women’s races, where women are at the forefront.

My Observations of Everyday Sexism in Races:

  • Unisex tee – T-shirts are not unisex. They are shirts for men that are foisted upon women. We would never dream of forcing men to wear a women’s tee, so why should it be all right for women to have no choice but to take a men’s tee. Considering that women comprise 57% of finishers in all running events in the USA in 2016 (from Running USA 2017), why can’t we have gender-specific t-shirts?
  • Paying an additional fee for a women’s cut shirt – Two years ago I ran a race where the race director charged $10 if you wanted a women’s cut shirt, otherwise you were given the “unisex” shirt. I might have given the director a pass on this if women were a small minority of the field because he wasn’t able to get a bulk discount for a small order. However, when I carefully inspected the race results, I found that women made up the MAJORITY of the runners (59% of the total field: 46% of the marathon & 67% of half marathon). I don’t feel that I should have to pay more for a shirt that fits me when men don’t need to do this. We would never charge men an additional fee for a men’s shirt, otherwise they would get a women’s shirt, so why should we expect women to take up this additional burden? Thankfully last year, that race is no longer charging extra for a women’s cut t-shirt.
  • No lead bicycle for the lead woman runner  In many races there’s a lead bicycle for the lead runner. The bicycle is there to guide the front-runner so he/she doesn’t need to think about where to go. In several races I see only one lead bike, and since the front-runner is usually a man, there’s a bicycle for him and no bicycle for the first female runner. It might not seem like a big deal because she can follow the men ahead of her, but I argue differently. I believe a lead bicycle is necessary for the female front-runner so that she doesn’t have to fight through other runners. This is particularly necessary for races where there are laps and she will be running through the back-of-the-packers and mid-packers.
  • No finish line tape for the lead woman runner – How many times have I seen this? Too many times I see a finish line tape held for the men’s winner to break and nothing for the women’s winner. If the men’s and women’s divisions are considered separate races, then there is one overall winner for the men and one overall winner for the women. The women’s winner deserves to break the tape too.
  • The men’s winner is the one seen as the “real” winner – The lead male runner is announced as the overall winner of the race. The lead female runner is announced as the female winner of the race. The man is treated as the “real” winner. Most people will say that road races consist of two separate races, one for men and one for women, and that the two races are run concurrently. However, when I consistently hear that the man is the real winner, I start to doubt whether or not we truly see the races as two separate events.
  • No/smaller prize money for women winners – In this day and age, it might seem surprising that there are races with unequal prize money, but they still exist. A good friend of mine was the women’s overall winner of a 5K last year. The men’s overall winner received a $100 gift voucher for a massage. There was NOTHING for her. She complained about the unequal treatment and was told that they would take her complaint into consideration for this year.
  • No/minimal recognition at the award ceremony for the women – Again, in this day and age, you’d think that this wouldn’t be happening, but it does. One of my friends had to argue with a race director to hold an award ceremony for women. While the male winners were announced and given their awards, nothing was done for the women because the men “were the fastest and won all the awards.” Other people, plus the director of the timing company, had to back my friend up in order to convince the race director, who was a woman herself, to have an award ceremony for the women who placed in their divisions. Of course, by the time this actually took place, most of the people had already left. At other races, I see people making a bigger deal over the male winners and quietly clapping for the female winners.
  • Fewer divisions for women – There are track events and races where there are fewer divisions for women. A different friend ran in a one mile race where all the women ran together, but the men had separate heats for Open and Masters. You might think, perhaps there were only one or two women Masters runners, but that was not the case. There were fewer women Masters runners than men, but not that many fewer. If there were enough men Masters runners to have their own separate heat, then the women deserved to have their own separate heat too. Fortunately at this race, despite running the women Open and Masters divisions together, the women Masters runners got their own awards. I spectated a track event where there was a sub-elite heat for men, but none for women. It’s difficult for women to compete and attract attention if there are fewer opportunities available to women in the first place.
  • More weight divisions for men – Regardless how you feel about weight divisions at races (Clydesdale & Athena divisions), I feel that there should be the same number. Before 2017, Marine Corps Marathon had three weight divisions for men and two for women. They have since stopped the practice of having weight divisions.

These are some observations that I’ve noticed at races. What have you seen?

I'm an academic, a runner, and a New York cliché. I write about the science of exercise, training, and the culture of running. My current goals are a sub-23:00 5K (achieved on 4/22/17 with 22:48) and a sub-1:45 HM (achieved on 10/1/17). Now what?

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  1. I’m just going to say I hate women’s cut shirts, and always appreciate the unisex option because they are often a “slim fit” shirt that isn’t as hideous as when I’ve opted to receive the men’s cut instead of the women’s.

    1. I ran a small local race last year where all awards were on a table and overall and age group winners could pick their awards. Seemed reasonable enough until the guy in charge of awards decided I should only be allowed to claim the “female” awards. There was a nice duffle bag and headphones I was interested in but apparently he considered them to be “male” prizes and this guy wanted me to choose between a large pink singlet or socks. 🙄 Needless to say that did not go over well. Long story short- I got the duffle bag. 😂

      1. Tia I’m glad you stuck to your guns and got the darn duffle bag, it’s so ridiculous when they feel like women must need or want different things for prizes etc.(or that we deserve different)

  2. I also always appreciate the option to have the men’s cut shirt, because I’m 5’10” and have short legs and don’t like an exposed midriff. Races that force women to have the women’s shirt are as bad as races that only offer unisex. One of my favorite races only offers unisex and lately the smallest size offered has been way too big for me, drowning almost all the women and honestly a lot of the fastest men at the race.

    A male friend of mine had the embarrassing experience of having the women’s tape held out for him, since apparently his ponytail was bobbing up and down so much they didn’t notice he was a guy. Maybe that race should have invested in gender-specific bibs!

  3. I hate that so many races don’t have women’s cut shirts. Granted, women can request the men’s shirt if they want it too- registration platforms should allow for that (not everyone wants ladies cut and not everyone keeps the shirt- sometimes they give it away or use it for a quilt, etc). No matter what, the race should specify the sizing and cut of the shirt.

    One running event held in my city went under new (out of town) management this past year, and previous years always had gender-specific shirts that ran small. People didn’t realize the shirt would change with the event, so they didn’t know what size to get. Turns out the shirts were like tents this year! A lot of ladies will request a size smaller than what they usually wear if it’s a men’s cut.

    I once ran a race where the female winners (top 3) weren’t recognized at all. Just top 3 overall people. Instead of placing overall, we won our age groups. Ugh. That race got rid of the policy the next year, but I will never run it again or encourage anyone else to run it.

  4. Shirts: I honestly think that 1. the race website should just state the dimensions of each shirt option and 2. give *everybody* a choice. Not all women want women’s-cut shirts. Not all men want the standard men’s cuts. Also, I would happily boycott any race that doesn’t treat men and women equally (winners as well as age group finishers – I’ve been at races that had all the age groups for men and…’18-39′ and ’40+’ for women. I MEAN WTF.)

  5. I would give races a pass on shirts. You’re assuming because the majority of women make up a race that all women would want the women’s cut. I prefer the unisex cut, the New Bedford shirts are some of favorite ones! I’m on a Race Committee and we’ve done polls of our finishers and found overall the majority prefer unisex. I’m not sure if this is always the case but I’d be more interested in those type of statistics (if there are any?) then basing shirt choice on gender. Sometimes it just isn’t realistic for a race to offer two choices so they go with the most popular.

  6. I don’t mind women’s cut shirts. However, my issue is when races have two different shirt colors based on gender and the women’s are pink or purple. C’mon, people!

  7. For one reason or another the cut of the shirt never bothered me as much as colors do. As Sassy said, really grinds my gears when races opt to give women a pink shirt, or pink accented shirt. I don’t dislike pink, but I dislike the notion that I have to be given pink things because I’m female. I know that Boston/Adidas still sold and profited heavily on their clothing and jackets but in 2016 I refused to buy the jacket or anything because they made the women’s versions with pink accents, no less on a year celebrating an anniversary of women’s running the race etc. I know quite a few others who decided not to buy for that reason as well.

    Lack of tape and/or lead cyclist for female is pretty common, though obviously wish that were different. The cyclist in particular as that can affect safety/outcome of race more, the tape is definitely nice but not necessarily going to affect as much.