Friday, 9 March 2012

The Active Woman

Recently, Linda Grant and Dawn Foster collected a staggering number of stories on Twitter, revealing first-hand sexism by women across generations. It seems some of the attitudes bandied about decades ago are still alive and well today. Women still get asked about their relationship status in job interviews, and get harassed on the street. It makes for incredible reading. And it got me thinking about my own experiences with sexism and gender belittling.

I realised that most of mine seemed to revolve around the same topic. Sports retail.

Back in December 2007 my boyfriend at the time was buying me a new pair of hiking boots for Christmas. So, into Snow & Rock we went. The young salesman was like an eager dog running circles around my boyfriend; bursting with chummy trekking tales and stories of bravado. Me, I might as well have been invisible. Nevertheless, I got on with the task at hand: trying boots on. Then, the sales guy squatted, pressed down on the toe of the boots currently still on my feet, and turned to speak to my boyfriend.
“Make sure you check they don't rub at the toe. Women never check these things but mate, don't they love to whine about it!”
I never said anything - except to my boyfriend, after we'd left the store. He was equally taken aback by the sales guy, yet we'd just let it happen. I told myself I would not to let something like that go without comment in future.

Of course, I'd long since forgotten about this when I found myself dealing with similar treatment last year.

I'd signed up to cycle from London to Paris, and on my lunch break went shopping at Evan's cycles. Handbag on my shoulder, I strolled in and inspected various bikes, knowing exactly what I was looking for. Eventually one of the young salesmen huddled over the counter detached himself and strolled over. I told him about my impending cycle challenge.
“Oh I've done that,” he quipped. “It's hard.”
“Yes, I know. It'll be a great experience!”
“No, I mean it's really hard. It's a long way.”
“Yeees... And that's why I need a bike with...”
“My mate and I did pretty well... but you really going to have to train.”
“I know. I am.
(A casual glance at my attire)
“I'm guessing you'll be in the slow group?”

Needless to say, I didn't buy a bike from Evans. Of course, they didn't know they'd even offended me, because I'd said nothing. It wasn't until I had left the shop and wandered down the street that the reality of the conversation took hold in my brain. He had belittled me. That actually happened. A guy who knew nothing about me other than that I was a woman in heels, looking for a bike. From this he didn't assume I was a cycling champion on my day off... he assumed I was an incapable novice. (I am neither.)

I reckon if I was a man who had come in carrying a helmet and a sports bag full of lycra, and slapped the guy on the back, I'd be walking out with a set of wheels and a thumbs up. And I was annoyed at myself for not calling the guy up on his comment. How would anything ever change?

So I wrote to Evans' head office.
I don’t like being patronized. I don’t like being treated like I’m incapable of cycling with the best of them. I certainly don’t like someone speaking to me like that then think I’m actually going to fork out some money at the end of it. I’m cycling this for the British Red Cross. I’ve done long-distance cycling before. I know the kind of bike I want and I don’t need to be spoken to like that. I would love to see a memo go out to all your stores to remind them that women are cyclists too. Oh, and we also like to shop. So if you want to make a sale, wisen up. And get your hand off it.

Evan's were very apologetic and after initially trying to fob me off with some store vouchers they agree to donate to Red Cross instead. I was satisfied with their response; they knew they'd done wrong. But the experience irked me. I realised this casual sporting sexism was everywhere.

Sure enough, I soon stumbled upon it again when a couple of people recommended I get some of my cycle kit from To be fair, this seemed like a great site, until I noticed its category options:

Ladies. Ladies is an option. God, there are so many things wrong with that I don't know where to begin. For one, how about “Women”? But then this is really an invalid point. Quite simply, women don't need to be segregated from sports. Obviously males and females have different requirements for items of gear and clothing, but these are two perfectly acceptable options to choose from within each category. Someone might have thought that having a separate tab means women can go straight to all the female sports kit. Great idea. Hang on, though, why not an equally convenient tab for men?

Simple. Because men have all the other tabs.

That's right; men are the primary customer, women only secondary. Whether put there with good intentions or not, the Ladies tab is redundant, and it merely succeeds in leaving women in second place yet again.

Women are athletes. Women are cyclists, runners, swimmers, triathletes, as well as rowers, hikers, climbers, gymnasts, wrestlers and boxers. Why then, is this macho language and sexist attitude still so acceptable in the high street sports arena? We are slowly tackling gender inequality in professional sports (although we still have a long way to go) however, as with everything, change begins closer to home.

I don't wish to get into a rage about this. And I know that not all sporting companies, nor all men (or women, for that matter) are guilty of old-school sexism. But these gender assumptions and stereotypes are rife, and we must not tolerate them anymore. So next time someone makes a sexist remark, call them on it. If, like me, you can't seem to tackle the situation on the spot, then write in. Explain that this language or attitude is archaic and unintelligent. Let them know it won't be tolerated.

At the end of the day, most of us know that women are strong, enthusiastic, powerful sportspeople. Those who don't... they just need a little education. Let's teach them.


  1. Bernie Cicirello (ChicagoBernie)9 March 2012 at 20:07

    Excellent article, Claire. I think sporting goods company, in particular, think they're catering to their customer base, when, in fact, they are ignoring or belittling a sizable segment.

  2. Great post. Cycling is notorious for being male dominated, but that isn't really any excuse. These women inspire me;

  3. Aaargghh! *punches stuff to vent anger*

    I've not encountered this because I am perhaps the most sedentary person you'll ever meet, but it makes me want to smash things. The guy in Snow and Rock would be pulverised, the chap in Evans Cycles flattened, and the website of Wiggle would be burned to the ground. Fuck that... I'm emailing them now!