As an active woman with a high sex drive and a very prestigious job, I defy basically all the stereotypes about gender. I’m pretty comfortable defying stereotypes at this point. At 30+ I have plenty of experience being cat called, written off, and misinterpreted and I also spent a good ten or more years trying to fit the typical female mould, too. Many women today call on other women to further defy the stereotypes, “to break out of the mould!” as it were, and achieve unprecedented levels of self actualization. I want to talk about something else. Gender stereotyping is a form of passive discrimination. By assuming all women to be a particular way, we can overlook important ways in which our decisions make women’s lives more difficult. Ignorance, on the other hand, is a deeper form of discrimination that goes beyond passivity into institutional. Ignorance, ignoring the differences, means that not only are we likely to make decisions that are unfairly hurtful to women, but we may do so under the false belief that we are actually offering equal opportunities for all. Sports are one of the easiest places to see gender ignorance.
Women and men are physically different. While no one would deny this basic fact, many people operate as if the differences don’t exist. Products marked as “unisex” and sold as sporting equipment are often products designed for men. Most bicycle seats are too narrow and too flat to support a female pelvis with a vulva. T-shirts given away as finishing prizes at road races are almost invariably cut to fit a male torso — wider and shorter than an appropriate female cut, and often sized for men. The result is that out of half a dozen road races that I’ve run, I only have one finisher’s shirt that actually fits my body. Most are too large because sizing starts at men’s small, and too wide so that they fit me like a tent more than high tech sports apparel. Rental equipment for ice skating, bowling and skiing is also unisex, which we can easily read as “for men”, concluding that the majority of production in the sports industry ignores women.
Gender ignorance in sports is not just a feature of product marketing, but in many cases the entire environment ignores the differences between male and female. I recently left my climbing gym in tears because after climbing there regularly for a year I was still unable to complete half of the monthly routes marked for beginners. Over and over again I see guys join the gym and quickly skyrocket from total noob to intermediate and advanced in a matter of months, but I can never cross that critical first barrier of being able to climb the beginner’s routes. Gym regulars, over 90% men, have tried to comfort me by saying that it is just this gym’s style to label their routes much easier than they really are. It would be comforting to me, I replied, if there was a “pre-beginner” level of monthly routes that were within my ability. However, there are not. But because I have nearly a decade of climbing experience and far more upper body strength than the average female I am confident that it is not my ability which is lacking. On the contrary, the attempts by the regulars to comfort me are actually clear indication of the ignorance: they mistakenly assume that my frustrations will be as short lived as theirs were when they shot past the beginner level years ago. They fail to see that as a female, the level at which physical strength becomes a limiting factor on my progress comes much sooner than for males. My climbing gym is a prime example of an institutionalization of female gender ignorance and it irritates me constantly.
At this point, most people are familiar with the concept of discrimination and are aware that it is not socially acceptable any more to openly discriminate against women. People are also more or less aware that stereotypes can be hurtful and need to be regularly evaluated for accuracy. However ignorance is almost always overlooked by nature. People don’t have words for gender ignorance and can often perpetuate it with misguided attempts to be fair. A road race without gender categories is clearly unfair to women, but if someone said “Prizes to the first three people across the finish line” few people would take note. In my own life I find myself repeatedly having to explain to my friends that their assumptions about what is good and true universally are very hurtful to me because I, as a woman, cannot stand in their position and share their experience. They are good people and they don’t mean to exclude me, but when they say things like “come on, it’s easy!” when I am clearly struggling against my body’s feminine constraints, I can’t help but feel like an outsider.