Yesterday, April 10, 2018, was Equal Pay Day.
As such, there were plenty of social media posts from companies capitalizing on the ‘feminist wave’ in order to portray themselves positively and, as one could reasonably expect in the era of #MeToo and #MAGA, they were accompanied by the expected amounts of insulted and terribly upset guys protesting the ‘political’ tone and generally being upset by people supporting progress.
If you’re genuinely surprised, go ahead and see yourselves out. Because you’re going to absolutely hate what I’m about to say and will, most likely, end up leaving some stupid comment below that I’ll just mock you about, mostly due to the fact that it’s 2018 and if you’re surprised that women don’t earn as much for the same job, you’ve been living under a rock and I don’t have the time nor the patience to explain how the world works to you.
Instead, I’ll proceed to make my case for equal pay and the related topic of mandatory downgrade and why it needs to happen… Yesterday.
So you don’t think that female DH MTBers deserve equal pay, eh? We don’t go as fast, we’re not as interesting to watch, the fields aren’t as deep as the men’s? We don’t bring in as many dollars, we’re not putting asses on seats and, according to you and the other clueless guys in cycling, we’re just not trying very hard.
Okay. Let me go ahead and spell this out.
“Women don’t go as fast/aren’t as interesting to watch/don’t take as big of risks as the pro men.” Fair point. Or at least it would be if you weren’t only flat-out wrong, but if your claim wasn’t wrapped in decades of systemic misogyny and the continued, pervasive doubt of female competence.
Was that sentence confusing?
1: Rachel Atherton beat the men in a speed trap at MSA. Many women have beaten men at many different races across many different disciplines throughout many different sports. Women DO go as fast when they are supported at the same level and have similar and adequate training, speed and access to the tools and progression that men do, DESPITE PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS DUE TO PHYSIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES such as bone density, muscle mass, muscle fiber concentration and lactic acid thresholds. Rachel not only went the fastest on the day despite those physical limitations, but she also sent nearly all of the pro men’s lines through the course, unless hers were smarter. That’s right — I just said that. Which leads us to…
2: You want to be interested in watching women racing at the highest level? Watch both genders race, and take video while you do. Compare the two and then examine the level of skill on display versus the level of sheer power and you’ll notice a few things like line choice, bike handling, technical skill, advanced adaptations at speed and a hundred other things that can be disguised with sheer force and muscling through something. Watch how different athletes of the same sport on the same track in the same (or similar) conditions perform and you’ll suddenly be captivated by the performances as well as the MANY different levels of sporting skill between both genders. This is a money-back guarantee. It’s the furthest thing from boring… As is the risk factor.
3: Women risk just as much, if not more, when hitting a WC track and the same jumps as men. Why? Comparative physiology. If you’re 6’2” and 190lbs, a forty-five foot gap that leads into a 100-yard rock garden doesn’t seem like that much power transfer. But if you take six inches and fifty pounds off that first number, you’re at Rachel Atherton’s weight and height — and she’s one of the taller women on the circuit at 5’8”. I’m the same height with about 15 lbs on her (race weight for me is around 165), and even in those instances, I have an advantage just due to sheer physics. But then you delve a level deeper into how estrogen and testosterone build different types of bone density and muscular fiber length and strength and electrical impulse, suddenly a WC race seems like a suicide mission for someone outweighed and muscularly outgunned by even a dude of the similar size or smaller. So when factoring ‘risk’ into ones argument against equal pay, please make sure you do the physical math — it matters, particularly when an athlete hits the ground going Mach chicken.
BUT (and there’s always a but), even if the muscle and bone density were the exact same levels as male athletes’, the levels of support available for female athletes versus that for men would negate any amount of physical equality — if you’ve never had a personal race mechanic, you won’t understand what a luxury (and necessity) it is. But it’s a thing. As are coaching, nutrition, financial support, clothing, food, medical support, physio, housing, and on and on and on.
If you can, picture the levels of support young junior men with high amounts of potential receive from bike companies, product sponsors, suspension companies and tire manufacturers. You name it, they’ve got it: clothing, eyewear, bike, component, nutrition sponsors… And beyond. Flights and lodging at weeklong training camps. Mechanics and race support at events, particularly at the important ones. Team managers and team photographers who handle and promote content management and relationships with bike magazines and internet websites, who broker deals about which edit they’ll feature and how many company products will appear with this athlete-of-the-moment in them. But a hefty portion of all of that treatment is based on the ‘potential’ a team manager sees within that young boy or fresh athlete. Often, it pans out. Sometimes, it doesn’t. But they won’t stop sponsoring young (male) kids in the hopes that they’re the next Shawn Palmer. In fact, there are entire development programs put on by companies to foster and grow potential talent who will one day go on to represent those brands. Any of the biggest names now at the top of men’s cycling have been part of those programs. And they work. They’re manufactured to work… If you’re a guy. For women, few such opportunities exist. There are no devo teams for young junior women who would be the stars of the DH or enduro world someday. There are no team camps with female coaches to assist girls along the path to success while navigating the treacherous waters of being an elite athlete. There are no factory-funded programs that work to build young female DH phenoms into elite-performance machines who crush the souls of their competition and develop skill, endurance, power and prowess while having the equivalent of a babysitter there to hold their hand and promote their image.
There is none of that for female MTB athletes, and even less of it it you speak out or are prolific in your criticism of the way ‘business is done’. There is none of that for a fresh female pro, despite her clear and obvious potential, nor does that support exist for the mini shred dirt jumper who out jumps and outshines the boys… But who is female.
And yet we continue to work. Against all odds, we’re still here and, on average, only about thirty seconds off the pace of the pro men.
All without the luxury of time, coaching, support, opportunity, payment or exposure.
But so it goes for female athletes — the old adage of being five times as good to get half as much has never rung so true as it does within the world of cycling as a female athlete. And then on top of that, we get to log into social media and watch as armchair quarterbacks tell us how good we’re not with all of the support we haven’t received as we head to our second job in order to pay the bills unpaid by sponsors who refuse to see ‘potential’? Tell me again how you understand this.
Go on. Give it a try.
Another of my favorite arguments is the one about how women simply don’t bring in the revenue and/or that women don’t have the ‘conversion rates’ that men seem to have commercially, and that female athletes just ‘aren’t an economic force the way men are’. I’m gonna go ahead and call straight fucking bullshit on this one, because the last time I saw a male athlete put on a free skills clinic for anyone outside of his little bubble of pals was, say, NEVER. Show me a professional male athlete who puts on clinics and ride parties and runs Facebook groups for other racers and up-and-comers in the bike racing scene and I’ll eat my motherfucking hat. Sure, you’ve got a few pro men who ‘mentor’ younger riders — one or two over the course of a few years, but how many of those men (outside of Aaron Gwin) are actively promoting, sponsoring, encouraging, funding and working towards getting more people on bikes?
The recent growth in the bike industry isn’t middle-aged white guys, y’all — it’s women and kids. In fact, according to the behemoth global technology research and advisory company Technavio, “Americas: largest global mountain bike market: Mountain biking is one of the fastest-growing off-road sports that is gaining popularity across North America. Cross-road biking is popular in this region due to the rising number of women and kids entering this sport as this sport is shifting from being male dominant to a leisure activity pursued by women and children.” Tell me again how women aren’t profitable? Particularly when women still control 83% of domestic spending in the US and are primary caregivers across the globe. “In aggregate, women represent a growth market bigger than China and India combined — more than twice as big, in fact.”, says Harvard Business Review.
You REALLY think that the best way to reach this massively profitable market comprised of women and kids is by showcasing and sponsoring a bunch of male athletes who largely fail at community outreach and support? And that women are the ones who don’t have economic value? Please.
“Women still don’t have the market share/women’s sports still aren’t profitable/audiences don’t tune in for the women.”
Au contraire, my friend.
The 2015 US Women’s Nation Team match against Portugal brought in more than 25 million viewers in the US alone — more than any other English-broadcast game, ever, male OR female.
In 2013 and 2014, TV ratings and viewership for the women’s finals of the US Open not only were higher than the men’s, but for 2015’s US Open, tickets for the women’s finals sold out long before tickets for the mens’. Women’s tennis (and viewership) has continued to grow since 2015 as well, nearly 23% annually, while men’s tennis has posted less-than-promising figures for nearly a decade.
In 2018 at the Pyong-Chang Winter Olympics in South Korea, the late-night US women’s hockey game was the most-watched midnight-hour sports program ever for NBC’s Sports Network, despite the network posting an overall viewership loss of about 17% during this Winter Olympic Games.
I could go on. And on. And ON. The internet is full of counter-point proof to the absurd claims about why women don’t deserve equal pay, equal opportunity, equal exposure and equal support, but that’s easy to find. What isn’t, however, is support for the female athletes who continue to drive the US sporting and outdoor economy forward, and the question now is why? With all of the proof and research out there that diversity breeds economic success and that women relate more to representation in marketing, why is the bike industry so slow to follow the clear path laid out by research and science?
More than a few folks pointed to the depth of field disparity between men and women for the argument against equal pay, to which I respond “mandatory downgrade”. If the concentration of skill in the pro field has been proven by downgrades and strict upgrade requirements (of the sort that pro men are subject to), there can’t be a question of whether the pro women have earned it, nor will there be a risk or injury or hinderance for the top pro women in the field who often struggle to perform when sandwiched between athletes who have no business racing in the pro category. And while that might seem offensive to some of the women currently in the US pro field, if you’re reading this, go ahead and ask yourself if you’ve been caught in a pro race by the racer behind you. Go on. And then ask yourself if the racer who caught you was me. Because for a few of the female pros in the US, mandatory downgrade is the only option I personally see as they refuse to acknowledge the differences in skill — and no, they haven’t earned a payout simply because USAC unwisely granted that athlete a pro license. If you’re getting regularly bested by Cat 1 female racers, you shouldn’t be pro. Hands down.
But mandatory downgrade is a hot topic to bring up — ask anyone who’s offended by the idea of it right now. Nevertheless, I’m not just fully supportive of the rule, but actively campaigning for USAC and the UCI to institute it. It will only make racing better and more equal. I believe that if you want to call yourself a pro, you should have to actively earn it.
I’m also not an advocate for flat pay rates across the board: that’s not what equality is. Equality is fair and equal pay for the work done, distinguished between different athlete types, personalities and values in the market. Different athletes will have different values to different brands and within different disciplines, but that doesn’t make them any less valuable as athletes or people — as someone very smart pointed out, Aaron Gwin and Adam Brayton both race DH but both of those athletes are likely paid quite a bit differently… And for good reason.
What I’d like to see, as a professional female downhiller racer and someone committed to the success and sustainability of my sport and cycling as a whole, is more equal opportunities across the board, regardless of gender. What I’d like to see is consistent valuation of athletes (and adequate pay respective of that valuation) outside of gender, but based on the same factors and basis by which male athletes are currently valued through. I want to see athletes like my early-career self given the sort of opportunity they clearly earn and I want to see their potential maximized in a way that strengthens our sport and community rather than weakens it.
I want true equality, not just some version of lip-service that promises equal opportunity but exploits, endangers and disenfranchises athletes instead.
Step up. Help me change this industry. It may be too late for my own racing, but it’s never too late for the next generation and those who come after.