Subtle Sexism in Cycling

“Ugh, sexism…”

This was the opening sentiment on my Facebook status December 2. It was 6:00 AM on a Monday morning. I was answering emails needing attention before I got my sons out the door to school and kicked off my week of teaching urban, at-risk seventh graders. I kept typing:

“Just took a Michigan Bicycle Racing Association survey which gave men aged 40+ an option to separate into two categories: ‘single with no kids’ or ‘has family and kids.’”

A troubling, sexist question had hit a nerve. I joined MBRA four years ago when I caught the competitive cycling bug. Having never envisioned myself an athlete, and certainly not a cyclist, the thrill of racing bikes really fast and the camaraderie of the cycling community drew me in. I love bicycle racing. And I want to stay a part of MBRA.

The thing is, the MBRA survey sent that Monday morning made me rethink my membership. The unspoken subtext got right under my skin and I questioned the obvious gender bias:

“Seriously? Because if you’re single and unencumbered and male, then you get your own racing category?”

Shortly after starting to race my bike, I learned that women must fight for equal recognition in competitive cycling. Race promoters need enough women signing up to race in order to run races specific for women (while men sign up in droves to join in the peloton of fun). Usually events offer 6 races for men and 2 for women. While women do have the option to race with men in certain categories, getting enough ladies to participate in female races is still a challenge. As a woman, I felt the need to speak up:

“There would be NO women’s racing in Michigan were this an option for those of us with ovaries! What would the CAT 1/2/3 field be if not for moms — even single moms like me — raising families and still somehow finding time to train and race at elite levels?”

Bike races get divided into separate categories (CAT 1, the highest, is considered professional) based on experience level and age. After racing successfully and earning enough points, a racer can request a category upgrade from USA Cycling. Often, race directors combine category fields so that racers have a bigger racing group and a better race experience.

The MBRA survey I took that Monday morning intended to find out what category combinations MBRA racers liked or didn’t like. The whole survey was written sloppily with inconsistencies and confusing language. This bugged the English teacher in me, but I looked past it.

However, the last question, really rankled me. Men were asked if they would like to be separated into categories “40+ with kids and families separated from 40+ single no kids.” My Facebook friends enjoyed poking fun:

“Dumb 20-something dudes who plan on racing with a hangover or still drunk from the previous night.”

“Maybe now is the time to lobby for the ‘Women’s 40+, with 3+ kids’ category?!”

“It would make it easier to find available men. Maybe Tinder would sponsor.”

“’Taking care of elderly parents’ category; ‘Special needs dog’ category; ‘Department store bike’ category. OK the last one might actually be kind of awesome.”

Humor aside, the question at hand implied that 40-year-old men, both single and those burdened with families and wives, deserved recognition in a statewide survey as special groups needing special accommodations. My momma bear guard flew up when I read that. Knowing full well what it takes to participate at elite levels in competitive cycling as a single mother working two jobs made the overtly patriarchal question turn my stomach. The level of assumption and arrogance in the question pushed me to write the Facebook status.

Throughout the day, comments on my status and personal messages poured in. I was amazed by the varied responses. Many friends were dismayed at the blatant sexism in the question whereas others figured it was simply a joke.

“Gotta love Michigan. Time for some letter writing/consciousness raising.”

“How about getting a big group of people to threaten to boycott events that start using absurdist categories like that.”

“I kinda thought it was on there as a joke.”

The most eye-opening and unsettling realization was how many people were willing to “like” letting sexist language slide.

So, I decided to send a letter to the MBRA board. Six volunteers, three of whom are women, run the organization. Volunteering for leadership positions is a lot of work and a big responsibility — I know that from a career working in public and non-profit sectors, often serving in volunteer leadership roles myself. Still, it boggles my mind that, as the Michigan governing entity for USA Cycling, the MBRA board found this survey appropriate to send out to members. I just don’t get it.

On Saturday, MBRA leadership sent me an informal email stating:

“I owe you a response and plan to take care of this on Monday.”

It is Friday and I have not yet gotten a reply.

The tacit gender bias and sexism in the survey is one thing. What bothers me more is the way so many of my friends simply laugh it off as irrelevant. Attitudes like that continue sexism against women.

Is it really OK to laugh off gender bias?

I don’t think so.

I think men and woman should stand up against subtle sexism in the associations, businesses, workplaces, religious institutions, communities and homes in which we live and work.

Here is the letter I sent to MBRA:

December 3, 2014

Dear Ms. Fear:

This morning I took the Michigan Bicycle Racing Association’sCategorically Speaking Survey” emailed to MBRA members on December 1, 2014. I was happy to participate since the challenge race promoters face in combining fields resonates with me as a female racer. I understand the need to create competitive yet fair fields for racers. Having spent two years as the President of an all-female, multi-sport team with members regularly participating in MBRA races, I recognize the struggles women face when participating in amateur bicycle racing. These struggles are global and they affect women at all levels of the sport.

When I reached the end of the “Categorically Speaking” survey, and read the final option for Male Masters Riders, I was aghast. Providing men with the options “40+ with kids and families” separate from “40+ single no kids” rattled a realization (Click here for full survey). If the question is serious, then MBRA leadership discounts the struggle women face in equalizing cycling as a sport. If the question is meant in jest, then MBRA tacitly agrees to perpetuating patriarchal humor, perhaps in the spirit of “what’s the big deal?” Either way, the question sparked concern in me. Professional female cyclists from around the world fight for recognition as equals in racing and in payouts. That women who love competitive cycling have to fight for equality makes this survey question seem way out of line. Why include an inappropriate question at the end of a statewide survey emailed to all MBRA members?

Fellow racers suggest the survey question is not a big deal and simply a joke. They assure me that MBRA is being funny and not intending the question to be taken seriously. If MBRA used the question as an attempt at humor, the problem becomes worse. Humor is a ubiquitous way to normalize and perpetuate patriarchal and sexist mindsets. Women who call people or organizations out on sexist language, as I did in a simple Facebook status today, get shamed and silenced into “letting it go” (as also happened to me today). Women need to be proactive in the male-dominated sport of competitive cycling and fight against gender bias. Allowing this detrimental question to end the MBRA survey does a disservice to the sport as a whole and embarrasses me as a member.

If the question is a prank, then the validity of the survey is null. Assuming MBRA tried to end with a jocular question, using language that can be misconstrued limits the quality of your research tool, and creates biased, statistically insignificant results. At the very least, this question is unprofessional and misleading.

I’m not sure if your survey question was legitimate or intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Either way, I hope that MBRA will give more thought in future communications about the effect that seemingly harmless humor and innocuous jokes have on institutionalizing and embedding sexism and patriarchy in a sport already struggling to achieve equal rights for women. While I enjoy ribald conversation and edgy discourse, I also recognize when a line of chauvinism has been crossed. At such a point, taking a proactive stance against misplaced, slanted comments becomes the only option.

I look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,

Jane Van Hof

Member, MBRA

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