We’ve all heard the gender stereotype, that women are supposed to be more cooperative while men are supposed to be more competitive. I generally tend to push back against such gender-essentialist ways of looking at the world because they fail to account for the variability of individuals, as well as for the way people actually interact. Take sports. Sports are, at their core, competitive, but success within sports requires the ability to cooperate, both with teammates and coaches. And interpersonal competitiveness is not something you only see in men. Just ask anyone who has ever had a run-in with a “queen bee.” Over my thirty-three years I’ve learned that all kinds of people have all kinds of personalities, and that those personalities don’t often correlate to expectations based on that person’s race or gender or sexuality.
Consequently my hackles tend to go up whenever I see anything that appears to fall into that kind of reductionist thinking. In fact, I was all ready for them to go up when I came across an article by Amby Burfoot at Runners World entitled “Why Are Women Runners Less Competitive Than Men”? Oh man, they were so ready to spring into action so I could pound my keyboard furiously in a righteous feminist rage. How dare he, etc. etc. After all, the researcher cited in the article, Robert Deaner, has been used by dudes like John Tierney to justify retrograde gender mores using pseudo-science for years now. He’s pretty much begging for some righteously feminist keyboard-pounding, don’t you think?
Then I read the article.
Check this out:
[Deaner]’s saying that the women who finish in 5th, 10th, and nth place behind the female race winners are often farther back, relatively, than the 5th, 10th, and nth place male finishers. That is, the 10th place female might be 15 percent behind the female winner, while the 10th place male is likely to be only 10 percent behind the male winner.
Now I’ve been running for about six years now, and I’ve been consistently grabbing age group awards for the last five of those years. I don’t always age-group, but even when I don’t, I am usually in the top ten percent. This happens even though my times, while good, are still slower than those of a decent high-school cross-country runner. For the first few years, I jokingly explained my age-group awards as resulting from the fact that all of the other women in my age group were too busy having babies. But then I moved up into the 30-34 age group, and the same thing held true. In my local racing community, I can think of about three or four women in my age group who consistently beat me. This is true even though I am a six foot tall woman with hips who did not run in high school and who smoked for nearly a decade and a bunch of other factors that don’t really mark me as the kind of person you’d think of as a “natural runner.”
(I’m not the only female runner to make this observation. RoseRunner, who, by the way, is an outstanding runner who would knock the compression shorts off me if we ever raced each other, has written in the past about the same thing.)
Meanwhile, my husband, who races in the 50-54 age group, is posting times that are as fast as mine, if not faster, and he doesn’t win age-group awards nearly as often as I do, because he is also racing against a lot of men who can do things like run 20-minute 5Ks. His age group of middle-aged men is much, much more competitive than my age group of young women.
The interesting thing is that my age groups tend to be among the biggest at any given race, so it’s not as if I’m like the 70-year-old who age-groups just because I show up, you know? The women are showing up in droves at races, but they just tend to be less competitive than their male counterparts.
Over time I’ve developed a couple of theories about this. One thing I’ve seen is that a lot of women who do run tend to run with companions – usually their friends or maybe their sisters or something like that. Running is this fun, social thing they do, a way of getting fit and healthy while having a good time and getting a cool medal and t-shirt. Another thing I’ve seen is that women – especially women with kids – don’t have the time to put into aspects of training that will help them get faster, like speed workouts at tracks, or piling on the kind of mileage to help them build endurance. I have other ideas – that some women feel too embarrassed to physically exert themselves in public, that the idea of competitiveness as being “unladylike” still persists to a certain degree – but I have no way of knowing how true any of this is.
All I know is that if women I race against were as competitive as the men my husband races against, the number of age group awards in my possession would easily be reduced by half. I’m just not that good of a runner.
Burfoot’s article goes on to address a second piece of research that confirms what Deaner found and provides some possible explanations:
Marquette University’s Sandra Hunter and Alyssa Stevens concluded that roughly a third of the difference between male and female race distributions is due to the lower participations rates of women. When more women participate, the top 10 women get more competitive.
Those explanations did not include physical factors like VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy.
Hunter and Stevens went on to say that as the number of women toeing the line has increased, so has their competitiveness:
In one telling analysis, Hunter and Stevens found that the male-female distribution gap shrank over the 31 years, as more women began competing.
That’s awesome news, especially for someone like me, who is highly competitive and who very much thrives off of going up against others who are bringing their A-game. I train hard, I race hard, I do speedwork, I do strength training, I watch videos, I do drills, I do all sorts of things that are geared toward one goal: making me a better, faster racer.
Now, I do think it’s worth unpacking the possible social implications of this discrepancy. If women are less inclined to be competitive because of social connotations that a competitive woman is somehow unladylike, then that is worth addressing. But I also think that as time goes on, and more girls are born into a world in which they see more women competing as athletes and hear fewer messages about the supposed freakish nature of those women, those girls are going to in turn grow up to be women who will be more inclined to embrace that competitive spirit and not view it as somehow antithetical to their femininity. I strongly believe that over time, the competitiveness gap will narrow, and maybe even one day vanish.
But I also think it’s worth talking about the fact that not everyone aspires to be fast or to lead the pack or to win age-group awards, and – hold on to your butts, because this is the real mind-blowing part – this is okay. You can run or do triathlon or compete or play sports for whatever reasons you want, and it’s perfectly okay.
This is what seems to be missing out on conversations about the relative competitiveness of men v. women, which is that there are a lot of reasons why people get out and spend their weekend mornings at road races, and that competition is not necessarily one of those reasons. The implied assumption of a lot of this research – and the articles and discussion that follows – is that competitiveness is sort of like the Holy Grail of running, that it is inherently more valuable than racing for social reasons or even just to complete it. Even though I myself am very competitive, I question the idea that I am somehow superior to someone who is, say, running for the sake of completing the race.
It comes back to that whole debate about valuing so-called “male” qualities at the expense of “female” qualities. Why must we posit everything as a hierarchy, in which one thing is devalued in order to give another thing value? What do we lose out on when we discard one set of values in praise of another? I say we accept that there are a lot of ways to be a runner, and that almost* all of them are perfectly fine.
*Except if you like to tweet during races. Even my expansive sense of open-mindedness cannot accommodate runners who tweet during races. Put your damn phone away, okay?