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Equality Starts at the Finish Line

Why gendered differences in race distances for cross country running are a bad idea.

I recently discovered that boys and girls across Australia run different distances in their cross country races at school. My 12-year-old daughter made me aware of this when she told me in a ‘can you even believe it?’ tone. It’s not unusual that expectations of girls are lower than boys in sport or that girls sport is deemed less important. Girls mostly accept this as normal and rarely bother to question it. Same goes for the parents who all thought it was ‘weird’ that girls and boys ran different distances but said nothing. The problem is, it’s more than ‘weird’. It’s damaging and we need to stop accepting things like this as ‘just how it is’ and recognise this type of subtle sexism impacts our children and needs to change. There is no valid reason why girls run 1km less than the boys. Running is not a gendered activity.

Some students like running. Some of these students are girls. Some of these students are boys. Some students do not like running. Some of these students are girls. Some of these students are boys.

In my initial conversation with the school I was told “Girls don’t really like running, we can hardly get them to participate in 3km let alone 4”. I heard some version of this ‘increasing participation theme’ several times. Besides being irrelevant in a school where the event is compulsory, this thinking is problematic and has the opposite effect on girl’s participation in sports. Running is not a gendered activity. Being a girl or a boy does not dictate whether or not you like running. However, gender stereotypes do contribute to lower participation and higher dropout rates of girls in sport in their teenage years.

Girls are conditioned from an early age to underestimate their own abilities. It starts when we encourage girls to be princesses rather than superheroes, when we tell them to be careful and not climb too high up the tree. It continues through most of their lives and is reinforced by policies such as these which unnecessarily modify activities on account of their gender. It is no wonder that teenage girls drop out of sport at significantly higher rates than boys when we have been telling them for most of their life, albeit subtly, that sport is not really important for them. When boys are encouraged to run far, girls are encouraged to just ‘have a ago’. When boys are encouraged to push themselves, girls are encouraged to enjoy themselves and not take it too seriously. When girls are competitive they are labelled bitchy, when boys are competitive they are celebrated.

Research has shown that when gender stereotypes such as these are conveyed to young people from their social environment, they lead to increased drop out of sport. When we tell young girls they can do anything then modify activities for them without good reason, the message becomes, you can do anything just not as well as the boys. We convey a lack of confidence in their capabilities. Conveying this lack of confidence in capability also adds to an increase likelihood of withdraw from that activity. Conversely, assigning competence to individuals in sporting activities, by assuming capability leads to increased motivation and likelihood of maintaining engagement in the activity. So while schools have assumed that making things easier for the girls will keep them engaged, it most likely has the opposite effect.

If the real intention is to increase girls participation in the sport, teachers, schools and governing bodies need to encourage this by expressing high perceptions of female athlete’s capabilities. In short, expect more. This leads to an increase in girl’s confidence in themselves which in turn will likely increase engagement and participation in the sport.

Schools across WA justified the policy by saying they were simply following the lead of their governing sporting body. For my daughter’s school and 89 others in Western Australia, that is the Associated Catholic Colleges Association (ACC). When I approached the ACC to ask why they still have this policy in place (given that it was implemented over 30 years ago) they informed me they were governing on behalf of the heads of sports of all ACC schools. I was informed that these people had voted to maintain the gender differences in distance only 5 years ago. Rather than the schools following the policy of the ACC, the ACC was implementing the policy voted for by the schools.

These 89 schools across Western Australia are responsible for the education of more than 50000 students at any one time. All of the heads of sports of these schools supported the maintenance of these gendered stereotypes in cross country running. I think it would not be unreasonable to suggest that unconscious agreement with these stereotypes in this instance, may suggest agreement with them in others. This is of great concern, not only for our girls but our boys and I can’t help but wonder, if boys are posited as more capable than girls in this area, how this subtle power dynamic may play out in other areas of the school.

School Sports Australia enforce this gender difference in race distances and responded to questions about why, by saying that it is ‘simply following the lead of the world standards’. They responded to my email by acknowledging it was a ‘very interesting question’. Perhaps more than agreement with the policy what I see is large scale conformity. We need to become more gender conscious in our schools. Challenge gender stereotypes by taking actions to rid our schools of policies that reinforce the limiting and destructive gender roles created for our children lifetimes ago. Standardising the race distances in age groups in the cross country event is one simple way we can do this. Although this appears to be a small thing there are hundreds of small things in all elements of our lives when added together gain the power to place limits on us all — based not on what we are capable of or enjoy, but whether we are female or male.

Leesha is a Sexuality Educator, writer and Psychotherapist specialising in adolescent sexuality, diversity, gender, relationships and wellbeing.

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