It’s 2024 and women still aren’t treated equitably in our sport – here’s what needs to change and why

participants taking part in the 2023 tcs london marathon on 23rd april 2023 in london, united kingdom the london marathon is a long distance running event, which was first run in 1981 and has been held in the spring of every year since the race is mainly known for being a public race where ordinary people can challenge themsleves while raising great amounts of money for various charities photo by mike kempin pictures via getty images
Tackling gender inequality at running races Mike Kemp

It’s been just 53 years since the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), the then-governing body of track and field and distance running, lifted the ban on women taking part in marathons.

The following year, in 1972, the New York Marathon allowed women to take part for the first time.

Six women took part that day – and all six women sat down on the start line in Central Park to protest against the governing body.

For years, the AAU had disseminated unfounded ‘scientific’ research claiming that running posed a health risk to women (including that it harmed a woman’s fertility).

And even though it had revoked its ruling to allow women to enter marathons officially, this only applied to ‘certain women’ – with no guidance as to who this term applied to. Female runners also had to start their race 10 minutes before or after the men, or on a different starting line, a ruling that was viewed by many runners of the day as another act of discrimination.

At that time, many felt it was objectionable for women to participate in sports, due to the supposed lack of ‘femininity’ associated with working up a sweat.

Running shoes for women weren’t yet manufactured and an Olympic women’s marathon didn't exist – and would not until 1984.

It’s staggering to believe this was just a few decades ago. Gender inequality, both societally and within running, has improved drastically since then, and the needle is moving in the right direction, although no country has yet achieved full gender equality.

In the running world, participation is levelling – women are now as likely to be runners as men, with women making up over half of runners globally.

But gender biases still exist, meaning women can still face barriers to participation in exercise – especially when it comes to racing.

ASICS’ recent (February 2024) gender gap study, for example, found that over half of women in the UK are having to stop exercising completely due to lifestyle pressures, with lack of time to exercise – especially among mothers – being a huge factor. In the survey, participants frequently described how social expectations about gender roles, particularly around household responsibilities, played a major part in them stopping exercise.

Depressingly, women continue to be under-represented at mass participation running races across the board – and especially when it comes to ultra distances, where women make up less than 20% of starters.

And although, for the most part, the gender participation gap at the World Marathon Majors is edging closer to a 50:50 split, we’re not there yet: at the Tokyo Marathon last year, just 23.6% of finishers were women.

But according to British ultrarunner and campaigner Sophie Power, there are many things race organisers can do to ensure women are encouraged to race and have more opportunity to be on that start line.

Two years ago Power set up SheRACES, a campaign aimed at making the racing experience more inclusive for female runners and equally valuing the female competition. The aim is to not just to get more women on our start lines, but to ensure they are treated equitably when they get there.

In 2018, a photo of Power breastfeeding her three-month-old baby at an aid station of the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) went viral. UTMB’s deferral policy meant that she would have lost her place in the race if she didn’t compete the year she’d given birth. She'd already lost her place back in 2014 for the same reason and, had she not taken part that year, would have had to go have gone through the lengthy process of re-qualifying.

Since then, she’s been campaigning tirelessly to change these kinds of rules so that other women don't have to experience what she did. ⁠

Central to the SheRACES campaign is a set of guidelines written for race directors to help support female athletes – including the implementation of fair pregnancy deferral policies, whereby women are not penalised for having a child and can take their place on the start line when they are ready.

‘The way that we’ve been moving forward has got us a long way over the last two years,’ says Power. ‘So many races have completely embraced the SheRACES guidelines, which has been amazing. But we need to get to the next step and it takes the people with power in the sport to not just want to be inclusive but really deeply think about all the things they can do.’

Fair pregnancy policies

Thanks to campaigning by SheRACES, as well as by other activists, including Alisa Paterson and Fiona English, all but one (Tokyo) of the major marathons have changed their pregnancy policies to allow women to defer their place – some for three years, others for two. First came Berlin, then London, followed by Boston, Chicago and the New York City Marathon last year.

However, when New York made the announcement, event organisers New York Road Runners came under fire for their policy, which requires women to pay for their entry fee twice – $295 for non-NYRR members.

Now, it’s emerged that both London and Boston’s policies also require women to pay twice for their place if they choose to defer. ‘Because of the way the London Marathon announced it and the wording on the event website, we didn’t realise,’ says Power, although she caveats that they have now amended the copy this week to make this clearer.

Up to now, aside from Tokyo (which is yet to implement a pregnancy deferral policy at all), it’s just the Berlin and Chicago Marathons that offer a no-pay-again policy. ‘We worked directly with Chicago,’ says Power. ‘They sat down with us, listened and quickly agreed this was the right thing to do. There should not be a tax on motherhood. A lot of the women who message us tell us that it’s not just about getting their place back, it’s about the money – it’s very hard to spend money on yourself once you become a mother.'

SheRACES has also campaigned to UTMB – which now spawns a World Series and 36 events – for a number of years to change their pregnancy deferral policy and, in April last year, it did just that. ‘They came out with the strongest policy in the world, which is: we'll give you your money back straightaway. And we’ll give you that opportunity to enter for the next five years,’ says Power.

‘The stories I got through my inbox at the time…it meant so much to women. That opportunity and that date in their diaries to get fit after they have had their babies – it’s so powerful. It really genuinely changes lives and a woman’s trajectory of physical activity for life.’

Putting the onus on brands

So, how can we encourage races to actively consider how they support female athletes?

This International Women’s Day (IWD), SheRACES is calling on brands who sponsor major races to act as enablers for change. ‘We’re seeing this disconnect between brands who say they’re committed to inclusivity and will put out all this marketing material for IWD about the women they sponsor and how they support women, and yet they continue to sponsor races that aren’t inclusive of women,’ she says.

‘We’ve had some great conversations this week already – brands just haven’t been thinking about it yet but as soon as we make them aware they want to be supportive. There’s no reason for them not to.

‘The call to action for runners is: if a race isn’t offering women a fair experience, look at who’s sponsoring it and contact them. If a race has sold out, they may not be worried about getting more women on the start line, but they will listen to their sponsors.’

SheRACES has designed a checklist for sponsors to work through when making a decision on sponsoring an event to determine whether it’s inclusive of women. It includes fair pregnancy policies, as well things like providing period products in race toilets, offering both female- and male-fit T-shirts and ensuring race imagery is welcoming and inclusive of women of all ages, shapes and ethnicities.

‘In a recent survey, 88% of women told us they were more likely to choose a race that is inclusive of women,’ says Power. ‘So if we can’t get them to commit because it’s the right thing to do, maybe we can get them to commit because it’s the right thing to do for their bottom line.’

An equal race experience

In recent years, a number of big races have made great strides in making the race experience inclusive and supportive of women – including the introduction of breastfeeding stations on course for mums who are pumping or breastfeeding. ‘Berlin were first to go, “Yes, this just makes sense, we’ll do it” and we’ve worked with Chicago who are now providing breastfeeding stations as well,’ says Power.

Last year, the London Marathon also introduced breastfeeding stations for women for the first time – one just before the halfway point on the course and one at the finish. It also introduced a number of other provisions to support women, including free sanitary products for female runners at all medical stations, information points and changing rooms, as well as other female-specific items including hair ties and grips, breast pads, tissues and wet wipes.

‘London is phenomenal in so many aspects,’ says Power. ‘Also, the grassroots work they do with local communities [to get more women into sport], they’re really committed. They’ve also just announced an equal prize pot for the elite wheelchair race. It’s groundbreaking. But yet they’re still making women pay twice for their place if they’ve had a baby.’

Respect and celebrate the elite women’s field

Despite this, Power commends the London Marathon for its fair recognition – and celebration of – both the elite women's and elite men’s races, highlighting the importance of this in ensuring female competition is held in equal regard. ‘I love the way the London Marathon has a separate elite female start because you genuinely get to see the female race unfold,’ says Power, ‘whereas you don’t in Chicago, for example, they mix the men and women in together and the best they can do is ask the male athletes if they're around the first female, to make sure they don't run between her and the camera following her so they can see her.’

SheRACES has now also written a set of guidelines for race directors pertaining specifically to the elite field, to ensure elite women have the same quality of competitive experience and exposure. This includes ensuring any coverage of the race, before, during or after, is balanced between both the women’s and men’s field, which is something UTMB have committed to doing for its flagship event in Chamonix this summer.

Freezing the indexes

UTMB has also made another big step forward over the last year in making their events equitable for women: equalising its Indexes for men and women. The UTMB Index represents the overall performance level of a runner, calculated based on their current scores.

‘The points always used to show us as inferior athletes. But when they showed the equalised the Index, the top athletes were Courtney Dauwalter and Camille Herron (two of the top female ultrarunners in the world),’ says Power.

This recognition of the physiological differential between men and women in its scoring system also means that elite women will have fair access to in-race privileges such as car passes for crews.

Some of UTMB’s 100km and 100-mile races also require all runners to have a valid UTMB Index in order to participate. But if a runner does not race for two years, their Index becomes invalid.

What Power wants to see next is for a woman's Index to be frozen if she falls pregnant, meaning she doesn't miss out on the chance to take part in these races as a result.

‘Together with the Pro Trail Runners’ Association, we’ve asked that when women come back to racing, that they can race at their Index before they became pregnant – at a maximum of three years. The other issue is that women don’t want to come and race soon after giving birth because, at six months postpartum, you're not back to your original fitness, and if you race, it lowers your points, which lowers your Index and that stops you getting into races you want to,’ she explains.

We're talking about this

Despite the changes that still need to be happen to make racing equitable for female runners, the fact we are now aware of these inequalities – and talking about them – is a massive step forward, says Power. ‘The number of race directors that message me and say: "I didn’t know, what I didn’t know". And they’re frustrated they haven’t put our guidelines in place beforehand. They want to support female athletes and they just didn’t realise the ways they weren’t.’

That’s why Power wants to empower women to ask race directors if they need something. We tell race directors to encourage people to contact them if they have any questions or need certain support. They tell us it is mostly men who contact them asking for something! But if a woman emails and tells them they’re not quite ready to come back after her baby and can they have another year, more often than not, they will say yes. And they will open the door for other requests.’

Power says she regrets not contacting the race director for support at the Lakeland 100 ultra a few years ago, which she was racing while pumping milk. ‘I had a seven-month-old baby at the time – my third, Saoirse – I carried pumps around the course as she wasn't with me. There was no spare seats in the halfway checkpoint so I had to sit on the grass outside which made it really difficult to handle pumping. This was several years after the photo of me breastfeeding my second child at UTMB had gone viral. I didn’t ask the race director and realised, if I’m not asking, no one is asking!'

Power wants women to have the confidence to know that what they’re asking for they are entitled to. ‘That’s what inclusion is, that’s what equality is – women knowing they are entitled to ask,’ she says.

Next steps

So, what’s the next priority for SheRACES? First, Power wants brands to commit to the charter of only supporting inclusive races. ‘It would be so impactful if every brand went to the races they sponsor, or are looking to sponsor, and just asked those questions. I think if we had that, I think we’d see some really big changes in the next year. If sponsors commit to inclusivity, races will commit to inclusivity.’

‘We’re also going global, with ITRA (International Trail Runners Association) supporting our guidelines and we’re starting to support and conduct research into cycling and triathlon events, too.’

‘Our priority now,’ says Power ‘is securing funding for SheRACES to continue on our mission. It’s been incredible how much change we’ve managed to get in the last two years with very limited resource – further than I could have ever expected. I want to keep SheRACES free for race directors to sign up because the worst thing I can do is put a barrier in the way of races removing barriers! In our campaign for International Women's Day we talk about companies and brands enabling inclusion, not just inspiring it. We’re now looking for the right partners to help us do that.’

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