Equal Prize Money – the FAQs

TLDR: I trawled the internet following the spread of my recent Cycling Weekly article, and read everything everyone had to say about it and why they thought I was wrong. Here’s why I think I’m (mostly) not wrong.

As a prelude to this, I would ask anyone reading it who disagrees with equal prizes for women to read it with an open mind. I’m not keen to engage in the keyboard warrior approach on Facebook posts as I don’t think it generates meaningful discussion, it’s unlikely to change anyone’s mind, and I think because of the nature of the forum those with mild opinions and those who feel more vulnerable voicing their opinion in a male dominated space (most likely women) are less likely to do so. The summaries below are my personal opinions of why these things matter, backed by some of the research that’s been done into the gender gap in sport, and responding indirectly to the main arguments I’ve seen circulating online against equal prizes.

1. Prize money* isn’t the problem.

(Followed by either (a) I’ve seen events with equal prize money and still very few women (b) women’s participation won’t increase because of equal prizes)

You’re right, prize money isn’t the problem

Sure, prize money isn’t the problem. Personally, I’d say unequal prize money and prize structures that fail to celebrate or recognize women are actually a symptom of a much bigger problem. Systemic inequality means vastly fewer women continue to pursue sport in their adult life than men, but within cycling and in time-trialling specifically we need to recognize that this disparity is greater than in other sports. There are so many reasons why this could be and it’s certainly beyond me to solve these, and the scope of this to explore why – but as a starter for ten my top three would be:

  1.  Gender inequality in ‘unpaid care work’ – women carry so much more of the care burden and responsibility in this country than men, it’s pretty hard to train sufficiently and find the time for events in the evenings and at weekends if you’ve got children or elderly parents who you need to prioritise your time for or find care for during the time you’re training and racing. (See this ONS research on the gender gap in unpaid work)
  2. Higher entry barriers to the sport of cycling, and in particular time-trialling.  It costs more both in terms of financial and time commitment to get to the point of racing in a bike race (of any form) than starting out in many other sports. Against a background where women’s time is under pressure the cost of a bike, shoes, helmet, and the time to train may be a prohibitive investment to start in a sport you’re not yet sure about. There are many much easier options for women motivated to start a sport – team sports like football, or netball or individual sports like running, walking, or swimming. I think this exacerbates the disparity we see in cycling, and even further in time-trialling. This also obviously won’t be the case for all women – as proven by the many who do compete.  
  3. Disparity within the sport of cycling – overcoming the barriers to entering the sport is going to take some motivation. Many women are brought into the sport by a friend, family member, or partner. In a situation where there are far fewer women in the sport at present, it is easy to imagine how lack of role models (by which I mean fellow women who’ve picked up cycling) would stop women from even considering that they might enjoy cycling and could be cyclists.

Actions we can take

So, instead of addressing the disparity in care burden, or the cost of entering the sport, we can take actions to show that the women in the sport are welcome. One thing we can change is prize structures. Changing prize structures has knock on effects too – celebrating the top three women (for example), then taking a picture of them with their brown envelopes and posting it on social media shows women who don’t yet cycle that people just like them take part in this sport, and succeed, and are celebrated.

The women’s podium from the University of Bristol Belmont Hill Climb, 2018. Some clubs have been getting this right for a while! Image: Kate Mactear

Small changes are greater than the sum of their parts

This argument (“Prize money isn’t the problem”) also seems to come up in response to many individual actions to address gender inequality in the sport of cycling. I closely follow the Internationelles, who campaign yearly for a women’s Tour de France (TDF) equivalent by riding the route of the planned men’s tour a day ahead of them. I see their critics comment that a women’s TDF won’t make more women cycle or enter events or race, or that there won’t be the women to race a TDF-like multistage event. It came up too in the campaigns for the end of podium girls at the TDF – ‘not having podium girls isn’t going to make women start cycling’ etc (e.g. comments on this piece). Equally, our critics say equal prize money won’t make women enter and race events or encourage more women to get involved in the first place.

But here’s the thing – imagine how different cycling will look when there is a women’s TDF, when the only women on screen in the TDF television coverage aren’t the podium girls in dresses and heels kissing the riders but strong women in lycra who just raced a tough stage, and imagine when all events give equal prizes to the male and female competitors. Changes will be made incrementally, but together they will be more than the sum of their parts and cycling will change for the better. Additionally, pushing for equality of prizes is not directly about participation – primarily it’s about equality, and changing the treatment of women in cycling. 

For anyone who missed it, following changes to reduce the number of people present at podium ceremonies due to coronavirus guidance, the ASO announced they will be ending the use of podium girls. They’ve also announced plans for a 2021 women’s Tour de France. Change can happen.

The Internationelles campaign for a women’s Tour de France, and are quite honestly inspiring. Image: Attacus Cycling Press Handout

2. But there are fewer women entering so why should we give them equal prize money? That’s like men subsidizing their prizes…

Yes, equal prize money will in many cases result in disproportionate prize allocation

And there’s something that seems logical about this argument, because yes, in a sport which is around 85% male* there will be more men paying entry fees than women. If prizes are equal for both sexes, and there are fewer female competitors then men will effectively subsidise the prize fund for women.

But that shouldn’t be a problem. This is about equality, not proportionality. Equally celebrating women’s achievements in no way undermines the achievements of the male field. Further, no one enters an event expecting to receive a certain proportion of their entry fee back as prize money.** Actually, something I come across often is people making the point that no one enters club time trial events for the prize money anyway.

So why not (if you’re a man) allow some of your entry fee to contribute towards celebrating the historically underrecognized women’s side of the sport? It’s also about looking forwards, and making the changes now so that the sport can grow in the future and so that women new to racing are not put off by attitudes reflected in prize structures which fail to celebrate them or list them as ‘other’. Finally, it’s worth remembering that the way the sport functions isn’t set in stone. There was a time when women weren’t allowed to race, there was a time when they couldn’t compete at the national hill climb, and I’m sure we’ll look back on this time where prize inequality was widespread.

(*Data: Strava times from the R25/3h – 13.6% female, Strava times from the F11/10 – 13.2% female. Both chosen due to course popularity, rather than issues specifically with these courses.)

**Also worth considering that your average men already subsidise the prizes for the fast men, who, as some have pointed out online are a minority within the male field.

There are some great things happening in women’s cycling, and women’s participation continues to increase. This picture is from the finale of the Women’s Summer Series at Odd Down (Bath), organised by Felix Young of Avid Sport (Centre) Image: Emily Somerville

3. I’m a woman and I enter these events anyway and enjoy them/have a good experience; there’s not a problem

Sometimes followed with: women just need to be braver and get involved

No woman speaks for all women, me included

It’s great that some women have had a positive experience in the world of cycling and don’t feel that this is problem. However, the data tell a different story of a broader picture where women are under-represented and reports looking at the gender play gap give some indication as to the barriers which may stop women from participating equally. Fundamentally, the women who are already competing are something of a self-selecting sample – those who have overcome barriers to participation and competition – whether they experienced them or not. There is also significant regional variation in equality of prize structures and hence experience of this specific aspect of equality will vary by region. For example, in 2019, in the London West District, 94% of time trials provided equal prize money to the top male and female finishers.

I’m genuinely glad that for some women, competing in time trials has only been positive. I also love time-trial events and have found the community to be incredibly supportive. Starting hill climbs as a complete beginner I was cheered on by fellow competitors, given useful advice and welcomed into that community. I’d love it even more if equality was a given. Spectating the comments which have formed around my recent article has shown me that attitudes actively against equality persist in some corners of time-trialling – and that’s why we need the rule change. In my view, it shouldn’t be an individual’s discretion whether women have equal prizes or not, I’d like to see the guidance come from higher up. Equally this is a good point to give a major kudos to all the organisers, volunteer, and timekeepers who make our sport happen, and even moreso to the ones pushing equality already.

This is an issue which permeates cycling at all levels

In addition, it’s not just about our local time trials and their brown envelopes. Changing the sport at a grass roots level goes to show how attitudes are changing and how the sport can progress. The issue of prize money is one that permeates the sport at all levels. Whilst those competing in CTT events don’t do so for the money, at professional level the disparity is mirrored, and these athletes and their teams do compete for the prize money. Whether it impacts each individual woman is a different story, but for the professional side of the sport to be healthy and teams to be sustainable there needs to be change. Changing the sport at the grassroots level sets a precedent that this can be done, and is the right thing to do – as has already been done by some major pro races like the Tour de Yorkshire, and the Tour of Britain.

(L) Meg Dickerson, a picture she calls ‘the stoke when there’s equal prize money’ (R) The women’s winners from the Bristol Road Club Bridge Too Far Women’s Road Race (2018)

4. But what about the juniors/juveniles/vets? Why is this just for women?

In an ideal world, yes, we’d do equality throughout.

This one comes up every now and then, and I get it. In an ideal world, I would love to see equality throughout the prize structure – recognizing female vets equally to male vets, and female juniors equal to males. In fact, there are some events that do this already – my own club, Bristol South CC has structured prizes in this way at its Hill Climb for a number of years. Our local series – the Western hill climb series went even further and this year provided series prizes which were equal across all categories – visibly celebrating a podium of female vets and juniors. This sort of effort for juniors and juveniles feels especially important as these riders are the very future of our sport.

Leading the way: The Western Hill Climb series run across the hill climb series and awards prizes. This year, a full podium of series prizes was awarded for male and female vets, male and female juniors alongside the male/female and team classifications. Visual publicity like this on social media is so important.

But, equality for women should be a priority

However, whilst this is brilliant and something I thoroughly encourage, I see achieving equality for women as the priority. We need to separate that women are not a category on a par with v50s or espoirs. Women are an equal category to men, and the age categories are sub-classifications within either male or female. As an individual, you will flow through the categories of juvenile, junior, espoir, senior and veteran if you’re in the sport long enough. As a female competitor, you have no access* to the prizes for males. Equality for women as a priority is the right thing to do in my view – it echoes the structures of elite and Olympic sport, and we’re not there yet.

*See the data in this recent article for Cycling Weekly which puts to bed the argument that women can compete for the overall/men’s prizes at TTs if they’re good enough/try hard enough.

5. It’s how it’s always been done

Also known as “but it’s common practice”

Sports have to change as the world around them changes

Given the above, I don’t think I need really to cover this one, beside saying that sports have to change as the world around them changes. We’ve seen that this last year more than ever, and it’s worth remembering there was a day where women weren’t able to compete on bikes period. Needless to say I don’t think it’s a shame that women’s role has evolved beyond making the tea at TTs.

Women of the BSCC Hill Climb

6. Stop moaning, just be grateful

Which I’m going to bundle in with; “if you don’t like it, don’t race”

We’ll stop complaining when there’s equality.

I’ve only seen this argument from men, and a lot of problematic assumptions underly it. In short, it seems pretty flawed to me to ask women to stop complaining when men experience no issues with prizes, are very well represented in racing, and in the bodies which govern the sport. We’ll stop complaining when there’s equality.

In Summary…

Those are the arguments I’ve seen most in the past couple of weeks. The directors of CTT meet tomorrow and I’m keeping everything crossed for a positive outcome. It’s for the future of the sport, for the girls learning to cycle now, for those who follow them, and for their daughters too. It’s the chance to have a positive impact on the sport as a whole, and to future proof its place by including and valuing women wholeheartedly within it.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. 

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