Editor’s note: Janel Holcomb is chairman of the board and Robin Farina is chief executive officer of the Women’s Cycling Association. This is their response to Matthew Beaudin’s article, “Women’s movement: The slow march toward equality,” which was published in the January 2015 issue of Velo magazine.
In his January 2015 VeloNews article, “Women’s movement: The slow march toward equality,” Matthew Beaudin characterized the women’s cycling movement as “filled with potential, largely unrealized,” heavily supporting the “We can’t change the sport overnight” position of UCI president Brian Cookson. Therein lies the problem — the attitude of “we can’t” versus “we will”.
The “right” questions beg to be asked:
• Is it the function of the UCI to advance cycling for everyone — males and females? Don’t we want everyone to cycle?
• If women or any subset of men and women cyclists are underrepresented, is it the responsibility of UCI to address such underrepresentation?
• Should the world cycling community expect the governing board and committees of UCI to be equally composed of males and females using 100 percent of the talent available instead of just half of our population to advance the mission of the organization?
• Where is the financially-supported action plan to grow women’s cycling, to increase media attention and elevate sponsor attractiveness? The voicing of an organization’s commitment to gender equality or advancing women’s cycling goes nowhere without a corresponding investment of time, energy and resources and a clear strategic plan dictating the path to be traveled by the organization.
The answers to these questions are important. As important is the need to identify and shatter many of the myths holding back the development of women’s cycling. For instance, contrary to popular thought, the viewership and readership of women’s cycling is not a function of public interest. Rather it is the outcome of a lack of persistent intentional promotion by cycling teams, national and international cycling governing bodies, and cycling race promoters. For example, television ratings are determined by three primary factors: whether the program is (1) in prime time when most people are watching, (2) scheduled at a predictable time so people know when and where to tune in (with both of these factors determined by the programming administrator), and (3) promoted — advertised so the event is known to the viewership and perceived to be important and exciting. The high ratings achieved by the last women’s FIFA World Cup reflected ESPN’s delivery of all three of these elements.
Media metrics also reflect the interests of the predominantly male sports editors who determine newspaper, television, and other electronic media content. There is little doubt that they are more interested in men’s sports than women’s sports. Contrary to popular thought, editors and programmers don’t conduct polls to determine public interest and then decide what stories they will put in their newspaper. Should we expect the media covering our sport to have a bias in favor of men’s cycling? Like most sports, are we looking at cycling journalists who are 90 percent male? Should we expect more balanced coverage from journalists, or are we all just buying in to the myth of the public not being interested in women’s sports?
Changing media coverage is not about the president of UCI asking the media to be better. It’s about UCI making concrete structural changes in the presentation of cycling that incent the media to provide more equal coverage. What would be the marketing metrics or media numbers if both men and women participated in the Tour de France — or any other major event — as they do in the Boston Marathon, Wimbledon, U.S. Open Tennis, and the French Open? What if the event promoters or sport governance properties put the same financial backing and effort into the women’s race as they do the men’s race in these “majors?” What if the awards ceremony featured the male and female athlete who each won their Tour de France race standing together? What if the press conference following the race featured the male and female winners? What if the top male and female racers appeared together at the pre-event and during-event press conferences? What would the media coverage look like then? What if the winners received the same prize money? What if UCI adopted such policies as conditions for its own events or as conditions for all sanctioned events?
We need the UCI to take strong actions to lead change rather than commenting on the lack of change. And for sure, offering justifications for why change isn’t happening faster is not going to help move the needle. When UCI president Cookson says, “We at the UCI are doing our part, and we want the media to step up and do their own part,” such words don’t make change happen. We must structure our sport in a way that demonstrates we value men’s and women’s cycling equally. What might these actions look like? What if the UCI convened the major World Cup property owners and asked them to include women and treat them equally, following the lead of sports like professional tennis, where elevating the stature of women in the top world tennis opens increased the overall economic value of these major events properties. And yes, they all award equal purses to their male and female winners.
Why doesn’t UCI have the “can do” attitude and passion for women’s cycling? The composition of the UCI Management Committee is telling. Only one of 15 of the current members is female. How would UCI approach the development of women’s cycling if the Management Committee was 50-50 male/female or there was a rotation of UCI presidents by gender, or even if the Board representation corresponded to the proportion of all UCI members who are women? What if the Board members looked at each other across the conference room table and said, “We can do this. We want boys and girls to look at UCI cycling and know by what they see on television at our sport’s major events that this is an organization that respects men and women equally.”
The intent of the authors is not to point a finger of blame or to express anger or frustration. Our point is that we need to examine the way our sport, cycling, is presented, and compare it to what we are actually doing and what we can do. Our aspirations should be loftier. Our commitment to equal treatment of our sons and daughters should carry the same commitment and passion of parents. We know that gender discrimination is a historical artifact that is real and that our UCI leadership does not intend to perpetuate a cultural anachronism. We are just asking for a stronger commitment and “can do” attitude, not only on the part of the UCI leadership, but our entire membership. What do we want our sport to look like and stand for? Whose responsibility is it to promise and ensure equal treatment to our daughters? “We’ve all got a part to play,” according to Cookson. But, shouldn’t it start from the top — the overall governing body of our sport? UCI should be leading the charge for equal treatment! We must expect more of our international leaders in cycling — UCI, USA Cycling, and their leadership. We must expect more of ourselves. If not us, who?