Hearts, minds and eyes: Mara Abbott on the equality and visibility of women’s cycling

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Equality (or lack thereof) in cycling has been a widely discussed topic on Ella this past week. Visit the comments section of our news story on the plans proposed by the UCI Women’s Working group or our feature on wages in professional women’s cycling, and it becomes abundantly clear that there are many, varied views on the problems and their proposed solutions. Mara Abbott gives further context to this discussion in her Ella column, arguing that visibility is required for sustainability equality. 

As much as a race victory means to the riders and staff who contribute to it, there is generally a small problem with its economic value: it doesn’t really have one. In 2008, as a wide-eyed neo-pro on Columbia-High Road, I was initially shocked by the galling salary discrepancy between the male and female riders, even within the same organisation. Here is the real bummer about it – the chasm was actually absolutely fair.

In fact, we were darn lucky the boys were there to support us. The sponsorship dollars brought in by just the women’s faction would in no way have sustained our program. We could face a grimmer picture, but for the grace of male media leverage.

In the intervening years, not a lot has changed. Over the last decade, mainstream TV and newspaper coverage has consistently devoted one to four percent (depending on exact sources studied) of sports coverage to female athletes. Let’s be real: a savvy sponsor looking to generate media impressions with potential customers is going for the 95 percent visibility option. Frankly, I don’t blame them.

In 2010, I won the women’s Giro d’Italia. I discovered it was a fun game to shock people by making them guess my resultant prize split from the most prestigious stage race offered for women. Here is where you can play and make your guess…

The answer is about €500. Roughly enough to fly my bike to Italy and back. Now prepare to be astounded: the men’s total 2014 Giro prize purse was €1.3 million while the women’s offered a measly €18,000. That is just 1.4% of the men’s total, which is … huh. Somewhere roughly between one and four percent.

Fancy that.

Equality discussions in women’s sport inevitably bring up the prized Title IX regulations, an American piece of legislation which sought to prohibit gender discrimination in universities. Wielding a big economic stick of withdrawn federal funding, they mandate statistical parity in collegiate sport participation opportunities. The effect has trickled down to high school where 3.1 million girls currently compete (near the 4.4 million male figure) – a serious u-tickp from 1971’s 294,000.

Yet the world beyond college remains unbothered by Title IX noncompliance penalties, so the trickle up to professional athletics and the trickle out to the hearts of sports fans has clearly been less than impressive. Cozy fairness isn’t cash.

One notable exception is the success story of tennis. Of the 10 highest salaries for female athletes, eight belong to tennis players and the heavily watched Grand Slam events offer gender-equal prize money. Intriguingly, those same Grand Slam events run the men’s and women’s competitions together, handily facilitating fan and media spillover. Cynics may cry “short skirts!”, but we never would have seen Anna Kournikova’s skirt if she hadn’t been on TV.

Some argue that women’s sports just are not as interesting as men’s. We are entitled to preferences – I adore baseball but think little of golf. Yet for those who are interested, the best way to advance the cause is startlingly simple. Just pay attention.

Watch. Engage with other fans. Ask the media for more coverage.

Change must grow organically from genuine interest. One-off program donations and petitions for equality enjoy a moral high ground, but the current reality is that the best sustainable support comes from a reliability of profit. Forget equality – let’s go for visibility.

Title IX itself is not just for sports. Its more recent headline mentions follow campus rape lawsuits. In this case, bystander intervention and increased reporting are recommended as the best ways to dispel the “culture of secrecy” that enables sexual misconduct in universities. Thus Title IX provides restitution, but it again does not address cause. We would have to pay attention for that.

Forty years ago, Billie Jean King became a poster girl for the viability of women’s sports when she beat Bobbie Riggs in the infamous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match. She later explained, in context of Title IX, that her goal was “to change the hearts and minds of people to match the legislation.”

Legislation is a starting place. But to create sustainable progress, we do not need only hearts and minds, we also need eyes. After all, regardless of the sound it makes – to invoke an old riddle – if a tree falls unnoticed in the forest I’m pretty sure no lumberjacks get paid.

About the author:

Mara was a swimmer before she was a cyclist. She swam competitively from the age of nine all the way through her senior year of college. A seasonal sport at Whiteman College, swimming left Mara with more time on her hands than she was accustomed to, so she turned to cycling. Her talent was immediately apparent. She won the collegiate national title (Division II) in the women’s road race at the end of her first season.

Mara turned pro with Webcor. She flourished on the States-based squad, winning the U.S Elite National Championships road title in her second year as a professional. The win, accompanied by consistent podiums achieved throughout the season, saw Mara move across to HTC-Highroad. Since then, she’s ridden for Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12, Diadora Pasta Zara, Exergy Twenty16 and UnitedHealthCare. She joins Wiggle Honda for the 2015 season.

She became the first American to win the Giro Donne (now called Giro Rosa), riding for the U.S National Team in 2010. She repeated the feat three years later.

Of course, Mara is much more than the bike. She’s an avid yoga practitioner and certified instructor. She a board member of both the City of Boulder Environmental Advisory Board and the Daily Camera Editorial Advisory Board. She’s a staunch proponent of bike commuting and a very proud new homeowner in the city of Boulder.

And now she’s an Ella columnist, too.

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