In adulthood, I’ve always been part of fitness groups where the gender split seems pretty even. My running club has as many men as women turning up to training regardless of whether it’s an interval session or a longer, steadier run, and the gyms I’ve been a member of don’t seem to be unbalanced in their member demographics either, whether they’re taking part in a pilates class or a conditioning class with some hefty weights thrown in. But when I started using the cycling app Zwift, I was surprised to see just how male dominated it is. After a few weeks of racing on the app, I consistently found that whenever I took part in an event, I was usually the only woman in my category, and occasionally I was the only woman in the entire race, participants of which can sometimes number in the triple digits. Although this is no way bothered me (as you are put in a category with cyclists of equal ability because of your FTP), it did pique my curiosity as to what the cause of this might be, and whether it was a sports tech issue more broadly.
Some would argue that the gender divide on Zwift is representative of cycling as a whole. A 2018 Sustrans survey found twice as many men as women cycled on a regular basis, and the gender split in the UK is worse compared to other European countries. This was further confirmed by exercise tracking app Strava’s latest annual Year in Sport report, which backed up Sustrans’ findings but also found that women are more likely to cycle in groups. But the same was also true of running, and it was the cause of this that was most interesting to me. Why do women seemingly prefer to exercise in groups? The word that kept coming up was safety.
Is it safe?
So is it all about safety? The stats would certainly seem to suggest that this is a major factor. Looking at those that Tim Grose shared in a Facebook parkrun stats geek group back in August 2019, the male/female ratio of UK parkrunners is 58/42, and marathon races show a similar split of around 60/40. So women are out there running, but they’re not using the tech. There is clearly safety in numbers – there’s no concern about running in a large group of parkrunners on a Saturday morning or in a city marathon, but advertising your solo run around your city on a winter evening is something women are understandably not keen to do. In fact, 37% of bikes rides logged by women in Strava are done as part of a group compared to 27% of men, and when it comes to running 32% of women head out in a group compared to 22% of men, but this rises to nearly 50% for women when the run takes place in the evening.
A 2019 Runners’ World article referenced a recent survey where 84% of women said they have experienced some kind of harassment while running that left them feeling unsafe compared to just 4% of men (from an earlier survey), so is it any wonder that only a calculated 10% of Strava users are female when it can essentially act as a tracking device showing when you are/aren’t at home and your preferred running times and routes? Even if you make your profile private, and only accept followers you know, there will still be that nagging statistic in your mind that most victims of sexual assault know their attacker.
But why the impact on Zwift, when this is essentially done in the safety of your own home? It would seem even in a virtual world it’s hard to avoid being hit on as a female rider, when all you want to do is a decent cardio workout or to kickstart your competitive streak.
How can things be improved?
So what can or are these apps doing to improve their ratio of female users? Zwift offer female only rides, but there are complaints that these still seem to allow male riders. They’ve also celebrated International Women’s Day with week long celebrations in the past, but I frustratingly couldn’t find any mention of this beyond 2018, making it seem like little more than a token gesture. As for Strava, while they have recognised that safety is a key concern for women, they don’t seem to have done much to address this yet. If they are serious about addressing this issue perhaps it would be worth their while to make their Beacon feature, which allows you to share your live location with three safety contacts, free instead of charging users for it as part of a premium account? And another user suggested the option of highlighting “safe” routes, such as those with good street lighting, something which could be input directly by users as a community exercise.
Thankfully there are some other safety-focused apps out there, including Garmin LiveTrack which is free with any Garmin device, and Kitestring, an app that when you start it as you head out for a run will check in with you via text in 15 minutes, 45 minutes, two hours, five hours or even 12 hours. If you don’t respond to their text message within a specific window of time, the app will automatically notify your emergency contacts. It’s also reassuring to see that an organisation exists to try and improve the representation of women working in sports tech. WiST aims to bring together entrepreneurs, product designers, hardware/software engineers, data scientists, programmers, content creators and marketers committed to the development of growth opportunities for women throughout the sports tech landscape. And let’s face it – it’s probably because of a lack of women within these companies which is the reason issues occur. If there are no female voices being heard on the ground, how can we expect to see sports tech implemented which meets our requirements? Here’s hoping that as more women enter the industry we can expect to see female-focused developments in the not too-distant future.
About the author
Lauren Thomas is a runner and running coach who when not doing either of those things writes a fitness and wellbeing blog which has been shortlisted for both the UK Blog Awards and the UK Running Awards. She’s a regular guest on the Spanners Ready radio show and Remain Indoors podcast, and a Run Director for her local parkrun. She’s guaranteed to give most sports a go, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, and others she’s stuck to include bouldering and paddleboarding, despite being scared of heights and a weak swimmer. She’s a sucker for cats and dogs and will not choose between them, no matter how much you pressure her.
You can find Lauren on Instagram, Twitter and over at her blog. Just search for GirlRunningLate.