Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Where are all the women?

Women, roll-up, roll-up… we want you!

The topic regarding the number of women in the field of Barefoot and Minimalist running has been a bit of a "hot-topic" of late. It's been the subject of numerous blog-posts, conferences and think tanks. The reason being that there isn't that many.  No-one seems to know why.  As is usually the case I am going to put in my un-informed 2 cents into the pot!  Before you all flame me, a lot of the comments below WILL be sexist.  I am not sure how we can start this discussion without highlighting the cultural and mental differences that generally exist between the sexes.  It's like discussing presidential candidates without talking about the 300 years of history behind the party they represent.  There are some points that I can't be "delicate" about - so in my usual style, I am not going to try! ;)

I have to admit I get a skewed view of the number of female Barefoot/Minimalist runners out there because like women on a dance-floor we all tend to congregate together.  For me, I see the number of female barefoot/minimalist runners around a 40/60 split when I compare the gender of my running Facebook friends.  However, in real-life, (because apparently Facebook isn't real-life), the number is more in the single percentage figures.  This is an unusual turn of events, because when you compare the ratio of male and female runners who run in road races, you will find that roughly 30-50% of runners will be female. In fact if you look at the half-marathon races in the US, you may find more female runners than men.

So why are there so few women running barefoot or minimalist?  There have been quite a few theories, some I see as more valid than others.  The problem I have is that I am not really a typical woman. Yes, I have the physical and chemical markers that put me in that category, but as far as thinking goes, I pretty much fail.  This it turns out is quite common in the barefoot/minimalist world.  I think that's why we all stick together.  We aren't girlie girls.  We embrace mud, dirt, scrapes, bruises and scratches if they were all earned running down a trail at 60 miles per hour. We don't dress up for you, but if we did then you can be guaranteed that every guy (and probably a few girls) would know about it. Barefoot Running women are strong, feisty, out-spoken, confident, "don't give a rats-arse", "outside of the box" fighters.  You will find us in male-dominated industries and we are holding our own.  If you get a bunch of us together, I think we could pretty much take over the world and then tell you how to run it.  We would probably put a bar on every street corner too ;)  Generally we kick ass!

Barefoot and Minimalist running is a man's game at the moment and I think the women in this field reflect that.

So how do we convince ALL of the women out there that they don't have to "ball-breaking" femme-fatals who can out-drink their male counterparts, in order to take their super supportive shoe's off and run?

After speaking to a few friends of mine on the subject (all who happen to be newer runners and NOT barefoot), I have come across some trends. This is why we don't have more shoeless women in the field (or on the track, on the trail or running down the road).

Women may feel they need guidance on starting out.  We have just a little insecurity and nervousness when approaching what we feel is a new activity.  I know running ISN'T a new sport, but when you start running without the 1-2 inches of heel cushioning, you have to start from scratch.  I can relate to this.  When I start something new, I do have a nervousness and I want confirmation that I am doing it right; I feel I would like some guidance.  For me this lasts for about 10 minutes because with most of the things going on my life there isn't a manual.  So after a moments pause I revert to my "What the heck, I'll do it anyway" attitude.  I can do this, I am not sure other women can.  There is a cultural trait that "women should do everything perfectly" and it's hard sometimes for some people (male and female) to try something and fail.

Women feel more comfortable learning from other women.  I don't really relate to this; I prefer to learn from the person most competent regardless.  However, speaking to some of my friends, I think if you placed a male and female sports coach together, (both of whom have the same qualifications), the women will always pick a woman.  A friend of mine did comment that it would depend on the age of the woman and if the male instructor was hot.  That's probably true too - but for the most part, women will chose a woman.

Women chose a fitness activity for the social aspect it provides.  They don't just see it as a way to get fit.  They see it as a way to meet friends; discuss what's happening in their lives. Male athletes are perceived to be competitive and more focused on their overall goal.  I say perceived - I help run the "Run Smiley Collective" and I know that's not the case :)  It's easier to make this social connection when you have shared experiences.  Kids, family, daily routines - these for a lot of women are a basis of commonality.  If they were learning a "New skill" they would like to learn it from some-one they can relate to. 

Women are self-conscious about their bodies.  Especially as we get older, we have lumps and bumps in the wrong places; throw in child-birth, even more so.  Women are uncomfortable if they are in an environment where they feel more exposed - let's face it fitness wear is not very forgiving - and the subject of scrutiny by people (by both men and women).  The self-consciousness is less when the environment is tailored to "women-only" than mixed sex.  You just have to look at the boom of "women-only" gyms to see that.   

Women have more to do and don't have time to figure "something out".  I read a report (I would cite it, but that involves a search engine!), that stated women have about 8+ roles to perform a day. Men have around 5.  We have so much going through our heads sometimes that having to think about one thing exclusive to everything else… well it's just too hard.  Perhaps this leads to the fact that we may not be able to truly concentrate on how are bodies are reacting to our environment - we just don't have the extra brain resources to do it.  We have lists and tasks taking up all that spare space.   Women don't want to spend hours working out how to run in minimalist shoes, we just want to put on our shoes and run.

Women find it harder to go against "society-norms".  This is a purely cultural trait.  Women have for centuries been taught how they should behave and that they shouldn't go against that. Taking off your shoes is a "society faux-pas" and women would feel uncomfortable doing it.  Men have been indoctrinated that "going against the grain" is a good thing.  Women are behind on this score.  

Women feel they need to maintain an certain level of appearance.  Make-up, shaving-legs, manicures, eye-brow tweezing, high-heels, nice clothes.  We have it in our heads we have to look good.  Bare feet are seen as sign of poverty; shoes are an essential element of clothing.  Without them you are not giving the right signals. If you don't believe me, how many barefoot runners have heard the expression "Can't you afford shoes?".

Minimalist shoes have up to now been pretty hideous.  Come on let's face it.  VFF's? Yeah, not good.  It takes courage to be different and have comments thrown at you as you wear VFF's.  Gorilla feet are out-side "societies norms" and it's tough to wear.  However, paint them pink and you will have more reception.  Women generally want something that is pretty, fashionable and generally pink. When I had my first pair of VFF KSO's they were "Goose-poo green".  Not one woman approached me.  Put on my bright pink VFF Sprints and I had women approach me nearly every day during one summer asking where I had brought them.  Seems as if Girlie Pink sells!  The new shoes coming in from all quarters in 2012 will probably rectify this.  They look like normal running shoes and they are female fashionable!

We haven't sold the health benefits with science enough.  I think this applies to the barefoot and minimalist movement in general, but I think if we extolled the virtues of barefoot and minimalist running in a SCIENTIFIC approach, women will be more inclined to try.  Women are very health conscious. Not just for ourselves but for our entire family.  Heck, I can read a nutritional label on a packet in about 10 seconds. If we show how barefoot and minimalist running improves our bodies and posture, we will see women giving it a go.  If we show how minimalist shoes are good for our kids (as I believe they are), then women will investigate if it's better for themselves too.  We will try most things if we think there is a health benefit.

There are not enough female role-models for the future women barefoot/minimalist runners out there.  Let's be more explicit; there aren't enough female role-models they can relate to.  If women see a slew of male Ultra runners promoting barefoot and minimalist running, they will perceive that it is only male ultra-runners that can do it.  If we only show female minimalist runners who qualify for Boston, or run 50 miles up a hill then women will feel you have to be super-fit to do it.  We need to show that women of ALL walks of life can run barefoot and minimalist.  This isn't just the case for running - it's the case in everything. If you want to gain gender equality in a profession or sport, you need to be able to show the minority that this is a field they could participate and potentially excel in.

So am I right or wrong?  In some cases I am being deliberately antagonistic, because without differing views we can't discuss this issue properly.  As you can tell I didn't discuss how we rectify this.  I am hoping you guys may give me some ideas ;)

Let me know what you think.  It would be good to see our merry band of drunken… *cough*… I mean vibrant female runners growing.


  1. Great post Kate!! I agree...and I might add that an unusually large # of women just don't like to get dirty.I have no idea why. The fact that your feet may get dirty is a real deal breaker for some. Me , on the other hand-the dirtier the better! I know for me I am impatient and have found the slow transitioning to be going against my personality.I just like to dive and go for it!!..and you do have to slowly transition.great job!

  2. I would probably put the difficulty with "dirt" in the "Maintaining a certain level of appearance". Just like no shoes is a sign of poverty, being covered in dirt is probably something else in that category. Maybe there is a sense of "hygiene" that should be maintained. Why would a woman be more concerned with that than a man? You may expect more women to cook in the home, but top-chefs are men. More men are cooking as part of the daily routine; would they be against running barefoot?

  3. Great ideas. I am new to barefoot/minimalist running and it was my husband and some other male runners who got me interested. I have yet to see a woman running barefoot, although I have seem a few in vibrams. The one thing that worried me was the fear (irrationally) of getting hurt. Not getting hurt from running but from stepping on things. I think we have an ingrained thought that the world under our feet is dangerous and cannot be met without armour.

  4. My limited, non-scientific, personal experience is that things are slowly changing. I've never encountered another female minimalist runner while out and about, but I know of a couple in my area, and I'm slowly converting my friends. My very clean and trendy little sister bought VFFs this summer and is using them, and another friend got the merrel shoes because she liked how they looked better.

    I don't have a problem with getting dirty and beat up (thank you horses), so I guess I'm in group #1.

  5. I agree that the fashion issue is probably a huge factor.Most women think they have to look cute whatever they are doing-but in my opinion if you are a serious runner,how you look fashionwise is pretty far down the list while running. Also,many women I know do not seem to be concerned re/ the health issues surrounding their feet.After studying feet,it is a HUGE concern of mine now. A lot of women don't seem to care how this relates to overall body health

  6. This is very interesting. If it were not for blog posts such as this one and online forums, I wouldn't have guessed that there are more male barefoot runners. We sell almost as many minimal sandals to women as we do men. Actually we encounter a lot of men who order because it's what their girlfriends/wives want for a gift.

    In "real life" I don't encounter very many people at all who are running barefoot/minimal but my few encounters seem to have an equal number of women vs. men.

  7. Unshoes, I have to admit I was surprised too when I heard the figures. As most of my barefoot running friends are virtual, I tend to only communicate via Facebook or the forums. As I mentioned, we all tend to band together, so as far as I WAS aware, I thought the numbers were evenly split.

    I think Huaraches type sandals may also see a more even gender distribution in their cliental. I was wearing a number of different Huaraches this summer and I had a LOT of women coming up to me asking where I had brought them. They weren't necessarily looking to run in them, but just wear them as a general shoe for the summer. If you look the fashion this summer for women was huarache type sandals. It must have been one of the few times I went out in my minimalist shoes and no-one batted an eyelid. ;D

  8. Hey, you've tried to answer a question I've been wondering about for a long time. I agree, it would be great to see a merry band of drunken women running barefoot. HAHA! Made you read that one again didn't I! Who are "we" the barefoot running women. We are not the "typical" woman. My friends have gotten use to seeing me walk around barefoot and running barefoot. In this small community it makes it hard for me to hide. But in general I think I am thought of as some kind of freak. "Oh. that's just Theresa, she's the nut job who runs barefoot" But I don't care because I finally found a way to run again without injury and that make me happy. As my husband says, "a happy wife makes a happy husband" (and I always add on "and kids") No seriously, I think that to be a barefoot runner in general you have to be able to not give a crap what people think or say about you, especially when you are running. Maybe it's age and women have to reach that age where they don't give a crap anymore? Katie, I think that it is a combination of "society-norms" and women caring about their appearance. My friends do support my adventures even if they don't understand them. So, where are all those barefoot running women? :)

  9. Amen!! Go the barefoot women. I'm one of a handful in this country (Australia) and I chose to go bare when NO ONE was doing it, not even the boys. It's been fun to see the ridicule turn to interest and then to acceptance and even promotion. Personally don't care though what anyone else does, it works for me, and I like it :)

  10. Maybe the barefooters just aren't publicly active enough? I learned about barefooting through the Roadrunner group on Sparkpeople. The active people on that board are 9 women to 1 man. Almost all of those women are, at least, minimalist runners. Maybe they just aren't in the right spotlight.

  11. My fav topic! Thank you so much for bringing this up, Kate! To address one of your points - YOU are a role model, and that's what encourages more women to try this wacky, wild, wonderful sport. (Most probably don't think of it as a sport, but it's how I describe it sometimes anyway.) I remember finding your site when I first started running without shoes, and it was you (and Angie Bee) who had me thinking, "hmmmmm... women do this too - and based on their words I'm reading, they're FABULOUS and strong and kick-ass and aren't afraid!"

    So I got inspired to look into it through men (Christopher McDougall, Ken Bob, etc.), but it was women like you who solidified for me that having a vagina wasn't going to get in my way. Keep rocking and running, my friend!

    (This is Caity, by the way - I have no idea yet how to edit my "unknown" status in Google!)

  12. How about the chauvinistic point of view of wanting to keep women barefoot and pregnant? It's more than just social status. It brings a very bad picture to my head.

  13. Interesting post! I really did not know that there was such a disparity between the number of male vs. female minimalist/barefoot runners. But, now that you mention it, I don't really see too many where I am...except for me and my partner. (I run minimalist, but occasionally go barefoot and am fairly new at both running and minimalist running).