Today, Flanders Classics announced they will no longer use flower girls, or podium girls as we call them. It spiked some controversy. People automatically assume I am against podium girls and grid girls. And however political correct that may be, I am actually not. If they like their job, let them have the job. But let it be for the right reasons.
There is an underlying stream of everyday sexism that bothers many with regards to podium girls and grid girls. There is a sense that there is no place for women in cycling – or sports – apart from being pretty, smiling and silent. A picture to look at, not a competent colleague to work with.
I have a personal story to tell about women in sports.
I am by no means silent: it comes with the nature of my job as a cycling commentator. I am actually the first female cycling commentator in the Netherlands and one of four female lead sports commentators in total.
The Netherlands is a country many deem progressive. Let me tell you, we are not. Not in politics (never has there been a female PM), not in work (highest percentage of part-time working women in the world) and not in sports and media, where 95% of sports commentary and journalism is done by men.
My colleagues, the three female lead sports commentators, are all in tennis: a sport where equality is further progressed than my sport. They are also three former top tennis players. I never cycled professionally. I swam and achieved no better than a measly bronze medal at the provincial championships. My point being, I don’t hold this job because I was a wonderful cyclist.
Why do I have this job? At first it was pure luck from being in the right place at the right time. But then? At the beginning of my career I was not a good commentator, and I am the first one to admit that. I knew a lot of facts, results, names of riders, history and geography. I talked but it was not great. I was thrown in at the deep end. There is no school for cycling commentary. It is all about learning on the job. And I did. But having a woman behind the mic stirred something ugly with the many male viewers of the sport.
Some examples, in random order of my experiences as a commentator.
When I started as a general sports news commentator I was told, “I know you love cycling but a woman covering cycling is not something anybody is going to believe.” Whether it was said as a joke or not, it was not okay.
As said, I was never an elite athlete. People wondered, ‘How on earth could she possibly be in sports commentary?’ The solution to many was obvious. There were plenty of comments I read (only written, never in your face) suggesting that I must have slept with someone to land this job.
The same comments started again when I started as a PR officer for a men’s procycling team. Someone went as far as saying: “You are probably working in cycling because you can sleep with many men.”
Whether said in jest or dead serious: telling a woman she is probably only in a work position because of favours to men, is insulting.
“You know a lot about cycling…….for a woman” is not a compliment. I don’t want to be in this job because I am a woman: I want to do this because I am good at it.
The argument in the Netherlands that female radio dj’s or sports commentators are horrible to listen to you because of the pitch of their voice, once backed by ‘pseudoscience’, has long been debunked. “I have nothing against you personally but I just can’t listen to a woman doing cycling commentary,” has been heard many times.
That is everyday sexism. The culture that supports these attitudes is something you keep feeding by positioning women in the sport where they are only judged by the way they look.
I get many emails and messages on social media by young women who are in journalism school or sports communication who feel inspired by my story. First and foremost, I never planned to be a pioneer or to be inspirational but I turned out to be one.
I have encountered many #metoo situations in cycling, from jokes about sex to an uninvited team mechanic in my hotel room in the middle of the night, but I won’t be deterred. Not then and not now.
If I can show young women that sports commentary or journalism is a career path open to them, all the scrutiny, frequent insults and hatemail are more than worthwhile.
To conclude: whether your dream job is cycling commentator, podium girl or being the boss of the Netherlands, you can do it. No limits. Everything should be possible for all girls in the world.