Female racers like Marianne Vos make us wonder just how big the gender gap really is, despite what studies may say. © Bart Hazen

by Molly Hurford

For as long as there’s been cyclocross, there has been a separation of the men’s and women’s fields. And while women’s payouts may not rival those of the men in most races, it is doubtful that women would ever complain about not being mixed into the men’s races. There are obvious performance differences between the sexes, and today’s column looks at some of the most recent research on those differences.

Efficient Women

The first study is entitled “Cycling efficiency in trained male and female competitive cyclists” and ran last year in The Journal Of Sports Science And Medicine. Unlike a lot of studies done on athletic abilities, this study was conducted on a group of competitive cyclists, rather than a group of “active” participants. 13 riders of each gender were measured by completing a cycling test for gross efficiency, and leg volume was also measured.

The test was designed to look at something no other study had touched upon: of the two sexes, which was the more efficient one when it came to cycling? Women showed a significantly higher gross efficiency overall, while lean leg volume was determined to be significantly lower in the women.

Why is efficiency important? “Horowitz et al. (1994) demonstrated that cyclists with a high GE (gross efficiency) were able to generate a greater power output for the same VO2 than riders possessing a lower GE.” So, riders with greater efficiency are able to put out more power with the same oxygen debt as riders with a lower efficiency.

The results of this study that show women to be more efficient may be more related to leg volume than to gender, however: “Indeed, Berry et al. (1993) have demonstrated that efficiency during cycling is negatively correlated with body mass over a range of power outputs and cadences in female cyclists.” Because efficiency is negatively impacted by body mass, and the women cyclists tended to have less leg volume than the men, the volume is likely the reason women have higher efficiency levels.

So, at the end of the study, the author concludes: “When lean leg volume is accounted for these differences [in efficiency] are no longer evident. In addition to work rate, lean leg volume may therefore be an important factor to consider when investigating sex-related differences in physical fitness, energy expenditure and efficiency in male and female trained cyclists.”

The Gender Gap

When I ran across an article entitled “Women and men in sport performance: The gender gap has not evolved since 1983,” at first, I was floored. What is this gender gap exactly? What could they possibly mean, it isn’t evolving? And just how far apart was the gender gap to begin with?

The article in question, published in The Journal Of Sports Science And Medicine, should have (some) men rejoicing: the authors postulate that at an elite level, women will never be able to run, jump, swim or ride as fast as men.

The study begins: “Sex is a major factor influencing best performances and world records. Here the evolution of the difference between men and women’s best performances is characterized through the analysis of 82 quantifiable events since the beginning of the Olympic era. For each event in swimming, athletics, track cycling, weightlifting and speed skating the gender gap is fitted to compare male and female records.”

However, when the events were in their early years, the gap between men and women lessened as both of the sexes (women more slowly than men, mainly due to cultural barriers), reached their respective physiological limits. By 1983, there was a stabilization of the gender gap in world records, with the difference between men and women’s records being an average of ten percent. This, the scientists say, is despite the large growth in participation of women from eastern and western countries. In fact, they go on to point out that the number of women participating has increased over the last two decades, while the frequency at which world records occur has been decreasing.

There is a silver lining, however. Of all of the sports looked at by the authors of the study, one has seen the gender gap close more and more as years pass: cycling. The gender gap in the sprint has been stable since 1993 at 8.7%, but at least the study shows that the gap for that continued to close for that additional ten years.

Women in Sports Media

The last study we looked at focused not on women in sports, but women in sports media. “Female Sportscaster Credibility: Has Appearance Taken Precedence?” appeared in the Journal of Sports Media and focuses on physical appearance of sportscasters, looking closely at the females in the industry. The authors explore “credibility, physical attractiveness, stereotypes and career barriers, sports audiences, and media richness for sex differences in sportscaster credibility across media types.”

While the results indicate attractiveness is positively correlated with “competence, expertness, dynamism, and trustworthiness,” when questioned, males and females alike claimed to find physical attractiveness unimportant when judging a sportscaster’s credibility. Ironically, results also indicated that, “If a female is highly attractive, she will be perceived as less trustworthy and less dynamic.”

We want to hear what you think about these studies, so leave your thoughts in the comments.