I was browsing the Running USA statistics page and came across this interesting tidbit. See if you notice a strange aberration:
Did you find it? Perhaps there is more to this bar graph, but here is what I saw of note: For all age categories, from over-7 youths to 45-54 year-olds, women outnumber men in participation except for the 12-17 age category. What is even more remarkable about this junior/high-school age bracket is how large the disparity is. Following the male-only numbers, there is a relatively smooth transition between age categories, whereas women's participation from teenage to young adult goes from 2.4M to 4.4M. So clearly there is a dearth of young women rather than an oversupply of young males. Moreover, women's running numbers peak at 25-34 at 5.6M, which is a 233% increase in a 15 year age-development period. The fact there are so many women running by the age of 30 should be celebrated, but since over half did not run at the age of 15 means fewer fully-developed at the peak racing age. Keeping in mind it takes at least 10 years to develop a runner to their full potential.
There are all kinds of potential explanations for the teenage male-female gap, but none good. One could argue other sports better appeal to would-be female athletics, but the same argument holds true for men. One should be cautious believing this line of reasoning. I would have imagined running could be enticing to an group very susceptible to body image issues, but perhaps -in a vicious cycle sort of way- this is also the reason many do no join in the first place.
I suspect injuries could play as a factor, but again this affects men too. There are, however, female-specific injuries, but this argument falls flat for why so many run at ages 25-45. It seems the real answer will be a socially-based one. No matter what that answer is, the present state is a shame. Studies, if you even need a study for something like, shows that sports improve self-esteem. [Aside: I enjoy reading CVs with mentions of sport participation, as it implies all kinds of good things]
And compared with other sports, running is less expensive than just about anything else, and better for you. Unlike soccer and rugby there are few concussions (effectively none), no ungodly hours at the pool or area, and shoes are always cheaper than buying a bike. No answers lie here, only an observation I hope others are tuned in to.
What can be done? I suggest maybe taking a second look at all those "great" running books on your shelf. Do they include Perfect Mile, Running with the Buffaloes, Once a Runner, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and Born to Run? Ask yourself why more stories are not centred on women athletes (yes, Born to Run does mention Ann Trason, but loses those early threads in the closing chapters). For that matter ultrarunning in particular strikes me as very male-centred (I'm looking at you, Karnazes fans).
We all know women runners have the more interesting stories anyway, like Kathrine Switzer. And Paula Radcliffe, who when factoring in gender, has already broken the 2-hour marathon barrier. Or consider lesser-knowns like this wrenching one about freshman Morgan Harvey. Perhaps more of our favourite books will be about them, and not just guys (I include myself among the guilty). To tie into what I started talking about, more female heroes (in books, movies, etc) can boost those early runner numbers; the foundation of many a future career.
Things could change. I hope they do.