Feminist on the Court: Bike Polo’s Subtle Sexism

February 28, 2016

“Feminist on the Court” is a new monthly column giving a voice to a variety of women, trans, and/or femme players (and those that support them) from around the world. This month an anonymous writer explores the link between cultural sexism and women’s success on the court. If you’d like to tell us your story, email genderinpolo@gmail.com.

You might not realize it’s happening, but sexism in polo is making it next-to-impossible for women to succeed in your club – here’s how it works and what you can do about it

My love for bike polo is massive; I have never met a bunch of people who I clicked with so immediately. The game itself is ridiculously fun and I know that however long I play for I still won’t have mastered it.

However, lately I have been having serious thoughts that it is time for me to take a complete step back from the sport. Which is crazy. I love bike polo. But here’s the problem: the thing I love most about polo is improving, and I am starting to feel like there is something that is stopping me from doing that; something out of my power to change. So, what’s up? Why am I feeling this way?

How to not suck at polo 101

To get better at bike polo I think you need to do these four things:

  1. Play pick-up at every opportunity.
  2. Travel to tournaments as much as your budget allows.
  3. Solo polo as much as you can.
  4. Put time and money into making your bike the best it can be.

But, the thing that helps people improve most rapidly is having the opportunity to play with and against the best players available. They push us to be better. It is very difficult for an individual player to get better without support and competition in their local scene. Obviously Dodi exists, so we know it is not impossible, but I think most people would agree that his crazy skills are exceptionally rare, which is why he is so freaking impressive.

My story

The characters in the story are some of my favorite people in the world, so my discussion of the events is in no way intended personally – I tell it not because I am angry (I am not), but because it is the best example I have of the mechanism by which female bike polo players are being limited. I am going to use fake names that I chose at random from Pride and Prejudice, because my story isn’t about the individuals themselves being sexist: I don’t think they are; I think it is the cultural paradigm in which we are operating that is to blame.

I didn’t think that any team I could put together from the available free agents would have a chance in our local qualifier for WHBPC VII, and so I didn’t register. The week before the tournament, one of the registered teams from my home city lost one of their players to a different team. So, when Bennet asked me if I could play with them, I was happy to agree. I was sad for them but also a bit excited – I had played with Bennet and Collins a lot and we all clicked – I knew I was their best substitute. He told me he needed to confirm it with Collins and, to my disappointment, it turned out Collins had already asked Forster to play with them. I was polo-dumped in record speed.

I got some hurt feelings. So what? Happens all the time in polo right? Yes, it does. It has happened to me a bunch of times. I was upset and let off some steam by having a whine about the affair to Philips, who plays in a different city. I told him that I thought I was a better polo player than Forster. I respect Forster’s skill at polo, but he doesn’t train like me nor does he make the effort to go to interstate or international tournaments. Philips, however, disagreed – he was of the opinion that I was the lesser player.

After the qualifiers had been played and Philips had an opportunity to see more of Forster’s play, I asked him if he still thought that he was the better player. And… now Philips agreed that I would have done better on that team. I talked to Bennet to ask his opinion and he also agreed.

So, if I would have been the better player on that team, why wasn’t I the first player they asked? If polo dumping is a common thing then why didn’t they dump the other guy? Good questions. I think the answer is because men consistently under-rate the skill of female bike polo players – the idea of asking a woman to play on a serious team doesn’t even occur to most players. Shannon from East Vancouver said that very thing in a recent YouTube video (at 1:48:00):

“If you had two players of equal skill – exactly equal skill – one male and one female, and you shopped them around to two people who were team mates and they were looking for a third, I’m willing to bet that 99.7% of the people would choose the male, because there’s this sort of inherent perception that men are better at bike polo than women.”

Which is pretty crap, but what if the woman was the more skilled player, like I was in this story? Well, I didn’t get to play, which makes me believe that women around the world are missing out on opportunities to practice competitive play – opportunities that they deserve because of merit. And missing out on these opportunities is going to impair their ability to improve.

What do I think is going on here?

I think that this sexism the result of a subtle bias; the kind of bias that pervades almost all thinking in modern western culture. I don’t think there are many (if any) guys who consciously think “That chick sucks and I don’t want to play with her”. It is more ingrained and insidious than that. It is pretty well-reported these days that if you send out two resumes that are identical except for the names – one having a female name and the other a male one – the people assessing them are not only more inclined to rate the male applicant higher, but they also want to offer him more money. It seems like people reinforce existing inequalities unconsciously – we don’t know that we are being prejudiced even when we are.

The first time I saw this bias in action was when I had just started playing polo. I was watching one of my idols play a tough elimination game, she had just scored a sweet goal when the guy I was standing with said: “She can play, but she’s not actually very good.” That comment has stuck with me throughout the years and I think it typifies the attitudes of most guys when confronted with a woman who can play. Every success is a fluke. Instead of seeing her succeed they are waiting for her to fail and unforced errors happen all the time in polo, even to the champs.

If you only notice a player’s fuck ups are you going to ask them to be on your team? Of course not.

Is polo going to be any fun for a committed female player who is on a team with two people who are only there to have some casual fun? Of course not, it would be very frustrating.

How many times does a female player have to prove herself before she is asked to play with the big boys?

How many times is she going to try to prove herself before she gives up?

She could be focusing on her career, saving money, doing the gardening, or sorting out the other life stuff she puts on hold to spend her time playing polo. But as a community shouldn’t we want the people who are passionate about polo to stay passionate about polo?

Maybe it is just something specific to you?

Well yeah, I thought it might be something to do with me and my desirability as a team mate, and so I went and asked a bunch of my female polo playing friends from all around the world about their experiences. Unfortunately I heard some stories from them that were way worse than mine. Their stories aren’t mine to share, which is why you should ask the women in your club an open-ended question about their experiences – but I can say that the sexism many women are experiencing at polo isn’t always as subtle as the sexism in my story.

I have also talked to women from clubs who feel extremely supported and happy about how they are treated by their fellow players, which is awesome, but these lucky ladies are in the minority.

Another thing I hypothesize from the anecdotes people have been kind enough to share with me, is that the most extreme sexism tends to happen in clubs where there is a very big disparity between the ability of the best and worst players. I think in these scenes there is more competition in the middle, making it harder for players to break through from the lower to the upper levels of play, increasing the general level of aggression. But really, the issue needs to be tackled on a club-by-club basis.

So, what now?

I didn’t write this article from a place of anger, I wrote it because I am feeling sad and frustrated. It’s true that I don’t have a right to play on the best team, nobody does, but I have a right to ask my fellow players to second guess their decision making, to analyze whether there is an inherent prejudice in their actions and to try to make different decisions for the sake of people who they care about.

So that’s what I am asking. Are you being sexist intentionally or unintentionally? You know what, that’s OK: everyone does stuff that they are not proud of. But it’s not OK if you see the truth of your actions and don’t make an effort to be better in the future. Be more inclusive and it will make polo more fun for all the people who play already, so they will stick around for longer, while also increasing the appeal of the sport for any newbies crazy enough to join us.

Also, if you disagree with me, that’s cool, please let me know why. I have been wrong in the past and I will be wrong again – I promise you that my future self is happy to agree with you if you are right! [EN: As this story was submitted anonymously, please discuss in the comments!]

If you have a story you would like to share or some ideas about how polo players could be more inclusive please let us know about that too. Or you could talk about it with people in your club, start a thread on League of Bike Polo, post on Facebook – we need to discuss and identify the problem to go about solving it.

Further Reading

Also, bike polo is not alone! Here are some articles written by women about how sexism manifests in other co-ed sports:
Ultimate Frisbee