As triathlon approaches five years of working toward gender parity, how much has changed?

In 2015, hashtag activism came to triathlon in the form of #50womentokona, a movement that called for the Ironman World Championship to change its practice of unequal distribution of pro spots in the race: 50 spots were reserved for men on the Kona pier, while the women’s race was only 35 deep.

As the movement gained steam among pro and age-group athletes, 50 Women to Kona evolved beyond its origins. The unequal gender distribution of professional slots got people talking about gender disparity at all levels of triathlon; unlike running, where women have outnumbered men at U.S. road races for the past decade, triathlon participation demographics have always skewed heavily male.

The heightened awareness of this gender disparity led to a number of concerted efforts to grow women’s participation in triathlon. In the last five years, there have been a significant number of wins for women in multisport:

So are we closer to equality for men and women? Yes…and no.

The landscape of the sport certainly has changed in the last five years. But the numbers haven’t shifted quite as dramatically. The number of women who compete in triathlon has increased, but the rate of participation in triathlon events remains lower for females compared to males. 

And there still isn’t an equal distribution of male and female slots at the Ironman World Championship race in Kona. Just as this disparity kicked off the initial push to increase women’s participation in triathlon in 2015, it currently underscores how far the sport still has to go.

“I think that there should be an equal number of pro men and women racing in Kona, but I’ve decided until there’s a change in personnel that probably isn’t going to happen,” says Joyce. “The new Kona qualification process means Ironman can say the opportunity is there, but I still think the current system smacks of the attitude that the professional women haven’t earned equal numbers yet.

“It is imperative that our sport embraces gender parity at the Ironman World Championship,” says Gross. “There is no other sport in the world that limits the number of women participating at the Championship level based on an equation loosely related to proportionality. That equation just reinforces the notion that women don’t deserve equal representation and fails to take into account the various historic, systemic and cultural structures that keep women and girls out of sport. The world is recognizing this and Ironman must eventually move the dial as well.”

The Future is Female

In only five years, a lot has been accomplished. But those working for gender parity in triathlon say there’s still a lot to be done. 

“The main roadblocks to achieving these goals [of equality] are the perceived barriers that are typical of most athletic programs, namely time, finances, accessibility, and personal confidence,” says Kimble. Initial efforts identified these barriers and developed general solutions; now, the focus becomes on created a more targeted approach.

“The main challenge now is to recognize that women are not a monolithic group, so the pathways to increasing our involvement in the sport will be as diverse as we are,” says Gross. “A white woman from middle-class America will have different barriers than a woman of color or a woman from a working class home or a paratriathlete. Everyone is different, and creating pathways for everyone is a sizeable challenge.

Several approaches will be employed to tackle this challenge:

The spirit of #50womentokona, then and now, is not entitlement, but opportunity – a belief that a rising tide lifts all boats. If the past five years have proven anything, it’s that opportunity breeds growth; slowly but surely, the sport is evolving to one where gender parity and inclusivity is the norm, not the exception. 

“In 2015, I felt like there was an ‘aha’ moment when the lack of participation by women was seen as an opportunity rather than the status quo of ‘that’s just how it is,’” says Joyce. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but at least people are thinking about how we address the disparity, and what barriers to entry there are for women specifically.”