Gender difference in running motives

Our Big Running Survey collected data on almost 3,000 runners’ behaviours, preferences and motivations. One of the most striking things that emerged from the analysis was the big difference between male and female runners’ motivations for participating in the sport. This is shown in figure 1, which depicts the percentage difference between the two genders’ mean self-ratings on a variety of motivations for running. Red motivations were stronger with female runners, and green motivations were stronger with males.

Figure 1: Motivation scores percentage difference between genders

The differences are clear, with female runners scoring 75% higher than males on valuing running for the opportunities it affords for raising money for good causes, and between 16% and 69% higher for physical and psychological self-care. Male runners show a much stronger focus on competition, scoring 40% higher than females.

Here, running reflects much wider expectations and norms around gender in our society. Whilst women and girls have traditionally been steered towards placing particular value on their appearances, self-care and their nurturing, caring sides, men have been encouraged to compete, be dominant and to disavow any ‘unhealthy’ interest in their appearances.

Today, these old stereotypes may – righty – be being eroding, but they cast a long shadow. And in countless areas of social life a similar pattern emerges: A large study of charity giving recently found that women are much more likely to trust and give to charity than men; body checking and eating disorders are significantly more prevalent in women; even supposedly progressive school PE strategies may inadvertently reinforce the idea that boys should compete and girls should keep themselves looking trim.

Running then, provides one of many ‘media’ through which deeply socialised (and possibly genetic) dispositions and tastes are realised in everyday life. But it can be a site of resistance to stereotypes too. As we saw in a previous post, for instance, many female runners – particularly those who have high levels of talent and have been involved in the sport for a long time – can have competitive motivations that are just as strong as their male counterparts.

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