In Our Opinion

When gender is a marketing ploy

By July 20, 2021 July 21st, 2021 No Comments

A few years, and several sports ago, our 12-year-old daughter and I went shopping for cleats at Dick’s Sporting Goods. It did not go well.

As we looked at the small (some might say minuscule) selection of cleats, most in pink or purple, a sales associate encouraged our daughter to look at the mens’ cleats. That’s because the sizes were the same, most cleats use European sizes which are not gender-specific, and the structure/design was also identical – the only difference was color and selection.

By separating shoes by gender the retailer and shoe manufacturers were not just implying a difference in the product, they were telling our daughter she was not deserving of as many choices as male players, perhaps because women didn’t play sports. And, because she wanted black cleats, she was wrong for not wanting “girl-colors.” They were also telling boys that certain colors were not “for” them (ironically, that same year our son decided he wanted purple cleats).

At the time I tweeted about this, I heard from many that the selection was driven by the market. But of course, the market can’t decide if the market doesn’t have a choice – Dick’s has never asked me about the athlete that would be wearing the cleats.

Fast forward a few years, Dick’s has removed gender from the in-store signage and put all the cleats together, which I assume is also easier from a merchandising standpoint. And while their website still gives shoppers the choice to filter cleats by gender, the choices are identical – so boy or girl, anyone can get a pair in screaming pink or stealthy black.

Even as our understanding of gender evolves, companies continue to categorize items as being for men and women, even when there is nothing gender-specific about the design. The idea as I understand it is to create an environment that is welcoming and inclusive when, in most cases, labeling by gender when no actual difference exists divides and complicates.

Take for example the Contessa line of bicycles from SCOTT Sports, which claims to “encompass all SCOTT bikes that have been developed and equipped to specifically answer most female cyclists’ needs.”

While that sounds great, the truth is more complicated.

The fact is, very little differentiates a Contessa-labeled SCOTT bike from the identical non-Contessa version. Don’t believe me? Check out the geometry charts for the new SCOTT Spark RC 900 Comp Dark Grey Bike and the SCOTT Contessa Spark RC 900 Comp Bike. As you can see, the measurements for the available sizes are identical. What is different is that they don’t make the Contessa Spark in XL, and it turns out, if you are a woman of about my height (5’10”), you can’t get a large version because SCOTT doesn’t make the size available in the United States due to, you guessed it, lack of demand.

Digging deeper into the specifications there are a few items that sound gender-specific, such as the Syncros Women Pro lock-on grips and Contessa Custom Tune (meaning the shock is adjusted for lighter, on average, per height and weight of female riders), but are actually available to anyone on any SCOTT mountain bike, and are based on rider size, weight, or other fit factors.

The bikes themselves, for those wondering, are not particularly “girly” in color – but they all have one thing in common – The Contessa logo, prominently displayed on the top tube.

This labeling of bicycles as “Contessa” causes unnecessary complications for riders and bike shops.

For women, the implication of Contessa is they “need” a Women’s bike, when in fact they need a bike that fits them properly. For men, the implication is that the Contessa bikes are not “for” them, when in fact they need a bike that fits them properly. And specifying genders leaves no space for those for whom gender is neither male nor female.

On the bike shop side, it puts staff in the awkward position of having to explain to men why it’s okay to have a bike that says Contessa, and to women why it’s okay to have a bike that does not. It also may be why – and hear me out here – there is a lack of demand for larger “Contessa-branded” bicycles (and that was when the logo was much more subtle, as pictured below).

Can you spot the Contessa logo on this older SCOTT?

Ultimately everyone needs a bicycle with a geometry that is right for their body (as I wrote on the blog for our bicycle shop, it’s not as simple as size). Everyone with a dual-suspension mountain bike needs the suspension to be properly adjusted to their weight and a saddle that supports their anatomy. And everyone needs grips that allow them to control their bicycle. None of these things have anything to do with gender. But more to the point, none of these things have been addressed by Scott’s Contessa line of bicycles.

That’s not to say Scott couldn’t or shouldn’t use their Contessa branding to connect women to cycling. “Ask Tessa” is a great way to educate and spark conversation. And the umbrella of Contessa could be used to connect riders. To celebrate a community. To encourage confidence and a “royal” state of mind that allows a woman to feel she has a right to the trail or the road.

Just, perhaps, keep it off the bicycles.