Professor Carrie Paechter, School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University
Researchers from the Girl Skateboarder Project, funded by The Leverhulme Trust and based at Nottingham Trent University, University of Leeds and Skateboard GB, wanted to know what it’s like to be a girl skateboarder. Our early findings give clear evidence about what enables girls and young women to take up and stay in skateboarding, and what makes it harder for them.
Our findings are based on three main strands of research. We carried out observations at three skateparks and related skateboarding spaces in and around two large cities, one in the Midlands and the other in North-West England. Two of these were open public skateparks; the other was a managed one where people pay to skate. As part of this we mapped who was where in each skatepark at different times, what they did there (skateboarding, scootering, BMX, chatting, watching, smoking, etc), and how the different individuals and groups interacted. We interviewed 42 girl and young woman skateboarders associated with these skateparks and related spaces public skate spaces (individually, in pairs and groups). We also recorded a women and girls’ meeting in another skatepark with 9 participants beside ourselves). Finally, we interviewed 15 others involved in the local skateboarding scenes, such as: young men skateboarders; girls who spend time in skate spaces but don’t skate; and skateboarding coaches. We asked them all how they started being involved in skateboarding, their good and bad experiences with it, and what prevented them from skating.
Most of the young women had been introduced to skateboarding by a (usually male) friend, who supported them as they got started and introduced them to the local skateboarding community. Role models such as local woman coaches and informal helpers were also important. Organised support included woman and girl only sessions in skateparks (including informal takeovers organised by local groups); loans of equipment; and coaching. This last is important for young women who don’t have skateboarding friends, as girls are much less comfortable than boys about just going to a skatepark and asking for help from people already there.
We found that there were far more things that inhibited young women’s skateboarding than enabled it. Girls said that they didn’t like the fact that the general public often see skateboarding as a form of antisocial behaviour, especially outside skateparks. This general feeling of being disapproved of was exacerbated by harassment, which they felt was directed much more at them than at young men. This included frightening assaults, such as people jumping in front of them, trying to grab their boards or throwing bottles under them in order make them fall. One young woman had been spat at twice in broad daylight.
‘Skateboarding spaces’ take many forms, including: those officially designated for skateboarding and other wheeled sports (outdoor and indoor skateparks and ‘skate-friendly’ public realm); and informally utilised but not necessarily officially permitted spaces, (roads and pathways, public plazas, carparks and temporary ‘DIY skateparks’). Young women often felt uncomfortable in all or most of these. A significant factor was the male dominance of skateboarding space, both in terms of numbers and in relation to the space they took up. Our maps indicate that, except in woman-only sessions, girls tend to stick to the edges of the space, often semi-concealed behind ramps or other barriers. Even expert girl skateboarders worried about being ‘in the way’ of others, something not mentioned at all by men. This meant that they tended to use skateparks at less busy times, especially early mornings, cutting sessions short if others arrived.
Young women discussed being undervalued as skaters and their abilities being questioned by male skaters. They felt they had to ‘prove’ themselves as competent skateboarders immediately on arriving in a skateboarding space, and that even expert skaters were seen as being ‘good for a girl’. They also felt constantly watched by male skateboarders, and that, while this could just indicate curiosity, sometimes it had an element of sexual harassment.
What can we do about this? First, formally designated skateboarding spaces need to be designed so that there are quiet places for beginners to practice, relatively undisturbed by more expert skateboarders. This would make it easier for young women to get started in the first place, as well as being more welcoming for older, younger, or differently-abled skaters of any gender. However, skateboarders and other skatepark users often have limited agency over the design of skateparks. A dynamic process of negotiation, community organising and activism is required to influence Local Government decisions, in order for user needs to be met. Awareness raising amongst Local Government officers and elected members is therefore as important as awareness raising amongst the skate community.
Second, local skateboarding organisations and communities should provide more woman and girl sessions in managed skateparks, while remaining clear that these should not be seen as the only safe times that girls can skateboard. Third, we should make skateboard coaches more aware about girls’ fear of being in the way and what they can do about it when teaching skateboarding. For example, while (for safety reasons) skatepark etiquette tends to emphasise taking turns and letting others go first, skateboarders need also to understand that some users are more assertive than others in claiming their space and time. Finally, we need to work on a general culture change. Our research suggests that young men generally welcome young women skateboarders – but they need some support in understanding how do that.
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