Youth-focussed mountain biking non-profit WORD sets its sights high when it comes to gender equity
As one of nine organisations to be part of Sport NZ’s Young Women’s Activation Fund, World Off-road Riding Department (WORD) set about breaking down the gender barriers associated with mountain biking (MTB) and achieving the lofty goal of 50 percent female participation across every area of activity.
While that was WORD’s “blue sky” goal, a set of more rapidly achievable aims and measures were instituted to get the wheels rolling down the trail.
With co-design at the forefront of its approach, WORD asked its young women riders what they wanted. At the top of that list was the chance to develop at their own pace alongside fellow female riders.
So WORD set about launching new initiatives to increase participation and provide better pathways to outdoor leadership for young wāhine 12-17 years old – calling its programme Dirt Is Good.
In 2020, the programme’s first year, WORD shifted the 13-17 year old girls session from Mt Victoria to Makara Peak to provide a greater variety of trails. They added an additional instructor to the 13-17 year old group to create a wider range of groups, and encouraged fluidity among the small groups each week to enable young women to choose a group ride based on how they were feeling that day.
Girls-only programmes and camps were led by female Instructors, and programme delivery was expanded to include groups in Porirua and Wainuiomata.
While Dirt Is Good was successful in recruiting more girls, it became apparent that work also needed to be done to retain young female riders, so WORD introduced a transition programme designed to help 12 and 13-year-old girls make the step to the teenage programmes – which could sometimes be a nerve-racking and intimidating experience.
The programme included camps designed to foster self-confidence, friendships and rad MTB skills - and would include an end of intermediate school party just for those girls heading to college.
To bolster its leadership capacity, WORD focussed on providing pathways for young women to graduate to become instructors.
‘WORD has given me the confidence to just go out and ride wherever, to always believe in myself but also that it’s okay to walk away and save it for another day.’
A values-led charity, WORD prioritises connection over competition and adventure over certainty. Being a good person is more important than being a good rider at WORD. Looking after the trails, your bike, your mates, and yourself are woven into the adventure of going on a bike ride together.
There were some challenges, including a perception that girls-only groups were too basic for more advanced girls who wanted to be challenged.
“WORD has given me the confidence to just go out and ride wherever, to always believe in myself but also that it’s okay to walk away and save it for another day,” says Kiera – a 12-year-old who has successfully graduated into the teen ranks.
A member of the teen group for two years, Riley’s riding has improved as her level of social confidence has grown.
“The last two WORD camps I went on have been amazing,” she said. “I have grown so much closer to some awesome girls and I get to do what I love with them.”
Riley reflected on how she has taken her place in a traditionally male-dominated sport.
“WORD is always encouraging young girls to get out there and do something out of their comfort zone. I think that's cool because a lot of girls like to stay in their comfort zone at my age, especially when there are boys that are dominant over mountain biking and like to think that they are the very best at it.”
At a Glance
What was the need or problem in the community?
Female participation in mountain biking is lower than it should be. WORD offered most term programmes in a co-ed environment and found that despite the equal opportunity for girls and boys to sign up, there were far fewer girls turning up.
What challenges or barriers existed and how were they overcome?
Sport NZ research has shown teenage girls prefer to try new sports and recreation opportunities with friends, which can often lead to them choosing girls-only environments. The co-ed nature of WORD’s weekly programmes and camps was likely a barrier for some teenage girls.
Splitting groups into girls and boys raised issues of inclusivity for all genders and non-binary people. It also became apparent that setting targets based on the percentage of girls participating versus boys was a less than ideal way of measuring success. This was because any increase in the number of girls, when measured as a percentage, can be impacted by a concurrent increase in boys’ participation. While WORD is determined to drive female participation in all areas, this should not be achieved at the expense of also encouraging greater participation among boys. A better metric for success, then, would be the growth in participation numbers.
What were the key success factors – and were they driven by an innovative approach?
WORD split the majority of its weekly programmes and camps into boys and girls classes, and recruited more female instructors so that girls-only classes would be led by females. It also co-designed new programmes with young female riders, who got to decide where camps were held, what trails would be ridden and even what food would be on the menu.
What outcomes were achieved?
The Dirt Is Good initiatives increased female participation to around 30% of new sign-ups being young women, with an increase in overall girls’ participation.
The number of female instructors and assistant instructors grew accordingly to keep up with the number of girls wanting to be a part of WORD. Some of these instructors have progressed from being participants and have come through WORD’s assistant instructor programme.
What comes next?
WORD is excited to see how far it has come and is looking to the future. It has expanded to include branches in Wānaka and Christchurch, where it continues to advocate for girls’ participation. It is also keen to continue growing its term programmes and holiday camps for both girls and boys. Growth in these programmes, regardless of the gender of the participants, allows for long-term financial sustainability and allows WORD to offer equity-focussed programmes and girls-only groups that can sometimes cost more to deliver.
WORD is also keen on continuing to use its voice to advocate for mountain biking as a vehicle for social impact. Its members have given oral submissions to council, been part of Education Outdoors Menstruation in the Outdoors campaign and are hoping to bring women’s and young peoples’ perspectives to local trail boards. Find out more: https://www.word.org.nz/.