Where are the women shooters?

Not at my gun club, it appears.

I spent today at a little fun (clay) shoot with a local Men’s Christian Fellowship. Observant readers will have noticed that there appears to be somewhat of a problem with this, since – not being a man – my participation in Men’s Christian Fellowship events would seem to be a bit… strange.

It’s worse than you think: I’m not a Christian either. Totally unqualified. I think my fellow shooters have noticed that I am not male (there were references to ‘ladies’, which did make me wonder who the other one was. Was it the individual I knew as Tim? Unlikely to be Robin, given the beard, but what about Andrew? He – or she? – is about 6’4″, but you never know…) but my religious credentials have never come up for discussion. We seem to have a policy a bit like the American army: don’t ask, don’t tell.

However, my right to be there aside, a good day was had by all. But the number of women shooters in general came up as a topic of conversation. The event was held at the gun club where I’m a member, so I asked the chap in charge how many women members there were. I knew there couldn’t be many, given that I’m a regular attender and I’m often the only shooter without testicles on the course (at least… I think. I haven’t checked, you understand).

I did not, however, expect the Man In Charge to start counting on his fingers.

We apparently have… wait for it… five lady members. Out of 170. That’s 2.94%.

“Oh,” I said. “What about other clubs?” Being a relatively new shooter, I haven’t shot anywhere else. Also, being a relatively impoverished shooter, restricting the number of times I can blow money away down a gun barrel to twice a month does keep the costs down. “Is that proportion normal?”

No, I was assured. It was not normal.

“Oh,” I said. “What proportion of women do other clubs have?” I was surprised. My gun club is friendly, informal, and welcoming. It’s certainly not what I would call a bastion of male chauvinism. (One – male – member did once offer to lend me a 20-bore gun as the 12-bore I was using “might be too much gun” for me. But only once. And he was trying to be helpful.) Even the towel in the flush toilet is pink. In fact, I even suspect a little positive discrimination in favour of lady members, since my time on the waiting list was suspiciously short.

There was then a short discussion about other clubs people had attended, and how many women had been seen at each venue:
“I went to so-and-so club. I think I saw a woman there.”
“Then there’s such-and-such-else club. I’ve never seen a lady shooter there.”

“Oh,” I said.

I have to say, I am astonished. A female participation rate of 2.94% is good? The police firearms officer who came round to do my interview when I got my certificate was female, and she said “We need more lady shooters”. Well, that qualifies as the understatement of the year.

Clay shooting isn’t a hobby that needs physical strength. It seems to be the kind of sport that you just keep doing, and getting better at, until you either go so blind you can’t see the clays, or you can’t walk between stands, or you’re just too dead. If you find the 12-bore gun you’ve been using for the last sixty years is getting a bit much for you, you splash out on a 20-bore and carry on. Children getting started out in the sport are often, apparently, started off on 28-bore, which is even smaller. So lack of size and strength is no barrier to participation.

If women don’t want to shoot, that’s fair enough. Quite often, I read about heinous inequalities in gender participation – particularly in high-level banking jobs – and I wonder… do women even want those jobs? I’m still undecided about how much of the differences between men and women are due to biology and how much due to social expectations, but if a woman has kids I can very well understand that she might not want a high-powered job as well. This is what is known as a lifestyle choice: settle for a less highly-paid job, because you have decided that spending more time with your children is something you would rather do. Where is it written in tablets of stone that men and women have to want the same things? Where is it written that earning lots of money is the only worthwhile goal – even if you don’t have kids? Do women just not want to shoot? Does the thought of tramping over a slightly muddy field carrying a shotgun and blowing away little black frisbees leave them cold?

Or is it that shooting isn’t a very accessible hobby? I admit, it’s not cheap. Every cartridge costs about 20p, and you have to pay for your clays as well. Not to mention a gun. And all the paperwork. And there is the perception that two kinds of people shoot: farmers and posh people. I don’t know how true the stereotype is, but I think there may be a certain amount of truth in it. My club runs heavily to people involved in agriculture: you can tell by the dress code. Which is, clothes. Overalls, jeans, wax jackets, Goretex: practical, hard-wearing stuff. The only fashion statement being made is: I bought this ten years ago, and l don’t see why I should replace it if it still works.

I do not fall into either group. I’m a town girl through and through, and my posh credentials are even less convincing than my male Christian credentials. This was brought home to me rather clearly when, in a pre-class discussion of what I and my fellow GDL students had been doing over the weekend, I mentioned that I’d been shooting. “Oh,” was the answer. “You don’t look the type.”

To be fair, I only ended up clay shooting accidentally: I got asked along to a fun shoot, and was hooked immediately. However, if it was a problem of social accessibility, we’d see roughly equal numbers of each gender. Or is it, really, the curse of social expectations?

This is, I think, the most likely problem. Clay shooting – at least, English Sporting, which is the discipline I do – involves wearing practical clothes, getting muddy, making loud noises and breaking things. None of these are regarded as terribly feminine. Nice girls, we are told practically from birth, wear pink, stay clean and quiet, and do not ever break things. Except hearts. It is the man’s job to go out and get muddy and break things; it is the woman’s job to stay at home and make him a cup of tea when he gets in.

Worse yet, girls are not supposed to compete with the boys, because no man will want a woman who can beat him at anything. Except maybe the hundred-metres food-shopping dash, or the endurance washing-up race. (Extreme Ironing is a mostly male sport.) So it’s not feminine, and might even scupper your chances of getting your own man, if you take part in men’s sports.

And getting a man is still, demonstrably, a major preoccupation for women. Look at the popularity of romances. Look at – worse – Bridget Jones. A series of three books revolving around a woman who is so pathetically inadequate that she needs a man – any man – to organise her life for her. Bridget Jones is on my list of Books That Should Be Burned because they’re not even about love: they just reinforce the appalling view that a woman cannot possibly happy or fulfilled without a man. I can’t imagine Bridget Jones taking to shooting. She’d probably squeal and drop the gun.

Then we have the Times. Which, as a law student, I am enjoined to read every day. Today, we have (in the magazine section), Robert Crampton describing how he restricts his daughter’s life, choices and experience compared to his son’s, as if this is somehow a good thing. In the main paper, in the Opinion section, we have Giles Coren deriding the technology industry in general, and implying that it is completely staffed by spotty men with no social skills who don’t know how to talk to ‘girls’. So much for encouraging women to get involved in tech, then. (Although that article is just as inaccurate and demeaning to both genders of IT professional).

The entire sports section – all 24 pages of it – contains just one article on women’s sport. It’s on page 14, and is approximately 3″ x 6″. Including headline. And people are wondering why girls don’t get involved in sport? Maybe it’s because the media give the impression that there isn’t any to get involved in after they shake the dust of school netball lessons from their trainers.

In the ‘world’ section, there’s an article about a ‘Sarkozette catfight’, referring to Sarkozy’s ‘glamorous protegees’. We get a description of the two women’s pedigrees (after all, what’s most important about a woman is who her father was, right?) and the titillating fact that one of them enjoys boxing. Sexy. Qualifications? Politics? Future intentions? Not a dicky bird.

In the news section, women feature as victims: rape victims, young girls driven to suicide by bullying, poor old ladies whom evil social services people are trying to force into care only to be saved by judges (actually, hooray legal system).

I don’t for a minute think that the Times is conducting some kind of campaign to reinforce the stereotype of women as weak, submissive victims who need a strong man to look after them. That would imply that the editors had actually thought about it and had a plan. No, I think this is the way society thinks. If a woman does something that isn’t clothes-home-kids-oriented, she’s somehow deficient as a woman, or a freak. Women and girls are to be protected because they are life’s victims, but they should not attempt to step out of the nice, safe roles society describes for them.

And if that’s the message you keep hearing about your gender, then pretty soon you start to believe it. And you pass it on.

If women who do something different are either not reported at all, or reported as freaks of one kind or another, it does nothing to assure ordinary girls and women that they have other choices. Who wants to be considered a freak, really? If you read in the paper that the tech industry is full of spotty men with no social skills, would you, as a girl, really consider it as a career if you were even slightly ambivalent? Hell, no. When it comes to pastimes, where do we find references to women? In the sports pages? No. In the home-and-cooking section? Yes!

And this, I think, is why I am 20% of the lady shooters at my gun club. Not because women are not welcome, but because women are told, over and over again, that sports – especially sports not traditionally played by women – are not feminine. Women cook and look after children and buy clothes and go to spas; men play sport.

If women don’t want to shoot, or work in the tech industry, or whatever, then fair enough. It’s hardly freedom if you are only free to choose what someone else says is ‘the right thing’. But it is a pity if there are women out there who would love shooting (or whatever else) as much as I do, but – because the media’s representation of women and their lives is so one-sided and stereotypical – they never realise that the opportunity is there to try it.

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