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Gender of silhouettes on outside of Twin Cities sports center sparks complaints

Illuminated figures decorate the HealthEast Sports Center in Woodbury. Joe and Robin Hennessy of Woodbury say that the silhouettes depict more male athletes than female, and are asking the city to change them. Six of the figures are on the exterior of the building, and roughly 25 are painted on inside walls. (Photo courtesy Joseph Hennessey)1 / 2
Illuminated figures decorate the HealthEast Sports Center in Woodbury.(Photo courtesy Joseph Hennessey)2 / 2

There are no written words below the signs at the HealthEast Sports Center. But to one Woodbury couple, they might as well say, “Girls not welcome.”

That’s because all six silhouettes of athletes on the exterior appear to be male, they say. Inside, the walls are decorated with 18 male athletes and seven female.

“We do not suggest there were ill motives or bad intent. It may be implicit bias,” said Robin Hennessy, who is lobbying the Woodbury City Council to change the figures. The goal, she said, is to “equally depict girls and women” at the $22 million sports center.

To advance that cause, she and husband Joe have circulated a petition which has been signed by 2,000 people. “We were surprised. We were hoping to get 100 signatures,” she said.

Woodbury spokesman Jason Egerstrom said the city council will decide what to do about the complaint. The petition is to be presented to the council at a meeting Feb. 28.

The sports center opened in 2014. Egerstrom said that thousands of male and female athletes use the facility every year, including members of boys and girls hockey teams and co-recreational sports leagues.

He said the gender of the silhouettes — added during a recent expansion — has not inspired any complaints until now.

The exterior of the building has six figures, used as design elements. They are about 6 feet tall, cut out of the building’s steel panels, and illuminated with lights within the walls.

To casual observers, most of the figures would be seen as male — but not all of them.

Joe Hennessy, however, has expertise in prep sports, as the girls director of the Woodbury United Lacrosse club. He noticed that the lacrosse player had a helmet — which girl lacrosse players do not wear.

Likewise, the gender of the batter might not be obvious to some, but Hennessy noticed that the bat was the smaller diameter than the ones used by girls teams.

Hennessy was taking his 8-year-old daughter to a soccer practice last month at the center, when she made an observation.

“She said, ‘Daddy, why aren’t there any girls on the building?’ ” recalled Hennessy.

There is no cost estimate known for altering the genders of the figures. City spokesman Egerstrom said it might not be easy. “It would pose a technical and financial challenge” to replace the panels, he said.

“They were not purchased off the shelf. They had to be designed, manufactured and installed,” he said, “and the light panels behind them were, too.”

Inside the field house, the figures are painted on the walls, and would be far less expensive to change.

Joe Hennessy said he recently met with city officials, and said they did not respond properly.

“The meeting was very icy,” Hennessy said. “They have not taken this seriously. It is quite surprising.”

“They conveyed that this is not a good or productive use of taxpayer money,” said Robin Hennessy.

“I don’t know if this bias is conscious or unconscious, but the fact that it was recognized by an 8-year-old illustrates why it is a problem.”