Women in sport – why can’t women compete against men?

I love sport and enjoy playing against women and men, but it still seems that the general view is that despite how things are improving in treating women better and giving them the chances they should have that women and men still think keeping us separate in sports is acceptable. I know the usual arguments – men are bigger and stronger, it’s not fair to women – but how true is this? I’ve played with women who can beat men easily in several sports.

Personally I find the idea that keeping us separate is denying those women who are capable of competing against men with the same rules and the same distances.  For me it’s patronizing that women are treated differently as if the only way a man can be competed against is by making things easier for women.

There’s a book called “Playing with the boys: why separate is not equal in sports” which reports that maintaining these differences is just reinforcing the stereotypes that have been endured for far too long.  Is it wrong for me to think that women should be allowed to challenge men?  Maybe in things like boxing or lifting weights men would have an advantage, but what about other sports which are not just about brute strength?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted April 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    Other then maybe the Olympics, can you give some examples of sports / sporting areas where women are not allowed to play against men?

    Because most men’s leagues are actually “open” leagues in that women are allowed in them too. Example – all the professional leagues (NHL, MLB, NFL, etc.) allow women. Women have even come close to playing real games in some sports like the NHL and have participated in try-outs or played on the minor league team before.

    I know in my high school we had a girl who played on the men’s basketball team and I’ve heard of other such instances.

    I think in alot of cases women might just not realize that they are allowed to play on the men’s team. That or they feel pressure not to or want to be the best.

    But yeah, give us some examples of specific sports/leagues where women aren’t allowed to play with the men.

  2. Posted April 25, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    If sports were integrated (is that the term?) the first to complain would be the women. How many women would make the top 100 in tennis? (over 5 sets, remember.) Golf – teeing off from the same distance? Running – the best woman in the 2010 New York marathon would have barely made the top 30 overall.

    Chess? The top women scrapes in around 50th amongst the men.

    I’m sure that from an economic point of view, women are better off having their separate competitions.

    • Posted April 25, 2011 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

      Chess? The top women scrapes in around 50th amongst the men.

      Chess? Really?

      I find it very difficult to believe that the differences in chess aren’t based in culture rather than biology.

      Running, basketball, golf… those make sense, as they privilege strength, size, and speed, which elite men tend to have an advantage in compared to elite women. But chess?

      • Posted April 26, 2011 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

        Chess? Yes.

        Strength is measured easily: results in all games are used to measure relative strength, and a rating can be calculated quite easily.
        Anand, Viswanathan
        Judith Polgar has 2686 Elo points, and is the top woman. The top man, Viswanathan Anand, has 2817.

        Judith Polgar is 61st on the list of all top players.

        There might be social reasons for the lack of women’s success in chess – I played in a tournament at the weekend and there was one woman among the 44 players (are we that geeky?) – but the fact remains: women chess palyers are rare at the top. And elsewhere.

        • Posted April 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

          I don’t at all dispute that men dominate the world of chess at the moment; the statistics are undeniable, as you present them.

          But I continue to be skeptical that the differences between top-level chess players can be as easily (if at all) chalked up to biology as the differences between top sprinters or top basketball players (if for no other reason than that the extent of brainpower determined by biology is much more difficult to measure accurately than a clearly biologically-rooted factor like running speed, muscle mass, height, or strength).

          I would speculate—having done no research and having no experience, but coming from the assumption that men’s and women’s cognitive abilities are equal—that chess culture tends to find and cultivate talented male chess players more readily than it does with female chess players, and that furthermore our culture doesn’t glorify female chess players (really any chess players, but at least male chess players have had movies like Waiting for Bobby Fischer made about them, and the genius/savant/obsessive male figure is much more archetypal in our culture than the genius/savant/obsessive female figure) in the same way as it glorifies the athletic abilities of men and women (see FloJo, Marion Jones, etc.).

          • Posted April 26, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

            but coming from the assumption that men’s and women’s cognitive abilities are equal

            This is a really difficult assumption to either prove or disprove, and it really makes further relevant discussion about the relative strengths of men vs. women in chess an impossibility.

            Can we assume that men’s and women’s cognitive abilities are equal across the board (or that any notable differences are purely due to socialization)? I have no idea. In the absence of clear answers to that question, how is it even possible to make an informed decision about reasonable policy when it comes to competition?

  3. Posted April 25, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    I’m a female and I’m an athlete.

    I really appreciate the division of the sexes in athletics. I’m not 100% behind it, but it does have its purposes.

    First of all, men and women have physiological differences that put top men, athletically, ahead of top women. Coed sports are great for more recreational leagues and sports activities where ability is pretty average and there is a lot of overlap. However, when you get to the elites in the sports, the best men have usually have demonstrative physical advantages in speed and strength.

    Having two teams separated by gender allows both the top men and the top women to excel. I was a soccer player who did quite well on a college women’s team. However, I would never have made the cut if there was only one coed team for my school. Most of the women on my team wouldn’t have based on physical abilities alone.

    Even sports that may seem not to be about brute strength may have differences between average, elite performances in men and women. I’m not saying that there aren’t sports that aren’t different for men and women (skeet shooting, maybe?, archery?). And if women want to compete with men, I think they should go for it.

    Women aren’t being relegated to a sports ghetto by having a separate team. It allows most of us just the opportunity to play the game.

  4. Posted April 25, 2011 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    “Personally I find the idea that keeping us separate is denying those women who are capable of competing against men with the same rules and the same distances. For me it’s patronizing that women are treated differently as if the only way a man can be competed against is by making things easier for women.”

    But usually the separation isn’t a rules issue, it’s simply a matter of biology. As has been stated, pro golf, tennis, men’s basketball, and hockey, for example, don’t ban women from participating in the sport. Rather, they are simply so physically demanding, and played so much, that the high end of competition is exclusively male due to the differences in biology between men and women that, when expressed in the elite end of athleticism, are simply overwhelming advantages.

    “I know the usual arguments – men are bigger and stronger, it’s not fair to women – but how true is this?”

    The answer? Extremely true. Flo-Jo’s world record for the female 100m dash, a record that has not been seriously challenged in over 20 years, is 10.49 seconds.

    Men’s COLLEGE sprinters, and not even DI sprinters, break that time routinely in NCAA championship competitions.

    Usain Bolt’s recent men’s 100m record beats Flo-Jo’s record by almost a second, a GIGANTIC amount in a sport measured to the thousandth of a second.

    The differentiation of sports between male and female, at least in most instances, isn’t just a lark, it’s a necessity. The alternative is women competing against athletes who have a naturally-occurring system that essentially loads them with steroids. These biological differences in development are significant, both at the median level and the extreme right of the curve, because the result is a competition pool that will, for any sport involving speed, strength, agility, or a combination of the three, be almost certainly dominated by male athletes.

    It’s not just society thumbing its nose at women when we don’t let Maya Moore compete against LeBron James. That’s just not a fair competition, and proves nothing.

    In reality, when people propose purely intramural exercises, in actuality they’re promoting almost exclusively male leagues.

    • Posted April 26, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      It is certainly not true that men do better on average than women in agility. Greater balance and flexibility are more common in women. Lower body size can be an advantage in things like ski jumping (where women often hold the world records) or diving. When put face to face to compete, women often win in greco-roman wrestling. Super marathons also tend to be female dominated.

      Still, there is a huge issue of finding out which of these things are actually biological and which result from stereotype threat and cultural presuppositions. When we start with a notion like “men are better at sports” or “men are better at math”, we can create a phenomena that does not exist external to these standards (seriously, look at the chess example above). The fact that we as a society actively discourage fitness and strength training for those assigned female at birth pretty much from birth is a variable that cannot be overlooked.

      Not to mention that intersex and trans people exist in this discussion. If you want to seperate sports by size, weight, or upper body strength, or shit, even testosterone levels, do it like boxing does weight classes, rather than doing it by sex assigned at birth. I was female assigned at birth without debate, but no major sports organization would let me participate as a woman because the testosterone levels my body ordinarily produces. My testosterone level is below what would be the “normal” range for cis males, but not by too much. My estrogen level is what is expected for cis females. I have a uterus and ovaries of the expected number and size. I am shorter than both my sisters and my mother, have broader shoulders than my father, have wide hips, and large breasts. So, where do you put the person who even with severe health issues and being out of shape, can bench press over 100 lbs and is 5’4″ with shoes on? Don’t treat these lines and categories as if they are clear, because they certainly are not.

      • Posted April 26, 2011 at 10:59 am | Permalink

        “It is certainly not true that men do better on average than women in agility. Greater balance and flexibility are more common in women. Lower body size can be an advantage in things like ski jumping (where women often hold the world records) or diving. When put face to face to compete, women often win in greco-roman wrestling. Super marathons also tend to be female dominated.”

        Some of this is just flat-out false. All significant national ski-jumping records are held be men. Women winning in Greco-Roman Wrestling? It happens, but not on the sort of level where it would be worth combining men and women into one group, because the result would be an entirely male group.

        Super-marathons are a very rare exception, in that they are female-dominated. However, this is a niche sport, and certainly doesn’t change the fact that the vast majority of sports require combinations of speed, strength, and agility, areas in which men have natural advantages on average as well as at the peak of the spectrum.

        “Still, there is a huge issue of finding out which of these things are actually biological and which result from stereotype threat and cultural presuppositions. When we start with a notion like “men are better at sports” or “men are better at math”, we can create a phenomena that does not exist external to these standards (seriously, look at the chess example above). The fact that we as a society actively discourage fitness and strength training for those assigned female at birth pretty much from birth is a variable that cannot be overlooked.”

        Maybe some of it is stereotype threat, sure. Chess? Not my example, and I think stereotype threat and environment might have a lot to do with that specific case.

        However, it’s hard to say that elite female sprinters think they’re bad at what they do. They don’t. They’re not competing against men, anyway, so stereotype threat really doesn’t apply.

        Neither Flo-Jo nor Marion Jones suffered from a lack of fitness or training, either, and the same is true of elite female athletes. I have no doubt that women’s DI basketball teams work out plenty. It doesn’t change the fact that their center is 6’3″, the size of a lot of men’s collegiate shooting guards.

        All men aren’t better at all sports. However, most men have access to distinct biological advantages over women that, if utilized, can create a significant gap in competition that needs to be addressed by splitting the competition.

        It’s not just height. It’s not just weight. It’s a combination of a variety of factors, including things like bone structure and energy use throughout the body, that affect what peak performance is for each gender.

        Ignoring this, or not splitting the competition, is wholly unfair to a host of excellent female athletes who deserve their opportunity to display their talent without having their shots blocked by LeBron or their track hogged by the likes of Usain Bolt, Asafa Powell, and Tyson Gay.

        Yes, intersex and trans people are part of this, too, but they’re a relatively small part that almost never affect the goal of splitting the genders: fair competition.

        Simply put, dividing classes by upper body strength, height, or testosterone levels is simply not pragmatic, because sport culture goes all the way down to the youth level, where these things aren’t valid or reliable indicators, and where division on these lines is prohibitively invasive and expensive.

        These lines are not entirely clear, but the existing division of genders in sport, along with the promotion of sports to women, has had astoundingly good results. The accomplishments of women are theirs, and need not be compared to those of their male counterparts.

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