Is Gender Segregation in Sports Necessary?

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William Warby // CC BY 2.0

By Alice Sanders
(Originally published on How We Get to Next)

“In contests involving strength, speed and reactive ability, women are nowhere near as good as men.” —  Rod Liddle, writing in The Spectator, 2012

“So, Kuper baited me: ‘The top women can’t take on the top men’. He continued by making assertions like: women are slower than men; women are weaker than men.”— Jennifer Doyle (speaking with sports writer Simon Kuper), reported on her blog TheSportSpectacle, 2014

This is the most common argument against gender integration in sports; integrated sports teams shouldn’t exist because men are stronger than women.

But is that actually true? And even if it is true, does it mean that a woman shouldn’t play on the same team as a man?

We accept, and expect, gender integration almost everywhere else — at work, in social spaces, and we’re even coming around to the idea of non-gender specific bathrooms. Yet sports remain segregated, and it’s worth examining what the social cost of that separation is.

But first, the science. A 2010 study in The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, which examined the year-by-year improvement in world records and top 10 performances across 82 different sports since 1896 (the beginning of the modern Olympic era), found that women are not as fast, nor as strong, as men. Genetic and hormonal factors between men and women affect “height, weight, body fat, muscle mass, aerobic capacity or anaerobic threshold,” the authors note.

The data that they collected and examined showed that, on average, men outperform women by a 10 percent gap. That’s an average, so the differences can be more or less pronounced depending on the sport — the lowest differences are in 800-meter freestyle swimming, for example (5.5 percent), and the highest in weightlifting (36.8 percent). Women typically do best relative to men in events based around aerobic stamina, like long-distance running. Andy Lane, a sports psychologist at the University of Wolverhampton, confirmed this to me when I spoke with him. “There are physical differences between males and females, typically around strength,” he explained.

That general point obscures a more interesting one, though, in that the historical data shows that, for a while, women seemed to be catching up. Over the last century, women’s times have improved more than men’s. This is mainly because women have increasingly had more access to the things that athletes need to better themselves — like more invitations to major events, and better equipment, training, and coaching. Social politics has influenced sports performances, going right back to when women were enfranchised in the early 20th century, through periods of increasing personal freedom and income that have made it more and more possible for women to become professional athletes.

That said, the data also shows that this constant progress slowed in more recent decades — from 1983 onwards, the gender gap stabilized, and women’s records started to consistently come to roughly 90 percent of the men’s records. The best men and the best women have been getting better at the same rate ever since.

Could that change? Could women start catching up with men again? After all, people used to say women were unable to handle political office. Even the slowest-converging lines eventually do merge; the truth is nobody knows for sure if that’s the case here. The history of women in sports is a history of being gradually allowed access to social privileges which have made them better athletes, and there could yet be undiscovered factors at play that could make the gap smaller.

Here’s how the gender gap might start closing again, if it’s ever going to.

For a start, history tells us that improvements in sports science and technology are more likely to close the gap, not widen it. Right now, top-level training is becoming more and more specific, for example — not just to the sport, not just to the general gender of an athlete, but tailored to each individual person.

Lane said: “Effective training is specific. There is a great deal of individual difference and so gender is of less importance. An individualized training program is the most effective and, as such, gender differences will blur.”

David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, makes a similar point — he argues that, as more and more has been discovered about the human genome, training programs can be tailored to specific types of genes related to athletic ability. “We’re finding genes that make some people more trainable to particular training programs than others,” he writes. “Not only genes, but actually direct physiology — whether it’s properties of muscle fibers or things like that — that can help you figure out what the best training plan is for an individual.”

Of course, these advances are going to aid all genders in terms of better training. But almost all major sports — particularly team sports like football, basketball, baseball, and soccer — have been historically dominated by men, and I warrant that tailored training is much more likely to help women. Scientific studies in general focus more on men as subjects instead of women, and this includes medicine, health, and sports science. Much sports research and training was specifically designed with men in mind — women should have more to gain from training specificity.

The second big advancement in the next few decades, particularly in team sports, will be augmentation — that is, using technology to physically alter and improve the human body. This is going to take many forms, and will be controversial, but some degree of it is inevitable — as will be the changes of our current ideas of what sports are.

We’re going to start seeing new ways for athletes to be fed information while they’re on the field or the track—think Google Glass-style data displays in contact lenses or goggles, or discreet earpieces, broadcasting everything from play formations to projections about where a ball will land. Even bio-augmentation might end up permitted, where athletes can physically upgrade their bodies, from better limbs to better brains for tactical decisions. (Doping, arguably, is already a crude form of this.) Gene editing may produce humans with every gene for athletic performance emphasized. Many of the newest sports — like e-sports — don’t require any physicality at all, where mental strength is most important.

In this world, differences in gender end up a minor irrelevance compared to all of the other factors which will determine sporting prowess.

“When girls like football, I think it’s OK. But I think that the level of women’s football is too low to take it seriously.” — Andrey Arshavin, professional soccer player

“Women should be in the discotheque, the boutique, and the kitchen, but not in football.” — Ron Atkinson, former soccer player and manager

This all assumes something else, of course — that physical attributes are the most important thing when it comes to sports. Yet for team sports, that’s just not true.

It’s certainly not just strength and speed that make a good player, and it doesn’t necessarily follow that team sports should be segregated, even now, because of those specific attributes. There are variations of speed and strength among male players in all team sports; there are positions where strength is much less important; and others where speed is not so integral. If it was all about physicality, then players would be judged and recruited around edge case statistics like the fractions of seconds to reaching a ball — in reality, those are just one of myriad such stats that coaches look at.

Sure, it helps if you can make it to that ball quicker, but other skills are equally if not more important. In soccer, say, controlling the ball, tactical understanding, off-the-ball movement, teamwork, and cooperation — these are all vital parts of the game. What’s more, women are already good, yet underrated, at endurance and stamina in events that last longer than two hours, the one area where there is evidence that they actually are able to outperform men — thanks to smaller bodies radiating heat more efficiently, and more efficient conversion of body fat into energy.

It’s funny, isn’t it, that even though women have some advantageous biology, and are stereotypically thought of as being better than men in the key skills for team sports — think cooperation, multi-tasking — you’ll never hear, “the thing is men just aren’t as good at soccer, they can’t play as part of a team like women can.”

Social politics have hugely affected women’s sporting performance over the last century — but what if sports could affect change in social politics?

All-male sports teams exist largely within a system run by men who went through the system themselves — men who end up as coaches, officials, and members of boards. It’s a system that teaches men that a version of masculinity, that is both toxic and hierarchical, is among the most important traits to have. Eric Anderson, professor of sports, masculinities, and sexualities at the University of Winchester, defines this as “orthodox masculinity” in a 2008 study. He argues that it’s responsible for men’s team sports cultivating a culture of misogynistic and homophobic attitudes.

“It is a resilient system that reproduces a more conservative form of gender expression among men, helping make sport a more powerful gender regime,” he explains. Ultimately, an athlete’s own choices matter less and less, as they’re encouraged to see everyone else through the lens of orthodox masculinity. More often than not, men who play to a high level in an all-male sports team also socialize mainly with their teammates, meaning that the bonds they form with people outside of that sporting universe — and especially women — are colored by the masculinity they have to live every day.

This means there is a higher chance of men having negative attitudes about women — objectifying them, for example. Anderson explains: “Male athletes (in general) and team sport athletes (in particular) have been shown to objectify women — often viewing them as sexual objects to be conquered.” The statistics on campus rape in America are pretty terrifying; a three-year study by researchers Jeff Benedict and Todd Crosset in the mid-1990s showed that while male student-athletes comprise 3.3 percent of student populations in the United States., they made up 19 percent of sexual assault perpetrators and 35 percent of domestic violence perpetrators.

Integrating team sports could do a significant amount to change this. In his study, Anderson followed heterosexual male university cheerleaders, who had all previously played high school football. Before they started cheerleading almost all of them reported that they viewed the world through the prism of orthodox masculinity — they held misogynistic views, both about women as athletes, and also in a more general sense.

Overwhelmingly, the men who participated in sports with women had their minds changed. They perceived women as good athletes; strong, capable and skillful. David, one participant in Anderson’s study, said: “I used to think women were weak, but now I know that’s not true. I never thought women were so athletic before. I hated women’s sports. But these women are athletes. They do stuff I’d never be able to do and I bet there are a lot of sports women can do better in.”

Two tweets in response to news that Jen Welter had been appointed a coach for the Arizona Cardinals in July 2015, making her the NFL’s first woman coach.

It didn’t stop there. “All but a handful reported that they had learned to see women as more than sex objects,” Anderson explains. “All the athletes reported having learned to respect and value women as friends, teammates, and competent leaders. Thus in the sex-integrated sport of collegiate cheerleading, once sexist and misogynistic men were able to witness the athleticism of women, befriend them in ways that they were previously unable to, and to learn of their gendered narratives, it humanized them in the process.”

Segregation in sports, it turns out, is harmful to gender relations and society. We worry that women might twist an ankle or break a leg if they were to play mixed sports, when in fact, the consequences of segregation are much, much more costly to women.

I hope that one day Marta will play on the same team as Messi; that gender segregation in team sports will end, and humanity will be better for it.

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