Some thoughts on sexism in athletics and the implications of gender differences

A new research paper recently came out on gender differences in athletics, written by Robert Deaner.  I am not as plugged into the online running community as I’ve been in the past, so I can’t tell how much “buzz” it’s generating, but it’s certainly got a fairly provocative message: women are intrinsically less interested in competitive sports due to evolutionary pressures, which is evidenced by female participation rates in team and competitive sport.  Deaner is the author of another fairly controversial paper published last year which generated quite a bit of buzz on; this one posited that more non-elite men at local road races run “relatively fast” than do women.  As evidence for this, he examines statistics from road races in the Buffalo, NY region and shows that a higher proportion of men run within an arbitrary margin (say, within 25%) of the averaged top-10 all time performers.  Furthermore, Deaner argues that about three times as many men train seriously than do women, again using the statistics done on various competitive and noncompetitive road races.   These differences are also traced to evolutionary pressures.
As I don’t have much of a background in psychology and only passing knowledge of evolutionary psychology in particular, I’m not going to deeply examine the methods and conclusions of Deaner’s work as I might if it were a physiology or biomechanics paper.  Rather, I’d like to go through this paper and use it to launch into a more philosophical discussion of the topic of sexism in sport, which is something I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time.  Before we get too into this latest paper, I want to clear up any confusion from the title of my blog post—I’m not accusing Deaner or anyone else of sexism.  In fact I applaud his openness and willingness to discuss these sensitive topics (especially at a place as infamous as the LetsRun message boards), as it fosters a more even-handed approach to dealing with the issues that inevitably arise when our worldviews clash with new evidence.  But let’s jump into the research before we get to the philosophy, ethics, and real-world implications.

Thoughts on Deaner et al.

First, let’s take a look at Deaner’s paper.  It’s actually a three-pronged study which looks at results from a time-use survey of over 100,000 Americans, field observation studies at local parks, and sports participation rates in intramural athletics from colleges and universities in the United States.  In the first study, a large number of participants were asked to record their daily activities for one day, which were then pooled and analyzed.  In the second, observers were sent to public parks in Michigan and New York to record the number and gender of people participating in various activities (walking, tennis, skateboarding, etc.).  In the third, participation rates from intramural sports leagues at a sampling of colleges and universities were analyzed. 
The first finding is the unsurprising but disappointing fact that only about 14% of Americans of either gender do any exercise at all during an average day.  But more salient to the current topic, Deaner et al. found that, while females account for 51% of all participants in any type of exercise (everything from aerobics to yoga), they account for only 28% of participation in individual sports like running, bowling, and golf (a sport being defined as “a game that requires physical skill”), and 20% of participants in team sports like basketball, baseball, and soccer.  This is in line with their evolutionary psychology hypothesis, as their introduction states:

One [testable hypothesis] is that the sex difference in participation will be larger for team than individual sports. This prediction follows because team sports require both motivation to engage in physical competition and motivation to engage in cooperative group challenges. Both kinds of motivation are greater in males. However, individual sports require only the first kind of motivation, whereas team sports require both, suggesting that the sex difference should be larger for team sports.

The other two studies also were in line with the researchers’ initial predictions: in field observations at public parks, males significantly outnumbered women in sporting activities and particularly in team sports, and among college intramural sports, women accounted for only 26% of participants.
Deaner et al. present these three studies as evidence that high school and NCAA sport participation rates (in which women account for 42% and 43% of all participants, respectively) overestimate the degree to which women are interested in competitive sports.  In their conclusion, they attempt to counter possible alternative explanations, with varied success.  While the time use survey provides ample proof that women do have enough spare time to participate in team sports if they so desired (as evidenced by nearly equal time dedicated to total execise), Deaner et al.’s attempt to show that there is no trend towards greater female participation in intramural sports following the implementation of Title IX is unconvincing, since they try to do so using yearly data on intramural sport competition at colleges and universities, and the data available to them only stretches back to 1997 at the earliest.  Additionally, they do not explain why female participation rates in NCAA and high school sports are so much higher than in intramural, recreational, and “pick-up” sports.  Finally, Deaner et al. take pains to focus their argument to one particular premise of Title IX: the idea that, provided equal opportunities, women will eventually have equal interest in sports:

Our final point is that a greater male predisposition for sports interest does not contradict most arguments made by Title IX proponents. Most notably, it is indisputable that, prior to Title IX, girls and women in the U.S. generally had vastly inferior sports resources and opportunities than boys and men, that sports and exercise can provide substantial benefits for girls and women, thatstrong moral arguments exist for ensuring that males and females enjoy equal sporting opportunities, and that Title IX has had many positive effects. Nevertheless, our results do suggest that it may be a mistake to base Title IX implementation on the assumption that males and females have, or soon will have, generally equal sports interest.

While most bloggers, opinionaters, and analysts would use this study and its conclusions as a launching pad for a discussion on the idea of socialization of gender roles and whether any intrinsic differences exist between the interests and aptitudes of men and women, I’d like to steer the conversation in a different direction.  While I’m giving Deaner and colleagues the benefit of the doubt, there is certainly an undercurrent of backlash against Title IX and its restrictions among sports enthusiasts in general.  The risk of arguing about whether the human mind is a “blank slate” and whether socialization explains all gender differences is that it attempts to derive principles of ethics and morality from principles of biology—quite a dangerous endeavor.  If, for example, it turns out that women are somewhat less interested in competitive sports than men, all of the arguments in favor of equal funding, equal opportunity, and equal access are in jeopardy if we base all of these on the assumption that socialization is responsible for all gender role differences.  Additionally, our attention is diverted from real, concrete examples of sexism in sport to petty arguments which may never be completely resolved over the role of gender roles in recreational interests. 
There are dozens of possible explanations for why females participate in competitive sports at lower rates than males.  Some argue that it is because boys are socialized to be more interested in competitive, aggressive activities; others, like Robert Deaner, argue that it is the result of evolutionary selection that rewards competitiveness and aggression in men—to him, much like male rams butt heads to show off to the opposite sex, so too did men compete in early human society.  But I argue that we, as a sporting community, should abandon this type of debate and instead take a philosophical approach to sexism in sport.  We should ask ourselves the following question: “Regardless of whether men and women have intrinsically different rates of interest in competitions, should an athlete be denied an equal opportunity to train, compete, and excel because of his or her sex?  To me, the answer is unequivocally “no.”  Even if we posit that women are less likely to be inclined to compete in athletics than men, it still does not make unequal funding justifiable, it still does not make unequal opportunities defensible, and it still does not make unequal access right. 
What matters isn’t whether an equal number of men and women are interested in sport.  It’s that a substantial number of both men and women are indisputably interested, and to this end, equality of opportunity is an obligation.   Political equality does not need to be based on biological equality—as Steven Pinker, a Harvard professor of evolutionary psychology wrote, "Equality is not the empirical claim that all groups of humans are interchangeable; it is the moral principle that individuals should not be judged or constrained by the average properties of their group."  So instead of being mired up in an argument over socialization of gender roles and innate biological gender roles, let’s take a step back and look at the state of sexism in running today. 
Sexism in Athletics
To start, allow me to list a few facts you may or may not be aware of:

  • The pole vault has been an event for men at the Olympic Games since its inception in 1896; women first contested the event in 2004.
  • The steeplechase has been an event for men at the Olympic Games since 1900; women first contested the event in 2008.
  • In ten states (Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas and Oklahoma), girls run shorter distances in high school cross country competitions (usually 4km instead of 5km).
  • In the NCAA, women in all divisions run 6km, whereas competitions for men are 8 or 10km.
  • At all levels of sport, men compete in the ten-event decathlon, while women compete in the seven-event heptathlon
In response to all five of these statements, someone who does not follow the sport could very justifiably ask “well, why is that? Why don’t you let women run as far as men?”  And truthfully, there is no logical answer! The only remotely plausible argument for keeping the current event configurations is that athletes and coaches are not prepared to transition to longer events.  But this fails to hold weight when taking a long-term approach—adapting this attitude in the 1960s would have meant that women would still be racing no longer than 800m today!
The worldwide athletics community needs to ask itself what kind of message the above instances of institutionalized gender discrimination send—and what we want cross country and track & field to look like in 20 years.  Does anyone want their daughter striving to compete in a system that’s still based on the archaic idea that women can’t run as far as men?
The role of Title IX
Most everyone will agree that Title IX has gone a long ways towards removing institutionalized gender discrimination, though it has also developed something of a reputation as a program-killer for men’s sports.  But, as pointed out by Erin Buzuvis and Kristine Newhall at the Title IX Blog, this law has become more of a scapegoat than a real administrative hurdle.  As Buzuvis wrote in a post this month, the ‘we need to cut [men’s sport X] for Title IX compliance’ argument is “a convenient narrative for colleges and universities to employ, as it positions them as innocent victims of the law, rather than free agents making economic and political decisions about how many and which sports to offer.  It's easier to say to disappointed baseball players and wrestlers, ‘sorry, blame the women,’ than it is to admit, ‘sorry, we just value football players' opportunities more than we value opportunities in your sport.’”  
Indeed, more often than not the decision to cut men’s sports teams—especially running, which is exceptionally inexpensive and has small roster sizes compared to other sports—comes down to an administrative desire to free up funds for other programs or start a new men’s program without having to start a new women’s sport.  When a news story comes out about a college or university that is cutting men’s track or cross country, the mobs at the various online forums for running discussion inevitably wail about the woes of Title IX.  But in almost every case, as more details come out, it appears that the so-called compliance issues are really a farce to cover back-room deals between athletic directors and trustees or to give the football budget some extra padding.  The University of Maryland, for example, cut funding for seven sports last year (including men’s cross country and indoor track), blaming budget concerns, despite having more football coaches on staff than cross country athletes.
Conclusions and the role of research
Moving back to our initial topic, some might even ask why Robert Deaner even set out to conduct his research in the first place.  Does it do society any good to know whether females are intrinsically less motivated to participate in sport? Do we really want to know what the root cause of gender differences are if they may upset how we derive our political ideals? My opinion is that this type of work is important, as it can help elucidate explanations to some pervasive problems in our society, but it is also exceptionally dangerous because of how easy it is for the findings to be used to marginalize or discriminate.  Gender, race, socioeconomic status, and educational achievement are all hugely explosive fields to be doing this kind of research in right now because of the greater public policy implications.  Researchers in this area have a special responsibility to carry out their work with integrity and to exercise extreme care when interpreting and reporting on their results. 
For his part, Robert Deaner has an interesting take on his own work—he turns the challenge on its head, pointing out that athletics is one of the only areas in society today where boys do appear to show a disproportionately high level of interest.  In many more important subjects, like academics, boys are falling behind because they don’t possess the dedication and interest that girls do, and this leads to some very unfortunate outcomes.  Women, for example, represent almost 60% of college graduates today, and this has implications for the workforce and for society as a whole.  By identifying what it is about sport that entices boys, Deaner argues, we can help better motivate them in academics and other areas of life. 
Regardless of what your take is on evolutionary psychology or socialization of gender roles, I would like to persuade you not to form your basis of equality on either of these; rather, I encourage you to consider the higher moral question of fairness.  Even before Title IX, it was blatantly obvious that millions of women were interested in competitive sport.  When we base our argument for gender equality in sporting opportunities on moral grounds, not biological ones, it doesn’t matter whether men and women are equally interested in sports.  Because a significant number of men and a significant number of women are interested in competitive opportunities in athletics, it’s unfair to deny an athlete access to training and competition based on his or her sex.  This entails equal funding, facilities, and scholarships at the collegiate level.  While roster sizes to some extent are based on funding and scholarship availability (at the DI level at least), the law in fact already provides an “out” for unequal interest.  As Buzuvis and Newhall write,

One of the compliance options in the three-part test (prong three) expressly allows schools to offer disproportionately low number of opportunities to female students, provided that there is no "unmet interest" in athletics among the female student body.  Lack of interest, properly measured, does factor into compliance obligations under Title IX.

But, as some of their posts illustrate, schools far too often use underhanded methods to inflate female roster sizes and pare down men’s roster sizes (like counting male scrimmage partners for female basketball teams as female athletes) instead of authentically increasing opportunities for both genders.  The Title IX Blog is also a nice resource if you are more interested in the socialization/gender roles explanation for differing female participation rates in sport, and Buzuvis and Newhall also have their own take on Deaner’s article which deals with some of the methodological concerns I brushed aside in favor of my more philosophical approach.
Finally, though, independent of your position on all of the psychology and political philosophy, I’d like to bring you back to more concrete problems.  I have three simple recommendations for the running community to get rid of some of the more embarrassing facets of our sport:

  • Have high school girls run the same cross country race distance as boys (5km in most cases) in all 50 states.  This will simplify training and race preparation for the many coaches who coach both the boys’ and girls’ teams, and make course layout easier for race directors.
  • Move the collegiate women’s cross country distance to 8km, per the reasons above.
  • Replace the heptathlon with the decathlon for women (which already has an IAAF scoring table, I might add)

None of these changes will be exceedingly difficult, and to ease the transition, they can be announced several years ahead of time—that way, women who are now training for the 2016 Olympic Heptathlon won’t have to learn to pole vault on short notice.  Larger questions about sporting attitudes, program funding, and available opportunities I’ll leave those who specialize in these topics, but these three are things we can change right now.

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

1 thought on “Some thoughts on sexism in athletics and the implications of gender differences”

  1. I appreciate how you go to great lengths explaining the difference of being equal versus equitable.

    I believe that continuing to promote (via outreach, education) the sport to all individuals will do the most in seeing whether these gender differences are socially-constructed, genetic, malleable over time.

    Also, the ARRS has some interesting long-term data about the number of sub-elite performances by gender, distance, year.


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