Sunday, 31 January 2016

'Boys and girls can't play together nicely': the lessons of gendered sports

Dear Reader,

Do you enjoy sports?  Do you enjoy watching, or participating?

Have you thought about the cultural assumptions that lie underneath your sport of choice?

I love to consider what the future might hold.  I'm imagining, now, a society where splitting sports by gender is considered as eyebrow-raising as doing so by colour.  In this society, sport is built on meritocracy.  Pupils are taught PE together, and no 'sport' is 'for' one gender or another.  Boys play netball with girls without wearing skirts (or with, who cares) or accidentally having sex with each other in the changing room (alright, that does occasionally happen).  Girls play rugby with boys without continually weeping and declaring that they bruise like a peach.  There are fervent female cricket pundits as well as male  and everyone puts their clothes on to play beach volleyball. People generally get on with running around, throwing things, jumping and catching without stopping for pause about the genital areas of those around them.

Sounds both utopian and desirable, doesn't it?  But what led us to start segregating sport in the first place, and why might we continue to need it?

1. Boys play rough and girls need protecting.  While this is clearly rubbish, it is true that sports can be dangerous and promote competitiveness, aggressiveness and violence if not handled properly.  That is, if rules aren't enforced and players aren't taught to deal with their emotions effectively.  This boils down to an argument about how we teach PE in schools - no segregation needed. Research suggests that parents treat boys and girls differently from birth - this fascinating experiment  shows that parents consistently overestimate boys' physical abilities and underestimate girls, even when babies are under a year old.

2. Different sports suit the temperaments of different sexes better. This is an extended version of the first argument, and presupposes that men and women like or are good at different things: for example netball vs basketball, which are seen as 'suited' to women and men respectively. Netball evolved from a specific version of basketball for women
'from the start, it was considered socially appropriate for women to play netball; netball's restricted movement appealed to contemporary notions of women's participation in sports, and the sport was distinct from potential rival male sports' (Wikipedia)
One would hope we now understand that this is nonsense.  However, traditions persist.  The 2012 Olympics still featured sports that were gendered: synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics for women, boxing, wrestling and baseball for men.  2016 - a full 98 years after women got the vote in the UK - will be the first year both women and men compete in all sports. But this is the top of the pyramid.  Further down, funding, attitudes and ideas will take time to shift. More to the point, this means both men and women have a chance to compete - but crucially, not against each other, because....

3. Men and women are different, physiologically, and it is unfair to pit them against each other. Ah, this is the rub.  Should we segregate sports so that women 'have a fair chance', or are we going further down the road of discrimination by doing this?  Whether you believe this or not tends to reflect whether you think women's bodies are different enough to men's (and by different, in terms of sport, we mean inferior) to need a different competition space entirely.  There is an uncomfortable parallel here with race: some believe that some racial profiles are genetically, inherently better at some sports, and so should compete separately to others.  If we decide this is nonsense, and allow everyone to compete together, then the worry is that women will be knocked out of the top spots altogether, and end up even more under-represented than they are now.  Should we allow this to happen - which seems to align with a 'morally fair' argument - or should we do something like this, which is a mathematical adjustment exercise to compare runners' times allowing for both gender and age?

Some say women's bodies are catching up, because evolution no longer dictates that they are passive fertility factories, storing fat and resignedly asking men to open jars for them.   Others maintain they will never have the same size hearts, percentage body fat, muscle mass and endurance capability as men (there is some research to suggest women have the advantage in the latter, as they may be more efficient overall at converting glycogen to energy).  This article looks at the consistency of record-holding by gender, where women seem to stop at 10% lower than men across a variety of fields.  It is difficult to predict whether this is a 'diaphragm' (muscular ceiling) or something that will change with time, motivation and an injection of money into training and encouraging women to the same level that men have benefitted from.

However, there is another dimension to this argument: that being male/female is not as binary as we think.  You may remember the headlines in 2009 when Caster Semanya was subjected to gender testing (and some very personal abuse) after winning gold at the World Championships.  Aside from the moral implications, gender testing is as neither easy or clear-cut as checking for a chromosome. There are plenty of cases of people developing hormonally as one gender when their chromosomes are the opposite, as well as a variety of people that fit neither specification. There are an estimated 1.7% of all people who are 'intersex', with another huge number identifying as transsexual, gender-neutral, or various other gender concepts that are much more complex than M/F.  So where does this leave the 'sports by gender' discussion?

As always, your thoughts are most welcome...



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