Women and sports

A listserv I belong to had an admiring post about the Pacquiao-Cotto fight (you don’t need a link, one guy beat the sh*t out of the other one, and the ref had to stop the fight in the 12th), and I rose to the bait with some snark about people who get off on that kind of thing.  The ensuing conversation was entirely predictable, we might as well just call out numbers.  Anyway, apparently the fight was a big deal in boxing circles, so not a bad time to recall my last reflections on it and Mark’s observation that bare-knuckle fights would be a lot less savage and destructive.

Among the predictable features of the boxing back-and-forth was the near-total silence of the many women on the list.  It’s hard to interpret silence when it doesn’t have a facial expression, but if it had a tone of voice, I think it was the one that goes with “oh God, there go the men bashing antlers and fanning out their tailfeathers again; let’s go to and fro and talk of Michelangelo.” I don’t know a single woman who knows or cares anything about boxing (please do not waste comments reporting exceptions, I’m not saying there aren’t any but that they’re few).  More women football fans, but still very few.  I don’t know about hockey, or bullfighting, or dogfighting. Men tend to be sports fans more than women generally, but the sports I mention seem to interest especially few women.  I’ve repeatedly regretted not paying attention to women’s judgment, so they may be on to something worth attending to here. (These reflections by a woman soccer player are interesting.)

The women I’ve played poker with are maybe one in twenty, and it looks about the same when I drop in on TV poker for a mindless half-hour (I don’t think poker is mindless at all; I count the hours I’ve spent with a hand in my hand as golden, but watching other people do it?).  What’s that about; why so few women enjoying this priceless, harmless, absorbing, congenial diversion? The cigars are long since banished from the table…

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

20 thoughts on “Women and sports”

  1. As a chess player who could care less about all the sports you like, the relative dearth of women at the chess board is the more interesting question, as chess takes away all physical inequality problems and doesn't have the differential bias that luck introduces in poker (men are apparently wired to accept more risk). Chess is a game of perfect information, where women would seem to have at least parity with men. Not so far. What's up with that?

  2. It's simple. The more the sport (or other game) depends on pure competition, the more heavily-weighted its fan base will be towards men. The more it's about skill (and the more visible the skill is to observers), the more equally-divided the fan base becomes. Add music and you really have my attention.

  3. The fight was a big deal because Manny Pacquiao has now won world titles in FIVE different weight classes ranging from 112 lbs to 145. No one has ever done that before. Filipinos are justifiably proud of their guy.

    I will readily concede that boxing isn't everybody's cup of tea, but those who dismiss the sweet science as mere brutality are philistines. Not even Don King can ruin this sport.

  4. As a game designer I can tell you that I have never in my life in observed the "common wisdom" that women are less competitive than men. In fact, I have more often met women who avoid games because they are too competitive and think that they get too emotional about winning and losing.

    It may be true that there are some games that simply aren't attractive to women on some basic level, but it is equally true that we live in a society that does not value women's participation in games as highly as it values the participation of men. It should be obvious that the fact that boys are pushed towards sports at a very early age has something to do with the popularity of those sports among men.

    In my mind the answer to your question is that we have a societal aversion to public displays of competition by women, and that's going to carry across all games from Poker to Football to Chess. Men are encouraged to be competitive from a very early age while women are either not encourage or actively discouraged. It seems as simple as that.

  5. Joel, if boxing is in fact the 'sweet science' rather than merely a potential bloodbath, please explain to me why fencing is a niche sport. It's a combat sport that has changed its rules in a way that really protects participants. Fencing has everything boxing has except the high potential for serious injury.

  6. One sports fan's personal thoughts, FWIW. I watch a fair amount of football, despite some qualms about the violence of it at times. Boxing, not nearly so much, although the difference is of degree rather than kind. I trace much of the difference for me to a specific fight — Ray Mancini and Duk Koo Kim in 1982. I saw it live on TV; for a boxing fan it was a great fight between two skilled and game competitors. The next day one was dead. I rarely see a boxing match, even just flipping channels, without thinking of that. See also the book "Lords of the Ring" by Doug Moe, a short history of college boxing which flourished from the 30's to the 50's and faded out largely because of a death in a national championship fight.

  7. I don't think football is intrinsically violent in the way boxing is. The point of football is to stop someone from passing across a piece of field, not to hurt him; the main injury risk (repeated concussion damage) is incidental to the core of the game (though the way the pro and college games are managed, given this risk, is sufficiently disrespectful of the players to spoil it for me as an amusement). Playing football with the intention of incapacitating opposing players is bad sportsmanship and against the rules. In the abstract, chess is more violent: the point is to "kill" members of the opponents army and ultimately the king. But the point of boxing is to bash someone's head enough so he has to leave the field of play, often unconscious. If no-one died in the ring I would still find it inhumane.

  8. "why so few women enjoying this priceless, harmless, absorbing, congenial diversion?"

    Because it's boring as all hell? Yeah, life is random; skill can overcome some bad luck but has its limits; it's a metaphor, we get it.

    There is a reason every TV show about Las Vegas that focuses on the gambling and casinos gets cancelled after three episodes — normal people don't give a damn.

    Women have plenty of faults, and plenty of other stupid ways to waste time, but I have to score this in their credit column, rather than the debit column.

  9. In my area of Western NY there are numerous (significantly numerous) female hockey and (at least before this season) football fans – not me but the majority of my family, acquaintances, etc. This includes my daughters and how that happened I'll never know.

  10. Try watching mixed martial arts some time. It involves much more variety than boxing, which makes it more interesting to watch and also ensures that nobody spends 12 rounds being repeatedly hit in the head (although blows to the head are certainly part of the sport).

    It's a newish sport, and I guess time will tell, but so far it doesn't seem like the older guys who have had long careers (e.g., Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mark Coleman, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture), are ending up like Muhammad Ali.

    Obviously this comment doesn't say anything about the gender angle (though I'll note in passing that women's MMA is growing) or say anything about whether it's morally OK to be entertained by any sport that involves people doing some kind of violence to each other (though I am basically a bleeding-heart liberal and enjoy MMA). But insofar as disgust about boxing (or American football) is predicated on the brain damage it tends to inflict, it does seem quite possible at the moment that MMA is a more exciting and less injurious alternative.

  11. ok, Maynard, we get it – you are superior to poker players, women, and whoever else is not Maynard, LDO…

    Michael, if you start making distinctions about what the intrinsic aim of the game is, then boxing is not about bashing the other guy in the head for an hour while taking similar damage yourself either, the same way that American football is not about a bunch of really heavy guys smashing into each other as hard as they can… Am.football is just as violent in the realistic definition, where you have a game target and you are allowed a controlled amount of violence against the opposition. In fact, if the same level of head and body protection were available in boxing, it is likely that the chance of brain damage (as well as KOs, of course) in boxing would go significantly below AmF.

    Don't get me wrong – I am pretty clear that boxing within the current rule framework and against a reasonably equally skilled opponent quickly degenerates into a grueling bashing contest. Although neurologically speaking we must have by now some data where at least some answers about boxing and brain damage can be asked – for example, whether number of matches, average number of rounds, or knockouts/damage sustained can be a better explanatory variable.

    Anyway, back to the gender discrepancy. I think Charles' point can explain away a great deal of the difference. It also points to the selection bias in your observation that most women that you know don't care about boxing, football, poker etc – rephrase that to 'most women you know don't care to tell you whether they care about boxing, football, poker, etc', and you have a valid observation, though much less of a point.

  12. I have watched just enough MMA to know the basic drill. First they try to kick each other in the head. The they roll on the mat and try to smash each other in the face with their elbows. Eventually one gets a chokehold and forces the other to submit. These competitors are technically known as "sportsmen". A great improvement over boxing indeed.

  13. Charles: As a game designer I can tell you that I have never in my life in observed the “common wisdom” that women are less competitive than men. In fact, I have more often met women who avoid games because they are too competitive and think that they get too emotional about winning and losing.

    Gneezy, U., Niederle, M., & Rustichini, A. (2003). Performance in competitive environments: Gender differences. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118, 1049-1074, reviews two studies where women's scores on some task do not change between competitive and non-competitive conditions, whereas men's scores increase. One of the studies, (Gneezy, Niederle, and Rustichini (2003). Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(3): 1049–74.), found that women did react negatively to being placed in mixed-sex competitions, which may indicate the activation of a stereotype threat. They also cite a study (Chen, Yan, Peter Katuscak, and Emre Ozdenoren. 2009. “Why Can’t a Woman Bid More Like a Man?” Unpublished.) that claims women's competitiveness varies in response to their menstrual cycle, but I cannot vouch for an unpublished study, though it does match the findings out from evolutionary psychologists relating to mate preference variation based on the menstrual cycle.

  14. Levi, that's interesting. So, Gneezy, Niederle, and Rustichini not only recursively cite their 2003 paper IN the 2003 paper itself (?), but they also manage to cite an unpublished 2009 study in the 2003 paper? That's impressive.

  15. hmm, the original review paper was Croson, R. & Gneezy, U. (2009) Gender differences in preferences. Journal of Economic Literature, 47, 448-474.

  16. Some women are keenly competitive, as Mike notes. The Canadian Women's Ski Jumping Team just took the organizers of the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games to court because the games don't have a women's event. The US Team supported the Canadians in this. The appeal court decision earlier this week (or end of last) confirmed the lower court in throwing out the case. Reason: what qualifies for the games is decided by the Olympic association, not the Canadian organizers, and that association is not within the jurisdiction of the court. The argument by the women was that the Canadian organizers could not practice discrimination here because some international body told them to.

    The Olympic association says it does not have women's ski jumping because there are not enough competitors in the world to make it worth while. Of course a lot of countries don't even have winter…

    A lot of women are very competitive in tennis. Why is that different? less violent? just plain more fun?

  17. I'm a rabid baseball fan who can talk most of the men I know under the table on that subject. I also like football, but I feel guilty about it because as a psychologist I know how bad football is for the players' brains. Boxing, of course is if anything worse, and I don't like it at all and wish the Olympics would ban it. Of course, I'm weird; I also read blogs religiously, which we know is statistically unusual for women (about 20% of blog readers are women) and follow politics closely. Nancy Pelosi is my idol.

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