Should Men and Women be segregated in professional Sports?
When I zapped into the Olympics opening ceremony on Saturday, I had the doubtful pleasure to see the German sportspeople entering the stadium in ridiculously gendered jackets – pink for the girls, light blue for the boys. This renewed an admittedly rather old question in my mind: Should men and women be segregated in professional sports?
There are some mixed-gender sports, like Equestrian. Many others, however, ranging from Boxing and Football to Golf, Bowling, and Pool Billiard are gender-segregated at a professional level.
Different arguments are mentioned for why men and women should be segregated in sports. These range from pub debate level (“I would not be able to concentrate if my opponents were girls in such tight tricots”) to more complicated matters (“Forcing men and women together excludes people whose religious views prohibit having mixed-gender competitions”). However, in every case the main argument seems to be: Due to physical differences, women cannot compete with men in sports.
Interestingly, this argument seems to be brought forward out of completely different motivations. Gender segregation is promoted both by rather conservative people who see women as fragile beings and by women’s rights activists who see segregation as a way to achieve fairness. Whichever the motivation behind the “physical differences” argument may be, we can ask if it is a good argument.
It is certainly true that women on average have less physical strength than men and that a mutual competition would lead to only very few women having a chance to win in disciplines like Weightlifting or Athletics – probably even if we more widely introduced different divisions in height and weight. However, it would allow those few women to participate in tournaments that are more prestigious and better paid.
Moreover, in many disciplines physical predispositions are not the key factor for success, for example in Bowling, Darts or Pool Billiard. On average, women currently perform worse than men even in those disciplines. However, this might be mostly due to environmental factors like less women taking up these sports and being less encouraged and promoted.
In the long run, suspending the gender segregation might lead to men dominating certain disciplines and women establishing themselves as leading in others. This would be similar to what we can now observe with regard to black and white sportspeople. Blacks athletes tend to dominate Running, whereas whites tend to dominate Swimming. However, people do not propose to segregate disciplines by skin colour – with good reason.
“Physical differences should not count at all” is not a suggestion I want to make here. Such a rule would rob certain groups of the equal opportunities they fought for, e.g., because it would challenge the Paralympic Games as a stand-alone sports event. I regard it as fair to create equal opportunities in sports rather than to aim for equal performance. But how can opportunities be created that are really equal (also in terms of popularity and payment) in the case of men and women? Is gender segregation the right way to go here?