Skip to content

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?

Share on

13 Comment on this post

  1. In my mind the fact of whether or not men are currently better at a given sport is not grounds to segregate, but whether or not women have the potential to beat them is. If there is no reasonable potential for elite female athletes to beat elite male athletes in a given event (and taking andronising hormones to achieve this is a bit of a confounder, but let’s assume equal access to the drugs for all competitors) then having them compete is simply not fair. So the the real question for me is, how do you best assess whether men would have a biological advantage in the sport that could not be overcome? If you can prove they do, then segregation is probably the right choice. I must also say however, that this advantage is probably often assumed more than proven.

  2. Sean O hEigeartaigh

    One data point on the “biological advantage issue”: I believe there are currently no events in Track and Field where the women’s world record holder has achieved the men’s Olympic A standard. Therefore “mixed athletics” would not so much be “dominated” by men as result in the complete exclusion of every female athlete from the Olympics*.

    * (there may be women who have achieved performances equivalent to men’s Olympic “B”, Paula Radcliffe’s world record marathon springs to mind).

    “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.” I would argue that they do, sort of! In Europe at least, the European Championships fulfill this function to a great extent, allowing white athletes an opportunity to “actually win”; it’s my impression that these championships are growing in stature in these European countries compared to the World Championships (where white European athletes don’t feature) in running anyway. For example the World Cross Country has been recently cut back to once every 2 years and is on borrowed time, whereas the Euro Cross-Country remains yearly and is at no such risk of cancellation.

    1. I had a suspicion that there would be data to back up a biological advantage, I just didn’t have any on hand. I suppose some would argue that the reason the women have never beaten the men is that they have never had to compete with them, and since it is thought impossible then it is never achieved. However for me the bigger issue isn’t whether or not to segregate, but rather why society views the women’s league as second-rate. It is definitely “the other league” and you certainly don’t hear men complaining that they aren’t allowed to compete in the women’s league. In games like tennis it is said to be less prestigious because the women can’t hit as hard, run as fast or play for as long, so the audience tends to like it less. However this can’t be true for all sports.

      If women are actually not able to beat men, then combining the leagues won’t do anything but dilute the achievements of the female athletes, as only the very best could still compete. Besides, if we are trying to promote equality for the leagues, rather than “allowing” women to play the men, we should be considering something like developing a separate mixed league. This would imply the gender leagues are otherwise equal, show a more realistic ranking without forcing a lot of the female sports women out of their livelihood. And who knows, if it turns out after a few years that the women are generally able to compete with the men, then maybe the gender division could be removed.

      1. This argument is stupid of course men are stronger faster more able athletes. And the reason woman don’t get paid as much is because there is not as much interest in sport from women. If women were to compete against men they would hardly ever win probably never in physical sports. I think we should celebrate are differences and keep it just how it is for the benefit of women

  3. Sean O hEigeartaigh

    Part of the problem, I believe, is that while the very best female sportspeople are equivalent in achievement to the very best male sportspeople, the depth in many womens’ sports is much poorer than that in men’s (other than in the traditional “female sports”). To draw on athletics again (easy to demonstrate things as figures are readily at hand), the women’s olympic marathon qualifying mark is 21.5 minutes slower than the women’s world record; the men’s mark is 11.5 minutes slower than the WR. If you pick any running race the length of time between 1st and 10th will nearly always be much greater for women than for men. It’s harder to prove this for other sports but I believe the trend often holds; the very best female soccer players may have reached an equivalent level of accomplishment to the best males, but the same is most likely not true for the 100th best players.

    However, with more equal levels of participation of women in sports and the throwing out of old-fashioned “women shouldn’t train as hard as men” ideas (women weren’t allowed to run above middle distances in the olympics until 1984) this should hopefully correct itself, and hopefully result in greater popularity of women’s sports.

  4. Nadira Faulmueller

    Thank you very much, Steve and Sean for your interesting comments!

    I am thinking about two things, and I would very much like to hear your opinion on that:

    1) Might it be a solution to force the (now male) leagues to include a certain fixed quota of women?

    2) How about the disciplines where skill is more important than physical strength? Why are these disciplines (like Golf and Bowling) segregated? It’s mainly for historical and economic reasons, I reckon. Shouldn’t those be gender-mixed, at least?

  5. Firstly I’ll address 2, since it is easier. Probably they were initially separated for historical reasons, and now could afford to be mixed. The only problem I can see is that in a lot of technique sports strength still does play a part, like how far you can hit the ball in golf, or how much power you can knock down pins with in bowling (a heavier ball and stronger throw will knock down more pins, watch one of those devices that rolls the ball for kids to see the proof). However let’s assume this advantage can be overcome or is not that great, there is still the fact that the genders are often separated for “their (being the women’s) safety. I know in schools the sports aren’t separated when you are younger, but only once it is deemed the boys will begin playing rougher. This is another societal view, though some also say it is because women develop breasts around this time and since they don’t usually wear breast plates it’s unsafe for them to play mixed sports. Though I am not sure how valid that is.

    As for your first point, I would say no. I seem to be sounding like much more of a feminist than I actually am, but forcing that isn’t equality. It implies that the male league is superior (as is there a quota for men in the women’s league?) and also it is stating that women need a handicap to play in the same league. If you were to completely mix the two leagues MAYBE it would be fairer to have a quota for women in the championships for the first few years, but in general either women are able to compete at the same level as the men, so don’t require a quota, or they aren’t, and the leagues shouldn’t be mixed.

  6. A further element worth considering is the fact that what a “man” and a “woman” is, is often less easy to discern than one could think. Consider the case of Caster Semenya and of the many other athletes who might happen to have high level of testosterone (which is nowadays the key element to determine one’s sex, since the external look might not correspond to the internal functioning of one’s body, with dormient testes, etc.). An interesting link:

      1. Thank you, Nadira. A really interesting article which adds fuel to the general problem: why is the men/women distinction more fundamental than any other? More in general, much could be achieved in favour of better sporters throughout the genders if parents/trainers were not to look at their daughters/trainees as less likely to have success than their “male” counterparts (and consequently, to invest less resources in them).

  7. octopusmagnificens

    The author of this article does not know what he is talking about. There are no “a few” athletes or weightlifters who can compete with men. There are no one.

Comments are closed.