My mother and I are avid basketball fans so we regularly sit down to watch games together. After the NBA season is over in June, I’ll watch a game or two of WNBA basketball to make up for the couple month wait before the NBA season starts up again. I recently read a Forbes article about WNBA attendance dropping quite low. It’s very visible when you watch the games since there are empty seats in the stands. It’s easy to say that women’s basketball is slower paced, or women can’t do high flying dunks like men can. The truth of the matter is that it goes beyond anatomical differences between men and women. I believe women involved in competition can be plagued by the problem of being second comers to the scene. By that I mean mens’ competitive leagues and resources had been established and allocated in advance. So when women began competing in the same sport/game, male competitors had already attracted the best resources to succeed.
If you take a look at a game like chess, its purely mental. Men and women should be equal there too right? Well that’s not the case. There are approximately 1446 chess Grandmasters in the world with 1413 being male and 33 being female. The top rated female player is Judit Polgar whose peak rating was 2735, making her the eighth best player in the world at the time. However, if you look on to the top five peak ratings: Hou Yifan 2663, Humpy Koneru 2623, Anna Muzychuk 2606, Ju Wenjun 2582. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, holds the highest peak rating in history of 2882. Here are the rest of the top five in the world by current rating: Fabiano Caruana 2802, Hikaru Nakamura 2798, Veselin Topalov 2798, Alexander Grischuk 2794. On top of the rating disparity, women make up less than 5% of players touring on the professional circuit. The rating distribution among competitive female chess players is pretty poor. All the ratings beyond the top 4 peak ratings are in the 2500’s, which means they do not reach the top 100 players in the world. And I’m looking at peak rating for the women, not current ratings or adjusting them for deviation.
Well for the most part women are not competitive with top tier male chess players. A few women are able to make a living playing chess, but men without a doubt dominate the competitive scene. Unlike basketball, there isn’t the excuse of physical differences between the genders; chess is purely a mental game. However, those discrepancies highlight the fact that female chess players are a segregated minority. There are far fewer of them, and their ratings are much lower. This contributes to expectations of a different level of competition. The World Chess Federation (FIDE) has titles specifically designed for women that require lower ratings to obtain. Woman Grandmaster requires a minimum rating of 2300, Woman International Master 2200, and Woman FIDE Master 2100. Whereas the general Grandmaster title is not rating specific and can only be acquired by two wins at a tournament that meets the qualifications of a “Grandmaster Norm”.
That means becoming a Grandmaster is like joining a very exclusive club, hence so few women achieve it. For a woman to become a Grandmaster, she must be able to compete with competitive male players. However, the existence of lower level titles designed exclusively for women reinforces lower expectations and then segregates them from higher level play. Why? In May 2013 there were 279 Women Grandmasters and only 29 of them held the Grandmaster title; in addition a Women’s World Championship is held. To some extent women are expected to achieve lower ratings and then have been institutionally segregated into their own realm of competition. Instead of feeding off of resources and knowledge that the mainstream competitive scene has to offer, as second comers they have to rebuild a higher standard of competition from the ground up. Only then will they consistently be able to join the male competitive scene. It’s nice that opportunities were created for women, but now it’s time to take the next step and gear for equal competition between the sexes.
I’m not saying FIDE is evil or anything like that. I’m simply pointing out the fact that even in a mental game like chess, resources are being dominated by men. They face the best competition, have the best coaches and analysis staff, as well as the wealth of players in the competitive scene to compete with/learn from. Ideally woman should be going to toe to toe with men in chess, but lower expectations and a segregated system are definitely hindering that. I think this idea is important to all types of competition, not just chess. Chess is just the base example because there is no reason for anyone to claim women are “mentally inferior” to men; that is clearly not scientifically accurate. So what if we applied that thinking to something like basketball? I’ll be the first to tell you I miss the dunking and the lightning fast breaks, but WNBA players play some fundamentally sound basketball from what I have seen. Instead of looking for excuses in the differences between the genders, maybe we should look to give some more resources to female competition. The women in the competitive scene have fought so hard to even represent I minority and who knows, they will probably surprise you. I have a feeling given a chance they will compete at an equally high level, just displaying their skills in a different way at times.
Segregation has always been an obstacle towards achieving equality. It’s no different in the world of sports and competition. As a chess player myself I truly wish that women make some more significant strides towards equality. I remember going to tournaments in grade school and being lucky to see a single girl. Physical sports are a more complicated animal, but let’s not deny the fact that women are being denied access to the same resources as men; who knows what they could achieve given the same opportunities. I’m not saying that it is mostly intentional. It’s just a matter of simple economics and resource allocation. However, awareness of this uneven distribution of the resources required to succeed may break the barriers of lower expectations and allow women to break through. I really hope I can see that in my lifetime and I’m willing to do my part to spread the word. Maybe I’ll see a day when the highest rated chess player in the world is a woman and WNBA basketball is on primetime instead of struggling to make ends meet. I sincerely hope so.
*Featured image is of Judit Polgar and can be found here
Small disclaimer: Just for the record I’m shooting for equality here and not having women dominate the competitive scene instead of men. Just in case my closing remarks are misconstrued as that.