Monday, November 26, 2012

Some thoughts on sexism in athletics and the implications of gender differences



A new research paper recently came out on gender differences in athletics, written by Robert Deaner.  I am not as plugged into the online running community as I’ve been in the past, so I can’t tell how much “buzz” it’s generating, but it’s certainly got a fairly provocative message: women are intrinsically less interested in competitive sports due to evolutionary pressures, which is evidenced by female participation rates in team and competitive sport.  Deaner is the author of another fairly controversial paper published last year which generated quite a bit of buzz on LetsRun.com; this one posited that more non-elite men at local road races run “relatively fast” than do women.  As evidence for this, he examines statistics from road races in the Buffalo, NY region and shows that a higher proportion of men run within an arbitrary margin (say, within 25%) of the averaged top-10 all time performers.  Furthermore, Deaner argues that about three times as many men train seriously than do women, again using the statistics done on various competitive and noncompetitive road races.   These differences are also traced to evolutionary pressures.

As I don’t have much of a background in psychology and only passing knowledge of evolutionary psychology in particular, I’m not going to deeply examine the methods and conclusions of Deaner’s work as I might if it were a physiology or biomechanics paper.  Rather, I’d like to go through this paper and use it to launch into a more philosophical discussion of the topic of sexism in sport, which is something I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time.  Before we get too into this latest paper, I want to clear up any confusion from the title of my blog post—I’m not accusing Deaner or anyone else of sexism.  In fact I applaud his openness and willingness to discuss these sensitive topics (especially at a place as infamous as the LetsRun message boards), as it fosters a more even-handed approach to dealing with the issues that inevitably arise when our worldviews clash with new evidence.  But let’s jump into the research before we get to the philosophy, ethics, and real-world implications.

Thoughts on Deaner et al.

First, let’s take a look at Deaner’s paper.  It’s actually a three-pronged study which looks at results from a time-use survey of over 100,000 Americans, field observation studies at local parks, and sports participation rates in intramural athletics from colleges and universities in the United States.  In the first study, a large number of participants were asked to record their daily activities for one day, which were then pooled and analyzed.  In the second, observers were sent to public parks in Michigan and New York to record the number and gender of people participating in various activities (walking, tennis, skateboarding, etc.).  In the third, participation rates from intramural sports leagues at a sampling of colleges and universities were analyzed.