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Sport in Society
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Off the beaten path: should women compete
against men?
Pam R. Sailors
To cite this article: Pam R. Sailors (2016) Off the beaten path: should women compete against
men?, Sport in Society, 19:8-9, 1125-1137, DOI: 10.1080/17430437.2015.1096255
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Sport in Society, 2016
VOL. 19, NOS. 8–9, 1125–1137
Off the beaten path: should women compete against men?
Pam R. Sailors
Department of Philosophy, Missouri State University, Springfield, MO, USA
Are women capable of competing against men in sporting events?
If they aren’t, might there be good reasons to encourage them to
make the attempt anyway? If they are, might there be good reasons
to prohibit such competition? I suggest four possible answers to the
question of whether women are capable of competing against men:
(1) No, so there’s no point in talking about it; (2) No, but they should
make the attempt anyway; (3) Yes, so mix all the competition and
get on with it; and (4) Yes, but there are good reasons not to allow it. I
review these positions, each of which is made plausible by supporting
evidence, and suggest that the arguments can be strengthened
through the inclusion of four distinctions (between individual/team
sports, direct/indirect competition, contact/non-contact sports and
amateur/professional sports).
Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, but only after he was long past his athletic prime. Annika
Sörenstam couldn’t make the cut in her historic attempt at a PGA Tour event. Yet Zhang Shan
won an Olympic gold medal over male competitors in skeet shooting and Danica Patrick
has had at least mixed success in auto racing. Are women capable of competing against men
in sporting events? If they aren’t, might there be good reasons to encourage them to make
the attempt anyway? If they are, might there be good reasons to prohibit such competition?
Arguments regarding the issue of sex segregation in athletics have been advanced through the
years. Some have focused on the legal issues raised by sex segregation (Love and Kelly 2011),
particularly as related to contact sports (Fields 2005). Others have examined sex integration
in actual practice in martial arts (Channon 2012, 2013, 2014), soccer (Henry and Comeaux
1999), boxing (McNaughton 2012), wrestling (Miller 2010), cheerleading (Anderson 2008,
2010), equestrian sport (Dashper 2012), softball (Wachs 2002, 2005) and judo (Guerandel
and Mennesson 2007). Still, there has been little consensus about the desirability of sex
segregation and little meaningful change in existing policy. As a way of exploring this issue,
I suggest four possible answers to the question of whether women are capable of competing
against men: (1) No, so there’s no point in talking about it; (2) No, but they should make
the attempt anyway; (3) Yes, so mix all the competition and get on with it; and (4) Yes, but
CONTACT Pam R. Sailors
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P. R. Sailors
there are good reasons not to allow it. To be clear, I don’t mean to claim that these are the
only possible answers, or even that these are actual answers argued for in existing academic
literature. What I do want to claim is that versions of these answers are common and that
this division provides a useful framework for examining the question itself. I review these
positions, each of which is made plausible by supporting evidence, and suggest that the arguments can be strengthened through the inclusion of four commonly overlooked distinctions
(between individual/team sports, direct/indirect competition, contact/non-contact sports
and amateur/professional sports). In the end, I conclude that the discussion is both complicated and enriched by the inclusion of these distinctions and impoverished by their absence.
Before going any further, I should note that the examination and analysis here will be
from a philosophical perspective as my training and experience is in philosophy. It is not
at all uncommon for sociologists and philosophers to arrive at the same point, but the
destination is reached by taking very different paths. Most philosophers only rarely use,
and almost never gather, empirical data. In fact, those working in ethics often emphatically
claim that philosophy is concerned with what ought to be the case, not with what is the
case. From a sociological perspective, this might be dismissed as armchair theorizing, just
as the philosopher might dismiss a description of the methodology and results of a study
as a sort of dustbowl empiricism. My own view is that theory without fact is no better than
fact without theory and that the kind of disciplinary boundary-setting that would beg to
differ functions to the detriment of all. So, although grounded in theoretically oriented
philosophy of sport, I try at least to acknowledge throughout this paper some of the fine
work from empirically oriented sociology of sport bearing on the issue of sex integration.
Are women capable of competing against men?
1. No, so there’s no point in talking about it.
According to proponents of this view, men are biologically bigger, stronger and faster than
women. The average adult male is taller (by 5 inches) than the average adult female, with a
greater percentage of muscle (40% vs. 23%) and lesser percentage of fat (15% vs. 25%), all of
which works towards performance advantage in the major sports (Messner 2007). Because
these physical traits are necessary for sporting success, women are never going to be able to
compete with men in any meaningful way. In track and field, for instance, the best female
performances are more than 10 percent behind those of the best males (Tucker 2010a), and
‘the very best female performance in the history of sport does not even make the top 500
male performances each year’ (Tucker 2010b). An advocate of this position might go on to
offer specific examples of women who have attempted to compete against men and failed.
In football, Mo Isom tried out as a kicker at Louisiana State University, but did not make
the team – not because she couldn’t kick, but because she couldn’t tackle. In basketball, Ann
Meyers (Drysdale) signed with the Indiana Pacers team in 1980, did three-day tryouts, but
was not chosen for final team. Even in golf, a decidedly less aggressive sport, both Annika
Sorenstam and Michelle Wie, given sponsor’s exemptions into PGA tournaments, failed
to make the cut. Women are obviously incapable of competing with men, the argument
concludes, so we do nothing more than waste time by discussing it.
While this argument may be initially compelling, I don’t think it’s true. It is, instead, a
false generalization that can be believed only by a choosing one’s evidence very selectively.
Sport in Society 
Of course, there are women who have tried unsuccessfully to compete against men, but there
are also (as we will see) women who have had a different outcome. The fact that some women
have successfully defeated men is unlikely to convince a proponent of this argument that
all women will do so. By the same token, we should refuse to accept the fact some women
have failed as demonstrating that all women will share that outcome.
2. No, but they should make the attempt anyway.
While most women are currently unable to compete against men, given time perhaps women
will be able to compete. So, for example, while Mo Isom couldn’t win a placekicker slot at
LSU, Katie Hnida made the team at the University of New Mexico and has the distinction
of being the first woman to score in a Division I-A football game. Holley Mangold, who
played on the offensive line on her high school football team, and was the first female nonkicker in Ohio Division III, didn’t go on to play in college, but instead became a member of
the United States Olympic weightlifting team. And while the rumours that Brittney Griner,
the first NCAA basketball player ever to score 2000 points and block 500 shots, would get a
tryout in the NBA never led to anything, the prevalence of the rumours and the seriousness
with which people discussed them show that many took a woman playing professional
basketball against men someday to be a live possibility.
Even if we assume that the day when all women can compete against men is still far in
the future, we might still want to encourage some women to make the attempt now. In that
way, the few women who can compete may serve as role models, sending the message that
women are equal to men and should be allowed to try anything they like. If no women are
allowed to complete, it sends a far different message. Philosopher Jane English wrote one
of the first serious examinations of mixed competition, ‘Sex Equality in Sports’ (1978). In
it, she points out that: ‘The very need for a protected competition class suggests inferiority.
The pride and self-respect gained from witnessing a woman athlete who is not only the best
woman but the very best athlete is much greater’ (English 1978). English did not advocate,
however, that women make the attempt; in the end, she remained on the side of sex segregation, believing that women would be better served by the creation of new sports designed
to reward the physical traits that are more commonly possessed by women than by men.
Several feminist scholars have also taken this position, claiming that women have a unique
contribution to make, ‘a new vision of sport’ (MacKinnon 1987) that values women’s ‘abilities, talents, skills, and preferences’ equally to those of men (Sherwin and Schwartz 2005).
Some have gone even further, claiming that the attempt to develop women’s talents to the
point of being able to compete effectively against men fails to respect women as persons as it
makes respect contingent on physical attributes and capabilities (Giordano and Harris 2005).
To the contrary, others have pointed to the need to avoid a dangerous implicit message
sent by sex segregation to undergird their support of mixed competition. Eileen McDonagh
and Laura Pappano argue that disallowing mixed competition sends the message that women
are too weak to compete with men, so weak, in fact, that they must be protected from them.
This division of women and men into weak and strong slides into an able/disabled binary,
an interpretation perpetuating the idea that (able) men are superior to (disabled) women.
In a compelling parallel, McDonagh and Pappano argue:
This mode of thinking suggests that women must be segregated from men in order to find arenas
where they can compete ‘at the same level’ by competing only with other females, that is, with similarly disabled athletes. This way of thinking also assumes women require modified rules, which call
P. R. Sailors
for them to score fewer points, run shorter distances, and otherwise lessen the challenge to make it
manageable for ‘disabled’ athletes. Thus we can consider coercively sex-segregated sports policies as
a kind of same-sex Special Olympics. Same-sex sports with same-sex rules allow ‘disabled’ females
to learn about competition and winning, teamwork, hard work, and the thrill of participation in
a manner parallel to the experience for ‘able’ males without suffering the inevitable defeat females
would experience if they tried to compete directly with males. (McDonagh and Pappano 2008, 143)
The argument here is that sex segregation is a problem such that it should be eliminated, even
if women are not currently able to compete effectively with men. Stated positively, women
should be allowed to compete with men because their success, even if only by a few, sends a
powerful message and model to girls and women. Stated negatively, prohibiting women from
competing with men is wrong because it sends a powerful message of women’s inferiority.
This position certainly seems more plausible than the first, if for no other reason than
that is less dogmatic. Still, there are at least two ways in which it can be criticized. First,
there may be more effective strategies to ensure that women athletes appear as role models.
As mentioned, Jane English argued for the invention of alternative sports that reward the
physiological characteristics, ‘like balance and buoyancy’, that are generally more often found
in women (English 1978). This would ensure that women athletes appear as positive role
models since women would be successful at these sports. Second, while it’s plausible that
sex segregation may establish an able/disabled binary, mixed competition might actually
reinforce it. That is, since the evidence currently shows that women only rarely triumph
in competitions against men, mixed competition could reinforce the attitude that women
are inferior. As Angela Schneider has noted, given the nature of professional and Olympic
sports, and the sorts of skills they reward, mixed competition would result in the absence of
women from elite competition. And, ‘excluding women from the publicity that comes from
the highest levels of sporting achievement would merely serve to reinforce women’s systemic
subservience to men’ (Schneider 2000). Unfortunately, the next position fares no better.
3. Yes, so mix all the competition and get on with it.
Just as with the first answer, this seems true only if we select our evidence very carefully.
For example, in the 2013 Ski Jumping World Cup, men and women jumped on the same
hill on the same day in the same conditions. The men, on average, were slightly better than
women in distance and style, but the difference was astonishingly small, and several of the
women outscored the majority of male jumpers. Triathlete Chrissie Wellington never lost
a triathlon at the Ironman distance, has the four fastest times ever recorded by a woman
over that distance, finished second overall at the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon, less than a minute
and a half behind the first place man. At the 2009 Ironman in Hawaii, only 22 men finished
faster than Wellington. In a 2010 half-ironman distance in Kansas, she finished 11th overall and, in 2011, only four men were faster than she was at the Challenge Roth Ironman.
Ultrarunner Ann Trason was the women’s winner in the Western States Endurance Run 14
times, second place overall twice, and third place overall three times, and was in the overall
top ten 13 times. At the Leadville Trail 100, she was the women’s winner four times, second
overall once and third overall once. She was the first and only woman to win the National
Track & Field 24-h Championship outright. And she also was the outright winner of the
1994 Silver State 50-Mile Trail Run, 1992 Quicksilver 50-Mile Trail Run, 1991 Sri Chinmoy
100 mile, 1991 Bay Area 12 h and 1989 24 h National Championship. Stories of this sort
suggest that sex segregation is based on nothing more than stereotypes and discrimination.
Sport in Society 
Such stories also give credence to claims like the following, from Mary Jo Kane:
Although, given current conditions, it is certainly the case that most elite male athletes can beat
most elite female athletes in sports that privilege men, it does not automatically follow that every
elite male can outperform every elite female in these same sports. Yet this is precisely what we
are trained to believe because it is one of the cornerstones of the oppositional binary. And it
is because of this socially constructed and rigidly maintained sport structure that females are
truly at a disadvantage in sports, not because of biology. (Kane 1995, 201)
Kane goes on to argue that we should replace the male/female binary with a continuum along
which individuals would fall. Similarly, Cahn (2015) points out that ‘focusing on average
gender differentials misses the great overlap in men’s and women’s skill and performance’
(291). Bennett Foddy and Julian Savulescu have also suggested that gender falls along a
continuum and concluded that ‘once we recognize that gender is not a binary quantity, sex
segregation in competitive sport must be seen as an inconsistent and unjust policy’ (Foddy
and Savulescu 2011). Acceptance of this position would have the additional advantage of
eliminating the practice of gender verification. Contentious as this may be at first glance, not
only are male and female bodies similar, they become more so at the level of elite athletes
provided with equal advantages and access. Dave Zirin makes this point and extends it to
suggest that changes wrought by legal action have had biological consequences: ‘Title IX,
the 1972 law that imposed equal funding for girls’ and boys’ sports in schools, has radically
altered not only women’s fitness and emotional well-being but their bodies as well’ (Zirin
2013). It may be worth mentioning that Tamburrini and Tännsjö (2005) push this line of
thought even further to argue for the use of genetic engineering to enable women to compete on the same physical level as men. Although it falls well outside the scope and focus
of his paper, their view has been soundly criticized on a variety of grounds (Chadwick and
Wilson 2005; Giordano and Harris 2005; Sherwin and Schwartz 2005); I mention it only
to serve as an example of the radical lengths some would go to argue for sex integration.
Putting genetic engineering to the side and focusing on what is currently possible, I believe
that the position advocating women competing against men has strengths, but it does not
avoid the weakness of potentially causing a lack of athletic female role models. One more
answer remains to be evaluated.
4. Yes, but there are good reasons not to allow it.
As noted in an earlier section, maintaining sex segregation allows women to be the overall
winners more often, thereby modelling success. When the United States women’s soccer
team won the World Cup in 1999, it was thought to be a momentous occasion for women’s
soccer and, more generally, for women’s sports. The match, the most-watched soccer match
in US history, was seen as significant far beyond the game itself, as it fed interest in women’s sports and served as an inspiration for young girls who had not previously paid much
attention to soccer, but would soon flood the country’s sports fields. The desirability of role
models has already been given some discussion, and I’ll return to it in a later section, but
I mention it again here as a justification for sex segregation.
Beyond the provision of positive role models, sex segregation can be empowering if it is
chosen instead of enforced. Roller Derby, for example, provides a unique case of a women’s
sport that is not derived from, or a diminutive version of, a men’s sport, proudly stating as
its philosophy a commitment to be ‘by the skaters, for the skaters’, and functions as a force
for reshaping ideas about women, femininity and sport (Sailors 2013). Sex segregation can
P. R. Sailors
be disempowering, but the women behind the rebirth of roller derby have turned it into an
empowering activity because the separation is se …
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