Sexism and Sports: Just the Way We Want It.

Sex, Size, and Money: the three reasons men and women rarely face one another in a sports arena.
Sexism, Prejudice, and Stodginess: the three reasons things won’t change even if they could.

Due to the general differences in physical stature and strength, it makes sense in many sports for men and woment not to compete head-to-head.
Yes there are some women who are taller and stronger than some men, but for the sake of this argument let’s rest on actually percentages.
Hockey, track and field, basketball, soccer, as well as a host of other sports would give an unfair advantage to the physically stronger sex should they compete against each other.
There are, however, inequalitites, which defy logic.

I was watching sweat drip down the backs of competitors in South Carolina during the PGA Championship. Poor guys aren’t allowed to wear shorts.
The women of the LPGA are permitted skirts and shorts.  One explanation for that may be organizers and sponsors hope more leg will translate to more viewers. It’s no secret that beautiful athletes (both male and female) are more likely to be chosen as spokespeople for their sport.
No, Vijay Singh’s hairy legs will not translate into a higher viewership…but would they drive viewers away? Or rather just allow a Fijian’s kneecaps to breathe a little.

Men’s major tennis tournaments incorporate 5-set-matches instead of three. Why? Men’s tennis draws more viewers than women’s, largely due to the speed of the men’s game (due as well to Roger Federer who, like Tiger Woods of two years ago, attracts viewers through his sheer dominance of his sport).
Viewership increases as Andy Roddick enters his 4th  and 5th sets. Apparently Neilsen has decided 3 sets is enough for the ladies, even Maria Sharapova.

Olympic diving? Men perform 6 dives, while the women stop at 5. Yes, a forward 4-and-a-half is more dizzying than a 3-and-a-half; but with the men fielding 32 athletes, do I really need to watch either sex plummet off a platform one-hundred and ninety-two times? While the male divers were more spectacular, more was not necessarily better.
Similarly with figure skating – the men perform longer routines. A quadruple is flashier that a triple, but when they spend a extra forty-five seconds in the middle of their long programme gliding to Pachebel while they catch their breath, who wins? Not the viewer.

An extra ten metres is tacked onto the hundred-meter hurdles when it’s the men’s turn to crouch at the start line. Maybe the excuse this time is physics: men have longer legs, ergo require more track….like larger airplanes.
Both men and women compete in a Heptathlon (though not against one another).  Decathlon? Men only, please.
Why? How many advertising dollars are gained by truncating the women after the seventh event?

The blame is often put on men, since we tend to occupy most executive positions on Olympic Committees and Network Boards of Directors. We make the decisions.
But, in media, one factor influences the direction of content more than any other: money. Despite the testorone in the boardroom, ratings show that women enjoy watching men more than women enjoy watching women. Add those female viewers to the majority of men who also gravitate to male athletics, and it becomes a no-brainer: when it comes to sports, men sell.

This phenomenon extends to movies and television shows. Tom Cruise earns more than Gwyneth Paltrow. Why? Largely because women prefer Tom.
This phenomenon does not explain why poor Vijay is stuck in slacks when its forty degrees out….or why I can’t wear a summer dress to a summer wedding.
I hate suits. Maybe I’ll dig through my closet for one of my old figure skating outfits. While the teasing I was subjected to wasn’t easy; the outfits had their perks – lycra breaths beautifully in the summer heat. And for a 7-year-old boy in lycra – the fewer viewers the better.


Photo—Mai Techaphan from Shutterstock

About Kenny Bodanis

Kenny Bodanis is the author of the parenting book "Men Get Pregnant, Too (despite never pushing a watermelon through a pigeonhole)" . He is a parenting columnist and blogger at Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google +


  1. Janet Dell says:

    We segregate because it is unfair to women, end of story, not really rocket science now is it. Even if men an women are basically even , if it is considered unfair to women and women will win less, then we segregate, in show jumping the horse is doing most (if not all) of the work, so women at all levels can compete with men , so no segregation.

    Golf is a good example, from stories I have read , if the LPGA and PGA were integrated, there would be almost no women who would make the cut each week and in effect it would be the end of womens golf, period.

  2. It’s a pity so little sports include mixed events. I guess that if men and women competed together in one team, that would make a difference outside the field, too. Btw, horse riding is the only Olympic event where there is no division between men and women.

  3. wellokaythen says:

    Some of the gender segregation of high-level athletics like the Olympics is unnecessary, because in some cases men have no notable advantage over women. I have no idea why sharpshooting is separated into male and female events. I fail to see why one gender just naturally aims a rifle better than another. (The equestrian events are already desegregated, recognizing that the horses don’t really care one way or the other.)

    I don’t know enough about skiing to say for sure, but I doubt men just automatically slide down a mountain faster than women do. I’ve also heard that for many kinds of kayaking, women’s lower center of gravity gives them a slight advantage over men, so maybe in that case male athletes are being protected against unfair competition.

    And, even if there is a big physical advantage to men, why is that by itself an acceptable reason to segregate the events based on gender? For track, there should be a competition to find out who the fastest person in the world is, and open it to all genders. If the top ten finishers are always men, well that’s just how it is. Fastest person is fastest person.

    As for golf, certainly men should be allowed to wear shorts if women are. How’s this for a compromise in the name of equality: male and female golfers get to wear the same clothes, and both tee off from the same spot.

    • J P McMahon says:

      well, Shooting and some equestrian events are separated, as is fencing, by gender because the athletes like it that way. It also doubles the number of medals that can be won in the sport.

      Skiing and kayaking, men have greater upper body strength, so they are just a lot faster.

      Every race from every track meet from high school through the Olympics is on record somewhere. In every event, men do a lot better on average, and for the top records. There is no event in track, where women can be competitive with men.

      And golf is not about “equality” it’s about beating everyone else on the greens, and getting that endorsement dough.

  4. J P McMahon says:

    Kenny, Thanks for your reply. A great thing about sport, is that when you are doing it, or even talking about it with people that play the sport, and love it as much as you do, any thoughts about gender, or race, or any other differences, go out the window. Dress codes in sports are some pretty minor considerations. If most of the PGA competitors wanted to wear shorts, they would. Parents are going to be a pain in the patootie no matter what the youth sport is, or how it is run. I think that you will find that boys are very supportive of each other in TEAM sports, even if that support consists of telling a guy to get his game up.

  5. J P McMahon says:

    I have competed (although that might be too strong of a word in my case) in three amateur sports that included women playing equally with men: softball, Ultimate (Frisbee), and mountain biking. In all three sports, there were women competing that were better than most of the men in the contest. I can never remember any man ever saying anything but “Wow, she is awesome!” when they got smoked by a woman. When you talk about prejudice, sexism, and stodginess, you have to realize that this applies only at the highest, professional levels, and in fact those are the specifics you talked about in your essay. The number of sportsmen and sportswomen at that level is TINY compared to the people that play amateur sports in this country. And “Money” is the key word for the pros, and D1 college athletes for that matter, not sexism. Women race with men in marathons, triathlons, and mountain biking (at the amateur level), and what athletes in those sports are complaining about it? Nobody. Women competing in those sports are technically only competing for prizes against other women, and who is complaining about THAT? Nobody. Women competing with men in sport in the USA today, even if it is just beer league softball, should be a source of celebration and an indication of progress rather than a cause of grumbling about “sexism”.

    • I absolutely agree.
      The prejudice and grumbling only become more accute as the athletes become more advanced or are held to old and stringent rules (like dress codes in golf). Or in little league sports when parents get their shorts in a knot when there is a boy/girl in the minority on a team; but the kids are too young and know better than to care.
      That why I liked figure skating as a kid; I didn`t compete against girls, by they were my closest friends on the practice ice….and were by far more supportive of me than boys can be towards each other.

  6. Most men’s tennis matches are limited to three sets. It is just the big games which have five sets. limiting women to three is like saying there are no important women’s matches.

    • The only reason women’s matches are limited to 3 sets is because there is not enough money to be made for the world bodies to insist on a 4th and 5th. If more people watched, more tennis there would be.

      • The WLTA actually agreed to go to five-setters for the majors. The reason it hasn’t happened is because of scheduling – it wouldn’t be possible to conclude the championships in two weeks.

        • interesting.
          has the wlta considered just going to 5sets in the semis, or even just for the finals of majors. that could address the scheduling problem, and it is what the men played in the london olympic tennis for the same reason


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