Gender/sp/matters when we compete

May 07, 2002|By Gordon Livingston

WHEN THE eight Volvo ocean racers visited the Inner Harbor, I wanted to know why the women's boat finished last in every leg of the race of these 64-foot, $15 million sailing machines.

Our guide, who obviously didn't have any more idea about this than I, searched his mind for a politically acceptable answer to my question.

Several women in my group rolled their eyes and exchanged knowing glances.

Finally, he came up with: "It takes a lot of strength to manhandle (obviously no pun intended) those heavy sails in the Southern Ocean."

This was unsatisfactory, since the women had been last under every sailing condition, including the relatively moderate breezes on the leg from Miami to Baltimore.

I asked a young woman, an Australian sail trimmer who was washing the boat as we passed.

"We just got the boat six weeks before the race and had to accept a lot of hand-me-down equipment from the men," she said. "We're getting better."

In thinking about women and competition, it's clear there are many sports where size and upper body strength make it impossible for men and women to compete together.

Short of some ambitious genetic engineering, we are not likely to see integrated football or basketball teams at the college or professional level. But how about sailing?

Among the dozens of sailing classes, ranging from 10-foot dinghies to ocean "maxi boats," there is only one female sailor who is competitive with the top men: Ellen MacArthur, the English trans-Atlantic and round-the-world racer who, among other honors, was the 1998 United Kingdom "Yachtsman of the Year."

In other classes, women race and do well, but they do not win world championships or Olympic medals in mixed fleets. Instead, three of the eight Olympic classes have separate regattas for men and women.

In a recent news story about Marine boot camp in Parris Island, where the sexes are trained separately, attention was given to the differences in men's and women's performance on the rifle range.

After they have been trained, 87 percent of the men qualify on their first attempt while only 65 percent of the women do so. When asked about this "gender gap," the officer in charge of the marksmanship unit was at a loss: "We can't put our finger on it."

When one looks at grandmasters in chess or contestants on Jeopardy, there is a similar under-representation of women.

In the absence of evidence to suggest differences in intelligence between the sexes, one is left grasping for psychological explanations. There appear to be differences in women's inclination to compete.

Whether these differences are a result of the way girls are socialized or whether there is a biological basis has not been established. (It is not hard to postulate a Darwinian advantage for gender dissimilarity in aggression and nurturance.)

At the elite levels of sports competition, where participation by women has not traditionally been encouraged, there is a smaller pool of able female competitors from which to draw.

But even in more recreational settings, women do not seek to compete in the same numbers as men.

In my 500-person sailing club, 40 percent of the members are female. Of the 21 people who choose to skipper boats in competition, only two are women.

To ask about the women's lack of success in the Volvo race is to open oneself to charges of male chauvinism. Sailing publications have discussed all facets of the competition in the round-the-world race but one - why the women are doing poorly.

We ignore this issue by establishing "separate but equal" venues for women to race against each other.

Rolex chooses both a "Yachtsman of the Year" and a "Yachtswoman of the Year." As long as the trophies and wristwatches are the same, we pretend the awards are of equal value.

I don't see how the best women sailors can be satisfied with this patronizing arrangement.

The struggle for gender equality that was a major theme of the 20th century deserves a better understanding in 2002.

Gordon Livingston is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbia.

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