Two years ago our administration told us not to use gender in our classroom. It had come up when students were asked to pack-up the room for the day–boys putting away materials, girls stacking chairs. It was one of many daily sorts we do, and students self-designated their gender and responsibility, but one student who was questioning their gender felt stuck. We were asked to look at other data when we make groups, be it classroom chores or placement in classes. It was a solid decision that moves us forward in a number of issues–read my post about “the boy problem” here.
When told that gender was no longer being used for groupings, I asked if this was going to be true for sports, too.
It is a complicated issue, but it gets at the heart of problem with using gender as a designation–it offers no path to a solution, except if the problem is gender discrimination.
For the sake of argument, let’s use the stereotype that “boys are physically bigger and stronger than girls” because this has a basis in data. We line up everyone who wants to play basketball and find that for 80% of boys that is true. If a co-ed team was created, 80% of the A-team players would be boys. What, then, to do about the other 20%?
If we stick to gender, we are going to fill the team with sub-par specimens instead of the best players–period–filling up those roster spots. From a tactical standpoint, the coach would want that 20% of stronger girls. A co-ed team.
Let’s add some complexity–skills. Teams have smaller, quicker players with skills that trump size and strength. If the roster was filled with the best players–if the coach was able to evaluate without taking gender into consideration–the team would probably be a diverse group, physically. From a tactical standpoint, a good coach would want the best fifteen players on their squad–size and strength being only one factor.
Note that in that last scenario, other than a concern about discrimination, gender has moved to the side.
What, then, is the issue? Let us take plain bias in evaluating talent off the table–it is a huge one, but this will allow us to look at other, overlooked issues.
The first is equity. Our school has four basketball teams–Boys A, Boys B, Girls A, Girls B. If we went co-ed we could simply have A, B, C and D. Extending the above, let’s assume Team A has an 80:20 split of boys: girls. Let us further assume that Team B has a more equitable ratio, if not the former Girls A 80% taking up the majority of the Team B spots.
Does Team A being mostly boys and Team B being mostly girls create inequity? Typically, our Team A goes to more tournaments, gets the new uniforms, and has a more committed coach. Team B is more developmental–and I would assume Team C and Team D would be more so. As the majority of girls are on the lower teams (even on Team B), the majority of girls would get less. At least with a Boys A and a Girls A schools can easily count dollars spent, games played and the like.
The real issue here is the purpose of the sports program in the first place: The eternal debate–winning vs. participation. For those hoping to be the best, they need to play the best. On the court, you want the best players regardless of gender. Those who are not in the top fifteen need development.
Equity means respecting development. Players on Team B should be striving to earn a spot on Team A. Instead of focusing on winning games, though, that program needs to focus on development of the player. This requires participation and good instruction. Equity falls away when players are no longer pushed. Team C and Team D should be the same, even as they are even more elementary in terms of skills and development.
When players are on the team where they are, the system is equitable.
Bias. Of course, this is only possible when bias in evaluation is taken off the table. But parents get ugly when it comes to sports. When teams are by gender, parent after parent still finds a reason their kid is being held back, not on Team A or riding the bench too often. One coach a town over, after a win, was confronted by a spreadsheet wielding parent, recording time played by each player and a quibble over a two minute variance (the coach scheduled roles and times prior to the game, except the fourth quarter so he’d have flexibility if the game was close). He moved to absolute equity the next game, lost, but no parents complained (the players were not as happy). Whoa the burden coach’s kid actually being good, but constantly being told they got their spot because of bias.
Add gender and the result is explosive.
In the data world they call this issue “the signal in the noise.” The signal is the problem–finding the best players and playing them to win–while biases are the noise. We identify gender as an easy way to categorize people. We notice it. Evolutionary, we are built to recognize patterns as a means of survival. But our intuition can cause us to fall to, create and reinforce stereotypes. We create more noise, and lose the signal. Every stereotype has some truth at its core, but it ultimately binds the person it is being done to–we put the person in a box. And, it makes others blind to the real problem and its solution.
In the case of those 20% of boys who do not get spots on Team A because there are girls who are better, gender now becomes a factor. A battle to be fought. This is where cries of political correctness and reverse discrimination become issues, not what is best for the players.
The issue, then, is dealing with this bias. Notice how, over several paragraphs, we have moved away from the stereotype of boys being more physically able than girls and are now talking about bias and equity. Dealing with equity is hard. It requires education and community support. It requires a commitment, so that it becomes, over time, the norm. “You are on Team B because you need to develop skills X, Y and Z.”
That we shy from implementing this tells us something about our values as a school and community. Schools need to set the standard against bias in all forms. They cannot do this when their institution underscores this in the group representing them to the larger community–wearing uniforms with the logo across their chest and being photographed for the paper.
The way forward. There are plenty of obstacles to move forward. Looking at basketball, girls use a different ball. But people adapt. Until seventh grade girls playing recreational lacrosse did so with boys, with full contact rules. When they were segregated, playing by girls’ limited contact rules, most felt it was a step back. These girls were ready to hit.
One step is to desegregate those sports without such conflicts. There is no reason I know to have separate cross country races for boys and girls. Wrestling, golf and typically single-gender sports (football, field hockey) should be gender-free, too.
It should be noted that, through most of schooling, the physical size and natural abilities waxes and wanes. A small kid one year comes back from summer break having grown half a foot. The kid with no balance suddenly catches up. As educators, we should be embracing a growth mindset. If only K-8 schools embrace a gender-free athletic process it will create a foundation for growth. There is no reason not to.
Finally, schools should focus on both winning and development, but the second part is key. Having a Team A, with the understanding that it is competitive, is important in giving an aspirational goal for all. Those on the team need to accept that, in being on that team, they might sit. But practices should be developmental. And Teams B, C and D should be levels of development. There is room for both those who compete and those who just want to play. The emphasis is on work and commitment, and from that comes growth and joy.