Tag Archives: Categories

Gender bias in track and chess

090825Caster_SemenyaLast week an emerging track star became the focus of an international scandal. After 18-year-old Caster Semenya won the 800 meter world championships final by more than two seconds, the International Association of Athletics Federations announced the South African athlete was being required to undergo a gender determination test.

Apparently the South African improved her personal best time by seven seconds this year. After being cleared of doping, gender testing was the next “sensible” step, said I.A.A.F. spokesman Nick Davies. 

Two finalists shared the suspicion. The New York Times reported the Italian Elisa Cusma as saying, “These kind of people should not run with us.” Mariya Savinova, the fifth place finisher from Russia, agreed: “Just look at her.”

A recent study on gender reported an odd, but related, stereotype among women chess players. In on-line games, women who are aware their opponents are male play worse than if they believe their opponents are female, notwithstanding ability levels. 

Of course, gender tests are highly problematic: “Humans like categories neat,” said Alice Dreger to the New York Times, “but nature is a slob.” This didn’t stop Cusma from saying, as if to illegitimatize the track win, “For me, she’s not a woman. She’s a man.”

Perhaps Cusma would have finished higher than sixth if she had not suspected she was racing a man.

Categorising Susan Boyle

SusanBoyle_2Piers Morgan’s recent article (and other media commentary) regarding ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ phenomenon Susan Boyle tells us something about the use of categories and the terms and their deployment. The reaction from the panel and the audience to her dream of becoming a professional singer like Elaine Page was ‘hilarity’, ‘eye-rolling’ and ‘loud guffaws’. Why was that? The answer Piers gives is that she was ‘middle-aged’, ‘feisty’ and a ‘funny lady’.

Categories carry huge amounts of culturally rich common-sense knowledge. If a category is applied to, or if a person applies it to himself or herself, that person is presumed to embody the social knowledge about that category and have the appropriate category-bounded attributes. If not, that person is seen to be an exception, different, or even a phoney. Presumably then, the category predicates that Piers provides ‘middle-aged’, ‘feisty’ and a ‘funny lady’ did not match the category-bounded attributes associated with the famous singer for which she dreamed of being. Consequently the panel and the audience surmised she was likely to be a phoney member. As Piers eloquently puts it, ‘We’d committed the oldest sin in the talent- show book  – judging a book by its cover’.


Read the article in the Mail on Sunday


Square-eyeRead more about categorisation