How do you get hundreds of responses (good and bad) on Twitter? You ask a question like this:
Question of the day: what do you think is the #1 key reason that only about 5% of poker players in tournament poker are women?
— Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) October 30, 2015
The problem with these types of questions is people try to boil an extremely complex issue down to some single predominant issue – a magic pill that will cure the problem if you will. However, I would argue there are likely a number of reasons women are underrepresented in poker.
In my opinion, the answer to Negreanu’s question is: Where do I begin.
It’s even worse to ask this type of question on Twitter, where responses have to be boiled down into 140 characters, and a troll or two will always appear to rile things up. And, as was the case with Daniel Negreanu’s thread, it usually just leads to arguments, although I think in this case, Daniel bears some of the blame.
At one point, Negreanu wondered why he was catching so much heat from some corners, and why people were inferring things he feels he didn’t say. But he was saying these things, or at the very least heavily implying them.
At one point he fired back at his critics who were adamant that Negreanu’s comments were implying women were somehow inferior by saying, “should we be treated equally? Of course! Do we excel equally in various areas of life? Of course not. Ex. Physical strength.”
And Daniel didn’t stop there [bold mine]:
“just different. The boys were drawn to toy trucks and guns while the girls went for dolls etc. I don’t think women are less… equipped to excel in poker, I believe they are genetically less likely to be interested in the game. Did I say something bad? Lol”
When another respondent said, “men and women are different we process info differently we biological crave different things what’s wrong with that?” Daniel responded with, “what your saying is factual. Apparently these obvious facts offend a small percentage of people?”
It’s pretty clear from his tweets that Daniel feels there is something biological factor that keeps women away from poker tables.
I understand Daniel is coming at this issue with good intentions, but how you frame a question is important. I don’t think these “facts” offend a small percentage of people; I think the way these “facts” are being (mis)applied is what is offensive to some.
There’s nothing wrong with asking the question, “how do we bring more women into poker,” but when you ask “why women only make up 5% of tournament poker entries,” you are in fact implying there is a fundamental difference between men and women when it comes to poker, and it’s this imaginary difference that is holding women back. And as noted above, Daniel wasn’t just implying there is a difference, he firmly believes there is one.
So what is the reason?
A lot of people offered up a lot of reasons for why women are underrepresented in poker, with responses ranging from epigenetics to the behavior of men at poker tables, and from marketing to cultural norms. The real reason isn’t epigenetics, historical gender roles, or dickish behavior; it’s a combination of all of those things and many more.
First, let’s get something straight: There is nothing in a woman’s genetic makeup that prevents them from excelling at poker. Furthermore, (IANAE) from the studies I’ve seen, there is nothing in a woman’s genetic makeup that makes them less competitive or less inclined to play poker. Based on recent research, these differences appear to be entirely cultural (study here). And as Xuan Liu pointed out, the burgeoning field of epigenetics (where environmental factors switch genes off and on that cause heritable changes) may come into play as well. Although, it should be noted that this is a field that is a work in progress and unsettled science.
The older studies (the ones Daniel seemed to be referencing) that conclude women are less competitive never sought to explain why the male toddler reaches for the toy gun and the female toddler the doll. Fortunately, new research does look to answer those questions, and once again it appears to be cultural (study here) and based on the upbringing and socialization.
There is also a long held historical stigma when it comes to women and gambling that has persisted for many generations. Even in prohibitive eras, male gamblers have long been celebrated for their prowess (sometimes becoming iconic figures), whereas female gamblers have been historically shunned. In the 1800’s male gamblers were called “sporting men,” and while not on par with the gentleman class, their social standing was never questioned. On the other hand, female gamblers (the few of them there were, and there were some) were considered on the same social plane as prostitutes. this stigma is not as pronounced today, but it still exists – In 2015, “professional poker player” is a somewhat accepted profession for men, but not so much for women, although that is changing. BUT, it’s important to note that it hasn’t CHANGED. From a societal point of view, it’s still far more acceptable for a man to play poker than a woman.
When trying to explain the lack of women in poker, think of it this way: First, a female poker player has to be willing to challenge cultural norms and wade into a male dominated arena. Then she must be willing to deal with the abundance of eye rolls and looks of disappointment she’ll receive from society at large for making this decision. And of course, she’ll also have to deal with the leering, snide comments, and the sophomoric jokes and misogynistic lingo that fly at poker tables.
If you want to know why women are underrepresented in poker it’s not genetics. Not only do we, as male poker players, create a very uninviting atmosphere with our attitudes and comments (One look at poker advertising [here or here], or the frat party mentality of the poker community, sums this up better than I ever could), but women have been steered away from these types of activities by society for generations.
This isn’t a simple, “what can poker do better” fix, this is going to take societal changes, and that will take time and thoughtful, open conversations.