Scrabble and Gender Politics?

Gender equality is a hot-button issue these days, as it should be. In the US, one political party is hellbent on regulating reproductive rights (and women’s bodies in general), even as the opposing party saw more women elected into public office than ever before.

Women of color and LGBTQIA+ women continue to seek equal and fair representation in all areas, from political and economic to social, and these discussions are important. They should be part of the national — and global — conversation.

You might think this has nothing to do with the world of puzzles and games, but you’d be wrong. The stigma of Gamergate still hangs over the heads of many in the video game industry, after a small, yet vocal and toxic, group of video game fans targeted and harassed female coders and game designers. There have been smaller stories in the board game industry as well, where companies have agreed not to associate with certain individuals with troublingly sexist backgrounds.

Even the puzzle world isn’t immune to this. Earlier this year, I wrote about how few women are published in major crossword outlets, despite the wealth of talent out there.

So when I stumbled across an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal about gender inequality in the world of competitive Scrabble, I was intrigued.

The author argues that “Females aren’t as obsessively driven as males to nail down facts, correct errors, and dominate a field,” and uses the Scrabble tournament as a microcosm, implying that the same argument applies to STEM fields and other intellectual competitions like the National Geographic Geography Bee.

From the article:

Competitive Scrabble constitutes a natural experiment for testing the feminist worldview. According to feminist dogma, males and females are identical in their aptitudes and interests. If men dominate certain data-based, abstract fields like engineering, physics and math, that imbalance must, by definition, be the result of sexism—whether a patriarchal culture that discourages girls from math or implicit bias in the hiring process.

But there are no cultural expectations that discourage females from memorizing dictionaries—a typical strategy of competitive Scrabble players, often in a foreign language that the player doesn’t speak. Girls are as free as boys to lap up vocabulary. Nor are there misogynist gatekeepers to keep females out of Scrabble play; the game, usually first learned at home, is open to all. According to Hasbro, 83% of recreational Scrabble players 25 to 54 are female.

Now, firstly, there is misogynist gatekeeping in most every social activity. You can go back and read the interviews I did for my Women in Roleplaying Games post earlier this year for some telling firsthand accounts.

I can’t argue with the stats on recreational Scrabble players. Most of the Scrabble players (and Words With Friends players, and other offshoots) are women. Heck, in my group of friends, one Scrabble rivalry escalated so much that the loser of a particularly high-stakes match had to compose and perform a song dedicated to the winner’s Scrabble mastery!

But the author is missing a major point about discouragement vs. encouragement. Sure, many of those recreational Scrabble players are female, but being introduced to a game in your youth and being encouraged to excel at it are two very different things. Girls are not necessarily as free as boys to lap up vocabulary, unless they’re raised in a household where such learning is equally encouraged.

Girls and young women still struggle under weighty cultural expectations, both in terms of what their interests should be and what fields they should focus their competitiveness on. To act like every household treats boys and girls the same is a ridiculous act of simplification on the author’s part.

There is a huge difference between not being discouraged and actively being encouraged. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many of the top crossword constructors in the field today, and one thing that many of them, male and female, have in common is being encouraged at a young age to pursue their interest in puzzles.

There’s no gender disparity in competitors at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, either in terms of competitors or winners, and the parental and familial encouragement for those children is obvious in any interview package.

Plus, there’s the issue of whether competitiveness is encouraged. All too often, you hear stories about girls’ and women’s interest in a topic being quashed by discussions of “what’s appropriate” or “what’s ladylike” or some other nonsensical idea of how to BE a woman.

You hear it all the time in the language employed by misogynists; A man is competitive, a woman is aggressive. A man is outspoken, a woman is pushy. The double standard is very much a thing, and whether we’re talking about households, board rooms, or game rooms, these inequities should be challenged.

We still have huge strides to make in terms of ameliorating gender inequality in our society, and the little fights matter as much as the big ones. The author states that “the National Science Foundation pours millions of taxpayer dollars into intersectionality and microaggression studies to smoke out invisible STEM sexism and to promote diversity in research labs.”

Invisible? Hardly. I was a physics student as a freshman in college, and I saw the one female student in my classes run off by this supposedly invisible STEM sexism. I wish I had spoken up more then.

I hope that continuing to speak up now in some small way makes up for it.


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