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Female exercise scientists and the failure to protect women’s sports
Biological males are now competing against biological females in sports. Biological males have various physical advantages over biological females, rendering this new form of athletic competition problematic. The purpose here is not to revisit the various ways in which men are advantaged over women in sports. Instead, the purpose is to highlight the failure of female exercise scientists to play a prominent intellectual role in protecting women’s sports.
Exercise science, which is the study of the physiological, biomechanical, and psychological causes of and responses to physical activity and exercise, is one of the fastest growing academic majors in the United States. My previous research on the growth of this academic major found that between 2002 and 2017, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded increased by 445% . By comparison, the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in nursing increased by 303%, in medical engineering by 136%, in psychology by 43%, in economics by 38%, in philosophy by 1%, and in history, the number of bachelor’s degrees in 2017 decreased by 14%. In 2017, over 28,000 bachelor’s degrees were awarded in exercise science.
Women comprise 55% and 50% of all bachelor’s and doctorate degree earners in exercise science the United States. Women also comprise approximately 60% of all degree earners in the fields of athletic training and physical therapy, which are closely related to exercise science. What’s more, equal or greater female than male degree earners in exercise science is not necessarily unique to the United States. In Australia, for example, women comprise approximately 47% of all bachelor’s degree earners in exercise and sports science .
These data on degree earners suggest that there exists a large cohort of women who, based on their academic credentials, should have a high level of knowledge of how the human body develops and functions and impacts exercise and sports performance. Thus, one might think that female exercise scientists would come out en masse to draw the evidence-based line that argues that it is unfair for biological women to have to compete against biological men in sports, particularly as many of these female exercise scientists will have themselves participated in various athletic endeavors. Yet, not only have female exercise scientists not come out en masse to draw this line, they have been altogether silent. Thousands of them – silent!
To date, I am aware of only two papers published in peer-reviewed exercise science journals that, with arguments based in physiology, have questioned the idea of transgender women competing in the female category of sport [3, 4]. Both papers had female lead authors and a mix of male and female co-authors. The female lead authors deserve credit for their contributions to the debate, but one of the papers was published just last month, meaning that since 2018 – the approximate beginnings of the rise in transgender participation in sport – only one paper had been published in an exercise science journal that highlighted that transgender women have certain physiological advantages over biological women that are not reversed by gender-affirming treatments. That such little commentary on transgender participation in sport has occurred in exercise science journals is astonishing for a couple reasons.
First, as I’ve just indicated, there exist thousands of potential exercise scientists to write such papers, and there exist hundreds of potential journals for them to publish such papers in. Thus, lack of qualified personnel or lack of opportunity is not a tenable explanation for the silence of female exercise scientists on this issue. Second, stacks of papers are published each month in exercise journals, and these papers are often of little interest to the lay public, and often have little direct implication for the lives of many individuals. In contrast, the topic of transgender athletes is of great contemporary interest, and the related decisions made by policymakers and sports organizations have direct implications for sports-related opportunities for women, such as scholarships and awards, and also include the possibility that women’s overall participation in sports might be negatively impacted by the current state of affairs.
So, given that we sometimes hear that career-minded female scientists are “strong and brave,” what then underlies the astonishing low number of female exercise scientists speaking out against biological males participating in women’s sports? Here, I propose two explanations.
First, women tend to have agreeable personalities. A number of meta-analytic studies have shown that women, compared to men, tend to score higher on scales of agreeableness, with agreeableness referring to “the tendency toward cooperation, maintenance of social harmony, and consideration of others” . Thus, female exercise scientists might place a high value on inclusivity in sport and consequently find it difficult to disagree with transgender women’s participation in the female category of sport. For female exercise scientists who place greater value on fairness in competition than on inclusivity, they might disagree with biological men competing in women’s sports, but they do not appear to have the courage to express this disagreement publicly. Importantly, personality research has also shown that women are less assertive than men  and this lack of assertiveness would further hinder a female exercise scientist’s expression of disagreeableness and their ability to use their intellect to protect other women.
An example of how women’s agreeableness and lack of assertiveness manifests in lack of academic publications can be seen by studying letters to the editor that are published in journals. The reason that letters can be used as a model for exploring the associations between sex differences in personality and interests versus academic outputs is because letters are usually brief expressions of disagreement with another researcher’s ideas and the opportunity to write and submit letters is equal between men and women – that is, anyone can submit a letter to a journal. Yet, large sex differences exist in letter authorship. My previous research on letters to the editor revealed that men write approximately 85% of all letters published in exercise science and physical therapy journals . Similar sex differences in letter writing have also been observed in other biomedical research fields .
A second potential explanation for why more female exercise scientists are not writing evidence-based papers that argue against transgender women’s participation in the female category of sport is that female exercise scientists are caught in a feminist conundrum. On one hand, if a female exercise scientist makes an inclusion-based argument that defends the notion that transgender women should be permitted to participate in the female category of sport, then she is no longer supporting the valid feminist (and non-feminist) position that women should have their own space for sports. On the other hand, if a female exercise scientist argues that a boundary needs to be set to prevent transgender women from participating in women’s sports, then this an indirect admission of female biological inferiority in terms of physical capacity. And if there is one thing that career-minded feminist academics do not want to admit is that they are in any way inferior to men. Thus, if female exercise scientists prioritize sports inclusion, they could be held responsible for a potential future decline in women’s participation in sports – a reversal to the past. However, if they adopt a boundary that implies women cannot do everything that men can do, then they have to admit that physical fitness is not a social construct. Neither of these positions is desirable for the feminist exercise scientist.
It will be interesting to see what actions, if any, female exercise scientists take in the coming months regarding the debate about participation of transgender women in the female category of sport. With two female-led papers on the topic now published in reputable exercise science journals [3, 4], this might make it easier for other female scientists to speak out about the issue. But instead of making predictions about future papers on the debate on transgenderism in sports, I would like to close by briefly highlighting what I believe to be the most overlooked aspect of this debate – and it has nothing to do with women.
At the debate’s core is a group of boys and men who are experiencing gender identity issues. The consequence of these identity issues on women’s sports is something that requires attention. However, boys’ and men’s mental health issues are the origins of this debate, and these mental health issues also require attention. So, why are people not talking more about boy’s and men’s mental health issues within the context of the debate on transgenderism in sports? Perhaps it’s because they have a blind spot for seeing male suffering and neglect. Perhaps it’s gamma bias .
1. Nuzzo JL. Growth of exercise science in the United States since 2002: a secondary data analysis. Quest. 2020.
2. Stevens CJ, Nancarrow S. The Exercise & Sports Science Australia Graduate Destination Report. Coffs Harbour, Australia: Southern Cross University; 2017.
3. Hilton EN, Lundberg TR. Transgender women in the female category of sport: perspectives on testosterone suppression and performance advantage. Sports Med. 2021;51(2):199-214.
4. Nokoff NJ, Senefeld J, Krausz C, Hunter S, Joyner M. Sex differences in athletic performance: perspectives on transgender athletes. Exerc Sport Sci Rev. 2023.
5. Weisberg YJ, Deyoung CG, Hirsh JB. Gender differences in personality across the then aspects of the Big Five. Front Psychol. 2011;2(178).
6. Nuzzo JL. Large sex difference despite equal opportunity: authorship of over 3,000 letters in exercise science and physical therapy journals over 56 years. Scientometrics. 2020;124:679-95.
7. Schrager S, Bouwkamp C, Mundty M. Gender and first authorship of papers in family medicine journals 2006--2008. Fam Med. 2011;43(3):155-9.
8. Seager M, Barry JA. Cognitive distortion in thinking about gender issues: gamma bias and the gender distortion matrix. In: Barry JA, Kingerlee R, Seager M, Sullivan L, editors. The Palgrave Handbook of Male Psychology and Mental Health. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan; 2019. p. 87-104.
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