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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Sorry, Feminists, Men Are Better at Scrabble

Culture Culture & Society

Nothing stops women from competing at the game’s highest levels, but almost none of them do.

The 2018 World Scrabble Championship was held last month in London. The champion, 51-year old Nigel Richards, played “groutier” (meaning “sulky”) for the winning 68 points. This was Mr. Richards’s fourth world title in English Scrabble; he also took the French Scrabble title this year for the second time, even though he doesn’t speak French.

If Mr. Richards’s dominance of competitive Scrabble is clear, there is a less noticed but more significant pattern in the game: Since the World Scrabble Championship began in 1991, all winners have been male. The North American Scrabble Championship has had one female winner (in 1987) since its founding in 1978. All eight finalists in this year’s French World Scrabble Championships were men.

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.

Championship Scrabble, however, rewards typically male obsessions: strategy, math, a passion for competition, and a drive to memorize facts. Mr. Richards’s mother told the Guardian in 2015 that he “related everything to numbers” when he was growing up. Feminists will need to employ circular logic to conjure forth a discriminatory barrier in Scrabble: Males’ excellence at a certain activity itself keeps females out. But that leaves unanswered the question of how males came to excel at Scrabble—or any other abstract, competitive activity—in the first place.

Unfortunately, the feminist explanation for sex disparities in science, technology, engineering and math has spread to countless public and private institutions. The prestigious National Academy of Sciences released a 312-page report this summer primarily blaming “gender harassment” for the lack of gender proportionality in STEM. “Gender harassment,” which the NAS defines as “verbal and nonverbal behaviors that convey hostility, objectification, exclusion, or second-class status about members of one gender,” is a relatively new concept, deployed to compensate for researchers’ failure to find much traditional sexual harassment in STEM environments.

The NAS report recommended additional sex-discrimination bureaucracy in STEM workplaces, new state and federal laws, female-friendly evaluation structures, and “explicit steps” to increase female hiring. 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. Academic deans and campus diversity bureaucrats pressure faculty hiring committees to regard being a woman as a STEM job qualification.

Other natural experiments suggest that this massive social-engineering project is based on a fiction. Like competitive Scrabble, Wikipedia has no gatekeepers. Anyone can compose or edit an entry; participation is largely anonymous. There are no centuries-old Wiki traditions shoring up male Wiki dominance. Yet only 13% of Wikipedia editors are female, according to the Wikimedia Foundation, even though no one would know the sex of a female editor to be able to discriminate against her. Entries for typically “female” subjects are skimpy compared with typically “male” ones. The implication is unavoidable: Females aren’t as obsessively driven as males to nail down facts, correct errors, and dominate a field.

The National Geographic Geography Bee shows similar results. Since 1989, boys have won 27 times, girls twice. Nothing prevents or discourages girls from vacuuming up the details of an atlas. But the National Geographic Society has already been sued for discriminating against girls based on that winner ratio alone, as economist Mark Perry has noted. Expect a similar attack on Mattel , sponsor of the World Scrabble Championship, if the Scrabble numbers become widely known.

Feminists have persuaded policy makers that only patriarchal inequity can explain the male dominance of Silicon Valley and of pure research. The archetypal male science geek, ignoring the demands of ordinary life so he can solve a physics problem or write code, is out of sight, out of mind. But the same maniacal pursuit of mastery that leads someone to spend every waking moment poring over a dictionary to prepare for a Scrabble tournament has also led to the computer revolution and to the West’s conquest of disease and natural disaster. Diverting time and resources from actual STEM research into gender politics is reckless when China is becoming increasingly competitive with the U.S. in technology.

It’s time to face reality about differences between males and females. Let the chips fall where they may.

This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal


Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion (available now). Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal