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poker, stereotypes and the male advantage


Image via Wikimedia

Image via Wikimedia

In an impressive main event run at this year’s WSOP, 28-year old attorney Kelly Minkin finished as Last Woman Standing with $211,821 cashed, making her the latest addition to a modestly numbered yet notable group of female professional poker players. Other group members include the legendary Vanessa Selbst, who recently added $1 million to her all-time poker earnings of over $10.5 million, and the famously intimidating Maria Ho. Annette Obrestad won her first WSOP bracelet and $2 million prize by the age of eighteen, whilst players like Vanessa Rousso and Liv Boeree have not only made millions in the game, but boast impressive academic backgrounds in the sciences. Though one’s first impression might not indicate there is anything spectacularly out-of-the-ordinary about these women; their success in poker makes them highly unique. The fact is that female poker pros are few and far between, with women representing only around 5% of tournament attendees.

Just like with countless other traditionally male dominated occupations, the door to professional poker is open to women – and it’s been open for the last few decades. So, with the exception of the aforementioned ‘marvels’, why are women nowhere to be seen at the card table?

Whilst it might be tempting to conclude the aforementioned women are exceptions to a biological norm; intriguing conundrums who have somehow come to deviate from a natural gender role which would otherwise have them uninterested in the strategic, mathematical and psychological game of poker, there is in fact a more solid explanation as to the lack of women in professional poker. In fact, there are several insightful possible explanations, and none of them have anything to do with the invariably sexist myth of a ‘female brain’.

It’s called the glass ceiling. Today, the glass ceiling is regarded by many as an irrelevant concept perpetuated by a strident feminist movement, stubbornly holding on to an outdated notion that women are being oppressed by the patriarchy. To others, it’s the fundamental and obvious explanation as to why women have failed to fully integrate themselves in most traditionally ‘male’ industries – professional poker included. In the case of poker, the glass ceiling is composed of many complex layers.

It has been the general consensus of modern era psychologists that boys and girls are encouraged to behave differently during childhood. In fact, this sociological phenomenon has become the basis of gender studies across the world, with leading neuroscientists and cognitive researchers compiling entire books on the subject. Under the assumption that girls are naturally more emotional, parents will comfort their crying daughter yet tell their upset son to ‘toughen up’ or ‘be a man’. Parents have a tendency, often subconscious, of guiding their children toward certain interests and behaviours in an attempt to have them ‘fit in’.  Despite the parents’ well-meaning intentions, this toxic understanding that boys are weak if they show emotion is carried into the primary school playground and then into adult life. From an early age, men are therefore taught that an open display of emotion is not only highly inappropriate but also embarrassing to themselves and those around them.

These attitudes come to manifest themselves in countless subtle ways, revealed for example through male-specific name-calling, such as ‘sissy’, ’wimp’, or worst of all – ‘girly’. By the time men reach adulthood, they’ve already undergone several years of practise in concealing emotion. We see this in the world of business where the seemingly unaffected disposition of men allows them to make cold-hearted corporate decisions. We see it in situations of distress and panic, where men are more likely to retain a composed demeanour and take charge. We see it at the poker table, where a blank and unaffected expression appears to come so naturally to the (usually male) poker pros.

Women, on the other hand, have the world expecting emotion of them. A campaign started in 2012 called ‘Stop Telling Women to Smile’ sought to address exactly this; that we like women to be cheerful, to be vibrantly expressive, compassionate and sensitive. Those women who do not fit this profile are considered sulky, boorish, unfriendly or downright ‘unfeminine’; an accusation most women have been conditioned to believe is the most derogatory of all.

Not only do women suffer the disadvantage of having their emotional expressions discredited as ‘typical female behaviour’, they are also at a disadvantage when finding themselves unable to decipher the lack of expression in others. This has serious consequences in both the workplace and home environment. Communication Specialist Audrey Nelson explains;

Women perceive blankness negatively. Men’s masking of facial expressions causes uneasiness in women…Males can appear unavailable and emotionally inaccessible because it has political value to them; this is the ultimate non-verbal way for them to express their masculine control. When a woman can’t take a read on the man with whom she is talking, it makes her anxious. She might even become more animated to spark a reaction, but the man will hold fast to his stony demeanour. Indeed, when a woman increases her expressiveness in this situation, the man may believe that she’s becoming overly emotional. This undercuts her credibility.

Equally concerning is the influence gender-based upbringing has upon the development of competitive qualities. To this day, boys and girls are frequently separated during gym class, which is a problem when there is a dramatic difference in the quality of these classes. Marketers brand toys that focus on ‘building, creation and control’ toward boys, whilst marketing toys focused on ‘nurturing’ and ‘beauty’ toward girls. ‘Gender marketing’ extends far beyond toy commercials, and its message of separation and difference is enforced in almost every aspect of our lives, leading to a subconscious pressure to conform. It can be a challenging and confusing experience for those boys and girls who find themselves developing personal qualities which contradict these stereotypes. More often than not, children align themselves with the interests and personal qualities which make them ‘fit in’ whilst abandoning those which do not.

In an interview with Vanessa Selbst, the successful poker player gives her own interpretation of the gender divide;

There are no biological reasons [men are more successful in poker]. The reasons are purely rooted in the way our society is organized. The problem is that in our society women are not supposed to be competitive. If they are competitive it is viewed as a negative quality – as bitchy, out of line or as not attractive. That’s why all the competitive qualities are stifled. It’s the same thing in business. If a woman is trying to be competitive, everybody will just talk about what an awful person she is, but if a man does the exact same thing, everybody likes how driven and how successful he is. Poker is also an extremely competitive thing and women are simply not trained from a young age to have these qualities…these qualities are just not respected in a woman.

Selbst elaborates upon the inequality in professional poker, describing the disproportionate focus on female players’ appearance.

Even once you become a pro, people value your attractiveness. You’re told to be as attractive as possible, so you can get a good sponsorship, and even when you have a sponsorship, it still seems that it is more important what you look like than what your results are.

Being able to express emotion with more ease, women are arguably more likely to be ‘in touch’ with their feelings, potentially making the intuitive aspect of poker more easy for the assured woman. However, her own ability to maintain a poker face would come less naturally to her than it would for her male opponent. The average female player might even find herself having to employ poker face less often than her male opponents, as she is less likely to bet aggressively. This is because women are shown to demonstrate a significantly stronger sense of self-doubt and insecurity than men, regardless of their actual ability in comparison to peers. Scientists name this the ‘male hubris, female humility effect’ and it is found consistently across all occupations and cultures. Needless to say, the limitations women impose upon themselves through self-doubt makes them less fit for jobs where underestimation and hesitation guarantee failure – i.e. professional poker.

Though typically outperforming their male peers in both science and maths at high school, girls are much less likely to pursue these ‘unfeminine’ fields in further studies. The reasons behind this warrants an essay in itself, but one conclusion to draw is that this worrying trend is linked to the influence stereotypes play in our culture. For a game so heavily reliant upon statistical analysis, it’s no wonder many women feel out of place amongst their more mathematically-educated opponents. Combine this with the conspicuous gazes and appearance-cantered taunts of male poker players, and you’ll find that the card table can make for a rather unwelcoming environment for women.

Perhaps the most obvious indicator that the game of poker is equally as suitable for women as it is for men can be found when looking at online player statistics. As opposed to the meek 5% female turn-out at tournaments, over 30% of online players are women. Playing anonymously and from the comfort of their own home, women don’t have to deal with the sexism typically encountered at live tournaments and casinos.

The poker room has historically been testosterone-fuelled place; this will not suddenly and magically change simply because women now are allowed at the card table. On the up side, female poker players are more frequently letting their voices be heard with regard to the sexist attitudes and exclusion of women from the world of poker. PokerStars offers extra incentives to attract female players, and tournaments such as the Battle of Malta are choosing female players to host their events. The efforts of outspoken poker players and businesses to increase awareness of sexist practises within the industry are pivotal if we are to see more women enter the poker scene, just like it is pivotal for any other high-profile individual or organisation to actively educate and enlighten those within its industry to recognize the root of inequality and the prevailing issue of sexism.

The argument of whether perceived gender differences are the result of nature or nurture will, unsurprisingly, point further toward nurture when women start becoming comfortable with the mechanics of poker and realize their potential within the field. Kelly Minkin and the group of extraordinary female players to which she belongs are amongst the first to make this apparent.

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