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Why Most Women Don’t Play Poker

  • Alex 

This blog was written in September 2015, when I was Head of Poker at Microgaming.

Opinions on women in poker are like bad beat stories. Everyone has one, and most of them are horrible to listen to. As a man it’s even harder to write an opinion on the subject without coming across as delusional, demeaning, or daft – all words my female colleagues used to refer to me after writing the first draft of this blog. But here are my thoughts on the subject anyhow.

The Intimidating Nature of Live Poker

When I ask female poker players why they don’t like to play live, the answer is often that they find it intimidating.
-Lydia Barbara, Head of Pegasus Gaming Solutions

Relatively few women play online poker. Our best estimates are that between 9% and 19.4% of online players are female (a recent study of French players states the higher end of the range, but the worldwide average is almost certainly lower). The figure is even lower for live poker – according to Alex Dreyfus of the Global Poker Index, only 3-4% of live poker players are female, and only 5.43% of entries in the 2015 World Series of Poker were from women.

There a huge difference between online and live participation, and nobody seems to know for sure what the reason is. One possible explanation is that the live poker environment is intimidating to women in a way that the online environment is not – and this is something that some live tournament organisers have tried to address with ladies events.

But ladies events are controversial. There is a vocal group of men who believe that men should be allowed to enter ladies events, or that ladies events simply shouldn’t be allowed, because they discriminate against men. But, in my opinion, that group of men is missing the point entirely.

Victoria Coren Mitchell wrote an excellent series of blog posts about this, way back in 2012, starting with ‘Pick on Someone Your Own Size’. She described an experience with a man who had decided to play the ladies event, and spoiled the fun for the women involved:

He was young, sallow and hooded. He was the first person to join our table without smiling or saying hello. The mood changed immediately. It had been so cheery, everyone gossiping and laughing and swapping stories – the one tournament where, even if you get knocked out, the money feels well spent on a fun day. It was relaxed and giggly…

…But when this kid sat down, the mood changed. The sorority was broken. The fun stopped. The older ones on the table looked particularly sad. One of them asked whether he’d told his mother he was playing this tournament, and whether she had anything to say about it. He ignored the question.

It’s very common for women to have a ‘girls night out’, where men are not invited, and it’s not as if men don’t have lads nights out. I have home games where only men are invited. So why is it so controversial for women to want to play poker exclusively with other women? In the professional poker world, ladies events are not prestigious. No woman is going to win the GPI Player of the Year award because she performed well in a ladies event. And women aren’t asking for ladies events to be taken seriously, or be given worldwide acclaim. From what I’ve heard, they simply want a fun and friendly environment in which to play.

I’m of two minds about ladies-only poker events. On the one hand, I wish they weren’t necessary. I wish more women would jump into male-dominated games. But they aren’t, and that needs to be addressed somehow, even if for no other reason than that [online] poker internationally is on the decline.
-Lydia Barbara, Head of Pegasus Gaming Solutions

But why do some women need ladies events to enjoy themselves? Why is normal live poker so intimidating? I struggled with the answer to this for a long time, but I’ve recently come up with a theory.

My epiphany came from reading about the Everyday Sexism project. The project, founded in 2012, collects experiences from women all over the world, describing the harassment, prejudice, and sexism that they experience on a daily basis. It makes for truly harrowing reading, with over 50,000 entries from women documenting their day to day experiences. As a man, I’ve experienced harassment in the street a handful of times in my life. What shocked me about Everyday Sexism was just how often it happens to women – every day, in many cases.

Of course, to women this comes as no surprise. To men, I ask you to talk to the women in your lives. You will find that the experiences described by Everyday Sexism are not unique. Almost every woman you know will have been harassed on the street, groped in a bar by a stranger, or worse.
The harassment doesn’t stop when a woman sits down at the poker table, either.

There is even an entire 2+2 thread dedicated to stories of men harassing women at the table.

Last night after playing for several hours (same casino), I’m a in multi-way pot and I wind up with a straight flush. Not a huge pot, but I make some money off two other flushes. One of the guys involved says, “If the seven of diamonds comes, I totally rape you.”
– ‘chairmanmyow’, 2+2 poster

Now, I fully believe in the right of free speech and I don’t think that ‘being offended’ should give you special rights. Being offended is a choice, after all. But why on earth do so many men decide to exercise their right to free speech in a way that makes women feel unwelcome at the poker table?

Getting told something like “If you win this hand I’ll rape you” isn’t benevolent ribbing. When you grow up in a country like the US where 1 in 6 women are subject to some sort of sexual violence, a statement like that isn’t a joke: it’s a credible threat.

I do wish that men were a bit more alive to this. Our life experiences are different to theirs. What may be funny or appropriate to a man may not be to a woman. It isn’t because we’re humourless; it’s because so many of us have been subject to harassment and worse. So many women have been physically, mentally or sexually abused. You know at least one rape survivor, although you may not know who or how or when. It just isn’t talked about.

Anonymous female American poker player

The first part of my theory is that many women are so used to being harassed by men in everyday life, they (perhaps unconsciously) tend to avoid situations where they will encounter a lot of unknown men. Not only that, but some of the few women that do join a live poker game are immediately scared away by the behaviour of a minority group of horrible men.

But there is a second question to be answered – even online, where the intimidation factor is greatly reduced, the fact that over 80% of the players are male means that a lot of women are choosing to do something else with their leisure time. So why don’t these women consider playing poker?

Poker as a Masculine Activity

The second part of my theory is that many women never even consider playing poker, because poker is considered, in our societal norms, to be a masculine activity.

To illustrate the problem, consider the very words that you use in everyday life. If you were dividing words and phrases into ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’, where would you put words like ‘blue’, ‘pink’, and ‘pretty’? Most people would have no problem putting ‘blue’ into the masculine column and ‘pink’ into the feminine column. But they are both just colours, so why do they have such strong gender associations? More controversially, where would you put words like ‘career’, ‘president’, or ‘poker’?

It’s clear to me that from the minute we are born, we’re trained that some things are masculine, and some things are feminine. If you’re a parent expecting a boy, you’ll buy blue clothes – and you won’t even consider pink. When your kids are a little older, you’ll take them to a toy shop. One side of the shop will be pink, and will feature awful things like cookery sets, toy vacuum cleaners, dolls and ironing boards. The other side of the shop will be blue, and will feature awesome stuff like dinosaurs, buckets of goo, lightsabers, science kits and action figures. If a boy wants to play with a doll, he’s told that ‘dolls are for girls’. If a girl wants to play with a science kit, she’s told to play with dolls like a normal girl.

These gender roles are reinforced not only by adults, but by children themselves. Notably, some institutions are taking steps to counter this kind of gender stereotyping in their stores. US retailer Target, for example, recently announced that it was no longer going to label particular toys as for ‘girls’ or ‘boys’ – something UK retailer Toys R Us has already done. But these changes are very recent, and most people of a legal age to play poker today will have been exposed to these gender roles all of their lives.

If this is true, you’d expect countries which have less of a gender gap (according to a source like the Global Gender Gap Index) to have a higher proportion of female poker players. Microgaming doesn’t have the data to conclusively prove or disprove this theory (as a software supplier, we don’t have personal data about players). However if you rank female participation in our MPN Poker Tour live events in order from highest to lowest, it correlates exactly with the rankings of the Global Gender Gap Index – we had the highest proportion of female players in our United Kingdom event (26th place) and the lowest in our Georgia event (85th place). If the trend continues to hold true I expect to see the highest proportion in our Dublin event this week (Ireland is in 8th place).

This second part of my theory is that both men and women have been trained from the moment that they are born that there are certain activities that they shouldn’t engage in. For the same reasons that most men don’t play netball, softball, or camogie (which gender roles say are a feminine activity), most women don’t play poker. They don’t even consider playing because they feel that it’s a masculine activity. This is an extremely complex problem that is difficult counter in the short term.

Final Thoughts

Because poker is a male-dominated activity, a lot of poker-related marketing is targeted at men in a way that makes the problem worse, not better.

An off putting element for me is the sexualisation of women in poker. It seems you fall into one of two groups:

  1. The model who knows how to play but doesn’t need to be good because she is hot. Case in point, this YouTube video. I can’t imagine Phil Ivey was ever asked to strip down to his boxers and sprawl across a poker table, and even Kara Scott is pictured in this with dollars between her teeth.
  1. Vanessa Selbst

-Clodagh Hansen, Poker Promotions Manager at Microgaming

This kind of marketing does nothing to attract female players. Those women that do find the game in spite of the marketing have to first battle against something in their mind that says it’s not really an activity that they should be doing, and then when they finally sit down in the game they are often harassed simply for being there.

Like most working women, the balance of work required in the home falls largely on my shoulders ([my partner] still manages to play online and live!)
-Clodagh Hansen, Poker Promotions Manager at Microgaming

There are other reasons too, of course, not least of which that women tend to have less free time because male partners don’t spend as much time on household chores or childcare. This issue is far too complex to be discussed in a single blog post. Thankfully plenty of other people are talking about the topic at the moment – I found Lee Davy’s post on empathy towards women particularly frank and interesting.

There is no quick fix to the problems we face. Real changes will come from changing attitudes – both men’s, and women’s. All of us need to pass on the lessons we have learned to the next generation. We should challenge harassment and sexism whenever we see it, and we should be teaching our children, whether male or female, that they can be whoever and whatever they want to be. No gender roles. No excuses.

If we do this, imagine what a boom poker is going to go through in a couple of generations’ time, when the other half of the population starts to really join in!