Reader Question: Why Don’t More Women Compete and What Can Be Done?

BFF Teri and Stacy at Holiday Tournament, Dec. 4, 2011, in Gary, IN. Although Teri and I
attend “sister” schools, we met for the first time at a tournament.

A reader sent us this email:

I am a brownbelt and have been urged by my classmates and blackbelts to compete in tournament fighting.  I am 42 and feeling some sense of “now or never” setting in.  I have heard (and seen) that “not that many women sign up” and find this kind of sad. … I am curious on your thoughts of why more women don’t sign up and what the event coordinators can do to encourage more women to sign up.

I wish I knew why there aren’t more women in competitive karate. In the little kids’ divisions, the girls often outnumber the boys. Then, when the age divisions go up, the number of girls participating goes down. Interest in karate seems to decrease as a girls’ interest in boys increases. There’s probably a mathematic formula that shows the relationship more definitively.

For adult women, maybe it’s because involvement in fighting arts is viewed as “unseemly” or “inappropriate.” Also, as women, we’re trained to put our desires away so we can help our children, husbands (or partners) achieve their desires. Money is always tight. Why would we take money from the family budget for something as selfish as going to a tournament in St. Louis? Why should we spend good money on an entry fee for a tournament when our kids want to go to Anime conventions or the mall?

But what do I know about what motivates other women? All I know is that I started because, if I kept doing what I was before, I was probably going to die. I love competition and tournaments gave me the motivation to keep moving and get in shape.

One way for event coordinators to bring more women to tournaments is offering free admission for women who pre-register. That way there’s less of a monetary risk for the women who wish to go (without knowing if there will be a large division). The number of women who registered early can then be used to attract more women competitors.

I know what you’re thinking, Stacy wants to compete for free. OK, sure, who wouldn’t?  But there’s a bigger issue here.

When an event coordinator takes care to make sure that all competitors (or as many as possible) have a positive experience, he is improving the tournament for everyone. If you have an otherwise great tournament, but only 3 adult women show up, three of your competitors will tell other martial artists, “It was an OK tournament, I just wish the divisions were larger.” It taints the experience.

I’ve been to a few tournaments that had a large number of women competing. (And ones that didn’t offer free admission to women. It was just one idea, guys!) The first one that comes to mind is the Silver Sun Showdown in St. Louis. The year I went, there were ten women in the senior division (35+). TEN! OK, for sparring, there were three of us. If I remember correctly, however, IHOF (Isshinryu Hall of Fame) tournament had several women fighters.

What do you think? How can tournament coordinators attract more women competitors, particularly fighters? Is it even their responsibility?

PS – Go ahead and sign up for a tournament. If there’s no one in your division, you can ask to spar up or go with a different age division. The judges don’t always let you; sometimes they come up with other options. Be open. And, sometimes, when there’s a lot of competitors, you still only get to spar once.