on sex in snooker
by Shaina Yang - all rights reserved
EDIT: I was kindly replied to by Steve Davis on twitter, where he implied that the BBC heavily misconstrued his words. The article below has been changed to reflect my change in stance on the matter.
So today, I read this:
Knowing where to start is difficult. I fell in love with snooker three years ago; today, it is one of my biggest hobbies, both playing and watching. My involvement in the snooker community as a woman has been complicated and mired with event after event of awkwardness and struggle - but also acceptance, joy, and pride, too. When I read what the BBC published - especially when listening to the accompanying podcast and hearing the words out loud - I was all at once angry and disappointed, frustrated and crushed. Because what was said was not only hurtful, but harmful - and not only that, but incorrect too. Dangerously so. And I think it is incredibly important for the entire snooker community to be able to have an open discussion as to why.
Snooker is a beautiful game - an obsessive one - and it is perhaps unique amongst the sports in that physiology plays a relatively insignificant role in success. We’ve got everyone: from run-happy Ronnie to the slightly cuddlier-looking Shaun Murphys and Stephen Maguires and Steven Lees (well, not him so much anymore). We have Ali Carter, whose struggle with Crohn’s and cancer is a source of inspiration for anyone who identifies as disabled or diseased. We have our grizzled veteran Ken, but also 16-year old Lu Haotian or 19-year old Luca Brecel, both who made their debuts in the snooker world at a much younger age than they are today.
This remains one of the most beautiful things about snooker - it’s non-discriminatory in who it takes on as a champion. Your physiology doesn’t matter. It’s becoming hugely international - ask Ding or Neil. It completely shatters boundaries of class, having a rich history that involves both the working class and the hopelessly aristocratic. Even racially, outside of the normal white/Chinese monopoly, it has a couple flagship exceptions - Rory McLeod, the beloved Poomjaeng.
Of course, it’s also a lot of fun. All egalitarian features aside, snooker is incredibly addictive - anyone who’s dared pick up a cue and make the slow trek uphill from smacking balls around to finally making breaks and cursing every drill in between will know what I mean. What could possibly replace that signature sound - possibly one that exemplifies “satisfaction” most in the world? - of a ball being firmly potted into its rightful pocket, and the tiny clink as it drops into the rails underneath.
But there is one uncomfortable disparity in snooker with no exception - and that’s the gender thing.
It’s unavoidable, unfortunately, if you’re a woman in snooker - you will always stand out like a sore thumb. You will always get comments and questions, well-intentioned or otherwise. You will always face some kind of reaction - not always a negative one! in fact, oftentimes, incredibly encouraging ones - but a reaction all the same. And of course, although it is unpleasant to bring up and leaves a bad taste in the mouth, there are the hopelessly sexist events that do happen with sad regularity. For all of snooker’s openness in all of the other categories, sex seems to be a steadfast sticking point, and one which I have been more and more deeply involved with.
Today it appears to have culminated in the public eye as this: Steve Davis reportedly telling me that because of my sex - even if I had discovered my love of the game at a younger age and devoted my life to it - I would at best have been an exception to the general rule that women are less neurologically suited to the game than men.
I quite like Steve Davis. As a player, he’s made history - well-mannered but ruthless, a quality that made him the world’s best for a long while. He left a permanent footprint on the game by revolutionising how people played safety, pushing the game to its limit and getting the cueball tight on the baulk cushion every time - suddenly, it wasn’t good enough to just get the white behind yellow to brown triad - and today, pros still play to that strategy.
And as a human, he’s wonderfully affable. Some of the old clips on YouTube of gingery Steve, young and far too clever for his own good, swanning about the table with a pint during trick shot exhibitions - they’re comedy gold. He’s usually very polite, incredibly insightful, and an engaging master of the game from his seat in the BBC’s CueZone. He runs the wonderful youth programme Cue Zone Into Schools, which is a grassroots effort to promote both classroom learning and snooker in primary schools. Genial and professional, he is perhaps the sport’s best active ambassador.
But the comments that were published on women - polite as they seem, peppered with almost apologetic statements about “men’s idiocy” and “obsession with irrelevant” activity - are incredibly harmful. He has briefly got into contact after a torrent of my indignant tweets stating that he was similarly “mystified” at the BBC article, implying that he was only asserting the opinions that were published as “perhaps”, and apologising for giving the interview in the first place.
Nevertheless, I believe my point still stands - for these comments to be selected out of a conversation with snooker’s leading ambassador and then published by snooker’s leading media outlit - it’s outrageous. The opinion that the article puts across is ill-informed, misguided, and attributes an uncharacteristically shallow reading of a complex situation to an otherwise well-spoken and intelligent man. His purported monosyllabic response to the question of women featuring in the World Championship final - direct and damning in the BBC report - was a twist of the knife.
I have no doubt that in the interview that was conducted, a more nuanced view was held. I also, however, hold critical the idea that women possess an intrinsic mental disadvantage in snooker - even as a mere possibility - because there are too many better answers out there which are neither as harmful or as superficial. In the accompanying radio discussion as well, a full range of opinions were expressed - Cliff Thorburn notably expresses a heroic opinion not unlike my own. (Love that guy - another living legend.) So ultimately, the question remains: why did the BBC choose to publish the opinion in the light that they did?
The first thing which I think is key to note is that Steve Davis - bless him for all of his talent and ingenuity - is not known for his expertise in neuroscience. His opinion should not have been published by any decent journalist as authoritative under any circumstance when discussing anything like neurology between the sexes. And in the article, he purportedly observes what he thinks is a trend in the industry - the willingness (or perhaps involuntariness, as he sees it) for men to hunker down and play hour after hour after hour - and suggests a conclusion for it. I won’t go on about so boring a topic as methodological rigour, but let me first say this - anecdotal evidence can rarely be relied upon to form a foolproof conclusion - or any meaningful conclusion, for that matter. For the BBC to publish it as an authoritative opinion on the matter is terrible journalism (not least due to the unfortunate lack of neuroscientific credentials).
All bad journalism and Steve Davis’ own personal opinions aside, however - the point has been made, and needs to be addressed.
It strikes me as ironic that the asserted opinion attests to the male ability to “concentrate” or “obsess” without possibly considering that they have less to distract them from their obsessions in the first place. I have never stepped into a local snooker club without stares, or a comment - and who can blame my snooker-playing peers, with so few women playing the game in the first place? I have never entered any tournament or league without, at some point during the course of its run, had my being female not be brought up.
And mark my words, I have also had this very conversation - over and over again, countless times. Why are women lagging behind so far in snooker? Isn’t it one of the few sports where women should be able to match men? How come girls don’t play as much?
My point is - it might be my fault that I’m getting distracted in the first place at these comments or questions, but I can promise you that nevertheless, men in the game don’t have the opportunity to show off their supposedly “superior” skills in blocking this stuff out because - plain and simple - they’ll never face it.
There are other factors too, of course. Reanne Evans has both directly and obliquely pointed to several ones - although I must say, the BBC did a rather cackhanded job (yet again) of trying to encapsulate the challenge that motherhood and social conceptions of child-rearing poses to women not only in snooker, but in anything. Finance is one big factor - there is simply not enough money being invested in women’s snooker for eight-hour practice days to be worth their time if they want to feed themselves, let alone live comfortably. But it’s not the whole picture - after all, women are openly available to enter the “men’s” tournaments - why not just work towards them?
The first thing is what both I and Reanne have touched upon - the “boys’ club” feel of the community which is hard to block out, let alone break. I remember the first time I played a rest shot into the yellow pocket in public, where I had to get my leg up on the table to reach it comfortably - the club broke out into wolf-whistles and jeers, and face flushing with embarrassment - I missed. I’ve turned up to league matches and had jokes been made, had eyebrows raised behind the bar. Double takes, stares - and, let’s not lie, people do like a pint around the table - drunken slurs. These these are all part of the colourful culture of snooker and indeed, British working class culture which is still a strong bastion of snooker watchers in this country. “Casual sexism” or “everyday sexism” as it is often called - and it, built up over the years, little by little, does become quite a lot.
I cannot explain nor defend the psychology here, unfortunately - there is no way for me to express how quickly the insecurity and self-doubt can build up when you are constantly faced with scepticism or jokes, or occasionally even aggression - and it makes you miss a shot. Or it makes you want to avoid the club. Or it makes you feel a huge pressure to somehow represent your entire sex at the table in front of a panel of curious onlookers. These are indefensible, indescribable things - they sound like mental weakness at best, whinging at worst. But again, I press, that they are not factors that male players tend to have to take into account.
Another factor is childhood. Any behavioural psychologist will tell you that what a child occupies itself with in its primary years of cognitive learning are incredibly important in formulating what they will excel in later. Countless studies have linked early reading with success in higher education, early exposure to football leading to prodigies of the game (think of the number of footballers that come from football-playing families, for example). It only makes sense that girls - who are largely encouraged to engage in things like drawing and playing pretend and decorating dolls - would face a significant disadvantage to their ball-playing sport-engaging boy counterparts. Is this really a product of some intrinsic difference in interests that appears in the brain so early based on sex? Despite the fact that, actually, most differences between the sexes are entirely down to hormones, which of course don’t come into play until adolescence. Or is it a product of our social constructions of what little girls and little boys like to do with their time, which in turn perpetuates these norms?
Let’s say there’s 100 boys and 100 girls randomly selected under the age of 6. Out of them, 90 of the boys engage with sport and that kind of cognitive build-up of spatial learning. Let’s also say that 20 of the girls do the same. The amount of “talent” that is lost between the two sexes is huge - boys only lose 10 of their 100 potential athletes, whilst girls lose 80. Of the 90 boys, let’s say 1 of them becomes a professional. If those are the odds, it’s not especially likely that one of the 20 girls does the same. This gives rise to the belief that women are just worse suited to sport - for whatever reason mental, emotional, or otherwise - and in turn then creates an expectation for boys and girls ceiling of achievement.
The above argument is a sheer numbers game. Put simply, I would say at least a hundred times more boys than girls are exposed to and encouraged to play snooker when they are young. Snooker has come so unbelievably far in pressing the bounds of human talent that most new faces to the game started at a young age. Unless if equal numbers of little girls and little boys are exposed to snooker, encouraged to play snooker, and taken down to the club with their parents or grandparents to have a frame, a struggle for parity at upper levels is always going to exist.
Let’s not forget that once these same shallow beliefs were held about women in school. Before education was equalised between the sexes, it was believed that girls simply didn’t have the mind for learning - they were too emotional, too fragile, a bit too fanciful. Today, higher education sees a higher proportion of women than men; this shows nothing, of course, aside from that the original conceptions were clearly wrong. It was much more likely the case that girls simply were not exposed to learning the way that boys were, and thus appeared worse at it when they were fully-fledged adults. I would argue that the same could certainly be the case in snooker - or that this argument is worth at least as much consideration as Steve Davis’ hypothesis about the purported difference in neurology, consider that it has historical and scientific basis behind it.
Then, there is the motherhood issue. By and large, women are overwhelmingly expected to take care of the children within the family - and when there is a single parent, it is overwhelmingly likely for her to be a woman. Reanne Evans is a sterling example of this; she is the dominant caregiver for her daughter, whilst the girl’s father, Mark Allen, has much more time to spend around the table. I won’t repeat the same argument that I made above about biological suitability - but again, I would encourage us to question whether if women’s status as primary caregiver is biology alone or in part an expectation of society. It is likely both - but once again, another factor that needs to be taken into account. Even if a woman wanted to abandon mothering for snooker, it would be many degrees harder for her to do so in comparison to if she were a man, due to social expectations - this is fairly recognisable as simple fact. And again - this is not an issue which is isolated to snooker. The issue of mothers, women, and parenting is pandemic in all industries that are trying to embrace gender equality in the workforce - because women once again have a “distraction” that men would never be forced to face in the same way.
These are a lot of factors. If there is one thing that I have to agree with Steve’s purported remarks on, I fear that it is the magnitude of challenges women face in breaking into the game. So many of these problems are societal, and will take years - generations, even - of correction to surmount. I cannot possibly ask Steve Davis, the BBC, Barry Hearn, or anyone else to try and compensate for those things - I can only ask them to be mindful of them.
However, I can ask all of the above - as well as all the professionals, all the audience members, all the referees, all the casual players down the club - to please challenge the lingering conception that women are somehow naturally unsuited to snooker. Whether if it is for mental reasons of attitude, concentration, emotion or otherwise - it is deeply damaging for any aspiring woman player to hear it, especially when forcibly placed in the mouth of someone so respected as Steve Davis, wilfully published as such by an authority like the BBC. As I’ve gone over, there are few enough of us already. It is insulting, frustrating, maddening and hurtful to be told that - despite all of the challenges we face, ranging from obvious (casual sexism) to less (childhood upbringing) to even less (having few publically available peers or role models to look up to) - the overwhelming conclusion that the BBC chooses to highlight is somehow that our brains aren’t suited to it.
The World Snooker association and the BBC seem committed enough to promoting women in the sport - this article was a great step backwards. They run Women’s Day every year at the Crucible, which I attended with great gusto and made a fool of myself at missing almost every ball out of nervousness in front of Reanne herself. They ran this article and the accompanying podcast on the subject. But they would do much better to go the extra length - rather than focusing on the differences or potential reasons for the lack of women in the sport, most of them heavily oversimplified - why not give space of real debate? Why not encourage young girls to play somehow? (With stuff like Cue Zone Into Schools, there is even a ready structure for the extra step to be taken). Why not bring it up during the commentary?
I think there is hope for women in the game - as Reanne noted, it’s incredibly popular in China, and growing in Eastern Europe - amongst men and women alike. There, there may not be as many ironclad perceptions within communities about who can or can’t play snooker.
And of course, there are also women like me - quietly furious and fuming, who tomorrow will go straight down to the local club and put in those obsessive 8 hours as a special tribute to those BBC editors and anyone who agrees with them. It’s the least I could do.