Quiz Bowls and Women: Can Trivia Be Sexist? 

What Women Really Think
May 14 2012 5:16 PM

The Plight of the Lady Quiz-Bowler 

Women have it tougher in the game of trivia.

Robert Kneschke / Shutterstock.com

Reading Alan Siegel’s story on quiz bowl, I was thrilled to recognize so many facets of my own college quiz bowl years: the desk-slapping of frustrated players, the never-ending crusade to balance in-depth knowledge and rote memorization, and even Yale team member Kevin Koai, a friend of mine from when we were both on the Stanford team as undergraduates. But there was one key part of my experience Siegel didn’t cover: what it was like to be a female quiz bowler in an overwhelmingly male setting.

As a girl, you’re never just answering trivia questions about canonical literature and scientific principles. You always have something to prove—when men mess up, it’s perceived as an individual failure, but when women mess up, it reflects badly on their entire gender. I got a 5—the highest possible score—on the Calculus BC AP test in high school, but when a math question came up in quiz bowl, I wouldn’t even listen to it for fear that I’d answer it wrong and reinforce stereotypes about female innumeracy.


Once, when I got a middling individual score at a competition, a teammate tried to encourage me by telling me I’d done well “for a girl.” He wasn’t being condescending; in fact, he was being accurate. I had gotten a higher score than most other female players, though it was unimpressive overall. Why didn’t more girls perform better that weekend? And why are female players so underrepresented on greatest-players lists like the one Siegel linked?

Well, that’s another problem with being a lady quiz bowler: societal anxiety surrounding gender and intelligence. Girls have hewn out the cultural space to be smart—as has been amply documented and sometimes fretted about, they’re now outperforming boys academically—but they’re not yet allowed to brag about it. It’s not uncommon to see girls (and women) pretending to know less than they do in order to, say, smooth over a disagreement about what actor was in which movie. If you’ve been raised not to show off how much you know, you might find it uncomfortable to play a game whose entire ridiculous point is to show off how much you know.

Plus, like any other male-dominated sphere, quiz bowl can occasionally get downright hostile toward women. When the Rape of the Sabine Women came up in a question one practice, a guy argued that it shouldn’t be called a rape, because the Romans married the women they abducted, and it doesn’t really count as rape if a husband does it to a wife.

“Even when your husband kidnapped you and married you against your will?” I asked.

“Look, women were property back then,” he said. “Your postmodern ideas about humanity don’t apply.”

Clearly, intelligent and well-meaning as they may be, men in predominantly male environments have fewer opportunities to learn about and become sensitive to, uh, “postmodern ideas of humanity.” And that makes it a tricky thing to be a woman in quiz bowl.

I’d be lying, though, if I said that being the only girl wasn’t also the easiest part of quiz bowl. You get a lot of attention, because all you have to do to be unique and memorable is show up. The flipside of the idea that girls can’t be good at trivia is that when you are, you’re considered special, maybe a little cooler than other girls. For me—and for many of the nerdy sort of girls quiz bowl attracts—this was a revelation, the first time being a socially maladroit know-it-all turned out well. Still, the lack of female energy leaves something to be desired, which is why, you’re more likely to find me at pub trivia these days, a land where free booze flows for correct answers and there are usually plenty of women around.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.