September 20, 2022 - 1:39pm

I’m average height for a woman. Men tend to be taller than me, by about 15 centimetres, but it has never occurred to me that I could do anything about it. This, it turns out, is sheer laziness on my part: I just haven’t tried hard enough to overcome my socialisation. It all started at school, when I meekly accepted ‘the idea that boys are inherently bigger, faster, and stronger than girls in a competitive setting’.

Now I learn from an article in The Atlantic that this is ‘a notion that’s been challenged by scientists for years’. If only I hadn’t been so conformist, I could have challenged ‘this binary in youth sports’, played football with the boys and I might now be playing left-back for Chelsea. (The men’s team, not the women’s, because enforcing segregation by sex in sport is so last century.)

‘Separating sports by sex doesn’t make sense’ is the bold claim in The Atlantic, which is the latest institution to fall prey to magical thinking. It’s the headline above an article about a girl from the Bronx, who had to submit to a battery of tests before being allowed to join a boys’ football team. That’s because of rules passed by New York State Education Department in 1985, which were designed to protect girls from injury in competitions. Shira Mandelzis was eventually allowed to play with the boys but she has decided to leave the school instead. This being the US, she has retained a lawyer who is challenging the regulations, claiming they violate Mandelizis’s rights under the Constitution.

It might seem harmless enough for a girl to aspire to play football with boys, but sport is currently the frontline of a battle over biological sex. The spectacle of male athletes who identify as women towering over female competitors at medal ceremonies has alarmed people who hadn’t previously given the issue much thought. In this country and the US, parents of talented teenage girls have spoken out about the unfairness of their daughters suddenly having to compete with boys who are bigger, stronger and have heavier bones. 

Proponents of extreme gender ideology are on the back foot in their attempts to dismantle the entire category of girls’ and women’s sport. So now we’re seeing a linguistic sleight of hand in which what used to be called ‘protection’ is recast as ‘segregation’. Keeping separate categories for girls and boys, and men and women, is no longer about fairness and safety; it’s about preventing individuals from fulfilling their potential. In order to gain maximum support from the public, the ideology needs girls like Mandelzis who are not trans but are ‘challenging the binary sports system’.

The article grudgingly acknowledges that ‘sex differences in sport show advantages in men’ but goes on to make the jaw-dropping claim that ‘researchers today still don’t know how much of this to attribute to biological difference versus the lack of support provided to women athletes to reach their highest potential’. All it takes is to give a girl a sports scholarship and she’ll soon be beating men in straight sets at Flushing Meadows.

No amount of support for girls’ and women’s sport can eliminate the fact that men are more muscular than women, while women are just over half as strong as men in their upper bodies and have about two-thirds as much strength in their lower bodies. 

The obvious solution, which is to have women’s, men’s and open sports categories, is anathema to gender extremists because it doesn’t achieve the aim of eliminating single-sex spaces — sorry, I mean challenging the strict gender binary. If only I’d known the jargon when I was a teenager, I might even have grown those crucial 15 centimetres. 

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.