Fixing the Gender Balance in Mixed Ultimate


indexIt’s pretty clear to anyone who has watched or played much mixed that the VAST majority of teams will play with more men than women when given the choice.

How can this be rational? Surely it must be pretty much exactly 50% of the time that you’ll be better off with your women vs their women instead of your men vs their men. And wherever you have the advantage, you’d want more of that gender on the pitch.

Even if one team has better men and better women than the opponent, there must normally be one or the other where the difference is lower, and it’s simply not conceivable that both teams can rationally prefer playing with more men.

But here’s the thing – the rules as currently written do not ask you whether you think your women or your men are your best bet to win any given point. They ask you to decide whether you think more men or more women will help you win THIS point – and this point is offence

Imagine that you believe you have the advantage in your women versus this opponent. But imagine also that you believe your men are less likely to turn over the disc on a given throw¹. These are not contradictory.

The upshot would probably be what we see all the time – every team wishing to maximise their chance of scoring on this possession. Every team wishes to maximise the advantage of starting the point on offence. Sure, if you play 4 women and turn it over, the other team aren’t quite as likely to score, given that their women (and hence, perhaps, their 7 players in total) aren’t as good as yours. But D-line offence isn’t always so hard as starting from the pull – perhaps you turn early and give them good field position, or perhaps they can hit a fast break². Most teams will prefer to pick the line least likely to turn over, and most captains generally believe that line has more men on it – rightly or wrongly.

Even though you might, if given the choice, prefer to play the whole game with 4 women against this opponent, you can easily persuade yourself that you’re better off playing each particular offence point with 4 men. That sounds weird, certainly, but looking at how much more often 4 men are played, something weird is definitely going on!

I think it would be hugely interesting to change the way that the 4/3 decision is made. I honestly believe that allowing the defence to choose instead would result in far more 4-women points, given most player’s beliefs about the opposition’s chance of scoring. Perhaps that would result in more even playing time overall. Or perhaps we’d simply have the reverse situation, where most D-lines prefer more women³.

But maybe the ‘offence chooses’ rule was designed to avoid long runs of points with one team having the advantage – as it’s currently played, the team who just conceded get to choose, so there’s no additional reason to see runs of consecutive breaks. Giving the defence the choice would mean a team could press home an advantage for a prolonged period. That might be fun sometimes, but it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

So perhaps we should take it in turns. We could swap the choice each point – so regardless of whether it’s O or D, team A chooses one point and team B chooses the next. But maybe that could get very confusing trying to remember what’s happening.

But then, what’s wrong with a simple swap of 4:3 to 3:4 each point? Even points, 4 women; odd points, 4 men (or in the other order – perhaps you call it one way or the other at the toss?). It’s easy to remember; you don’t have to wait for the other team to make a decision before calling your own line; and it’s spectacularly fair to whichever team is strongest overall.

I’m really interested to hear why that wouldn’t work. It seems much less of a jump than playing 6v6 or 8v8 to fix the gender imbalance issue (and it keeps the interesting strategy aspects of having a slight but varying uneven split). The only ‘flaw’ I can think of is very short term – e.g. “There are more men than women on these teams, so it wouldn’t work!” which rather has the causality backwards…

If you can think of big problems that I’m missing I’d be keen to hear them! But if we think Mixed should be truly mixed, with broadly even numbers of men and women on each team getting broadly even amounts of pitch time, then it seems to me that changing how we choose that ratio might be sensible.

[Edit: Someone did of course quickly spot the big flaw I’d missed, that in upwind/downwind games we can’t swap each point – see comments. There are lots of different options being discussed for how we could find a better way, which is great. But one or two people, here or on FB or twitter, have missed what I intended to be the main thrust of the article – that ‘offence chooses’ results in less tactical innovation than other options. Four men is the default not because people think it’s their best way to win the game in general, but because it’s what every team wants to do on offence. Sure, things like having more male players in your squad will affect the lines you call, but that doesn’t account for the fact that some HUGE proportion of points seem to be played with 4 men.

People who say they enjoy the strategy of mixed as it is, or that we should just trust the players to figure out when 4 women would be advantageous to them, are missing the point – people have figured it out, and the default strategy for most teams is a very boring ‘always 4 men’ because they want to keep possession. Insofar as we want to even up playing time (and of course, I realise that not everyone agrees with that motivation) I think we should look at ways to change who chooses.]

¹ I’m certainly not saying this is automatically the case. Let me be really clear on that! I don’t wish to write a post suggesting a way to improve female playing time in Mixed and at the same time insult half the population. There is no fundamental reason why women should turn over more than men, and where we do see stats where that is the case a large part of the reason is probably the negative stereotyping throughout their development.
But either way, the argument only requires that the majority of captains believe their men will turn over less – and usage stats from Mixed certainly do imply that the men are trusted to touch the disc a great deal more often in general.
² I suspect you can make a mathematical case that in this situation (your women are better than theirs but your men turn over less often) you could rationally maximise your chance of scoring by choosing four men on offence. Someone with more maths than me can have a play maybe. But if not, it doesn’t really matter – the psychological fear of turning over on offence will cause most people to choose four men in this circumstance even if a four-women, multi-turn point would be mathematically more likely to go your way.
³ I doubt it actually – the current imbalance in numbers (more male players to choose from) and, frankly, the ego of the male players, would probably still see the men play slightly more than their fair share. (But at least we’d then have proof that they were being irrational, if they continued to dominate play time under an opposite set of incentives!)
But for sure there would be much more opportunity to experiment with four women.
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19 Responses to Fixing the Gender Balance in Mixed Ultimate

  1. Dan Godbold says:

    I think part of the problem is also the ‘default’ mind set. Similar to person D vs zone D. 4m/3w is the default. If it doesn’t work you just weren’t doing it right. 3m/4w is different, and if it doesn’t work it’s the fault of the strategy, go back to 4m/3w. Similarly, man/person D is the default, if it doesn’t work you just need to be better at it. Zone is unusual, if it doesn’t work, go back to one on one.

    To really compare the two, you need to shock teams/players out of this default mindset. This idea could have a chance at doing that. I’d be interested in participating in a tournament that had this rule (perhaps it’s something LWL could trial?) and I’ll certainly look at getting this going at a training or two…

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  2. Upwind v Downwind. If you’ve got stronger handlers of one gender then you want them on upwind. If you’re giving up breaks going into the wind because of weaker throwers in the first half then it’s a huge disadvantage going into the second half even though you’re then playing upwind with your preferred gender split.

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    • Interesting. Good point. Maybe 2 points 4:3 and then 2 points 3:4? Or maybe we actually are better off with the idea that we alternate who chooses – in an upwind/downwind game, that would balance out fine I think?

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      • It’s an interesting theory, but I think it could introduce as much unfairness as it’s aiming to repair.
        What if a team has a few injuries to a single gender (that they’ve already short on because of dropouts…), but is still forced to play half the points with more of that gender. What happens at 16-16 when one or both teams could be forced to play with their sub-optimal lineups (regardless of which way the split goes). Teams are going to get upset with the rules rather than thinking it’s something within their control (“We only lost because we finished on a 4 men/women point…”)

        Trying to change the imbalance should be a culture/tactics shift rather than a blanket ruling…

        I’d be interested in seeing whether some teams start intentionally playing 4 women as the default as all the teams playing default 4 men would be forced to play a game they aren’t as practiced in.

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        • Graham says:

          A team losing because it’s had a few injuries to a single gender, which they’re already short of because of drop-outs, can happen in the current scheme. More often that happens with women, though it could happen with men too. In that scenario, the stronger squad would win (not necessarily the strongest 7 players, but we’re not talking iron man tournaments) which is fair. If the rules were changed to enforce a more even gender-split, teams will just have to adjust by fielding more even squads (6 men & 6 women, instead of 7 & 5, as is more common now). That will mean that fewer teams will be able to enter tournaments (because there aren’t as many women as men playing) but that’s something else that need to be addressed, not something we should jsut accept and work around.

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          • I agree, but teams not entering tournaments because they don’t have enough women to consistently field enough because of rules is counterintuitive to getting more women to play ultimate… I’d rather have a 7&5 team that fields 3 women every point of every game than a 7&5 team that decides not to play because they feel they don’t have enough women to play 4 women 50% of the time… (Though that completely ignores the fact that their opponents will likely play 4 women if they suspect they can win by tiring out the women…)

            My point was that it shouldn’t be a rule if teams aren’t able to currently fit into it and it will force players to play less, as that’s completely against the suggested point of introducing the rule in the first place.

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            • Wayne says:

              Just wondering…
              How many teams actually have to put a cap on the number of women they take to a tournament?
              Do women that play Mixed have “better things to do” with their weekends? i.e. are there more women happily attending training (a couple of hours, a couple of times a week in variable weather conditions) than attending tournaments (a whole weekend, potentially cold & wet – esp in the UK). Does this lead to an apparent ‘shortage’ of women for tournaments, resulting in teams taking only 4-6 women to a tournament (along with 8-10m), resulting in deciding to generally play 4m/3w so that the women may not tire too soon?
              Do the clubs that could bring 10w+ to a tournament therefore field 2 teams (so more men can play as well?)?
              These musings are probably more related to “Grass Roots” ultimate – and wouldn’t explain the strategic decision making made for ‘Elite’ Club and/or National teams.

              [I have historically played on a Mixed team that favoured playing 4 women as much as possible, including (somewhat controversially) winning a day of tournament pool play by playing a short-handed 6 (4w/2m) all day – the result of a combination of the abilities of the women involved and application of an effective strategy for playing 6 v 7]

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          • Although if there comes a time when there is no chance that a team wouldn’t be able to field the required number of players of either gender every point then it could be discussed.
            I still feel like “Offense chooses” is a perfectly fine rule to stick with, and that teams should be strategizing and training for 4 women play as an alternate strategy whatever their personnel rather than only if they feel they have better matchups with 4 women on the field (much like teams should train for zone play as well as person to person play as mentioned in another comment).

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  3. Erik Postma says:

    Well, for my eternally-near-the-bottom-of-the-ranks mixed city league team, the causality is not reversed: I always have to disappoint men who are interested in playing on my team and scramble to find women. I also hear the same from teams in the area that I know well.

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    • Graham says:

      I agree, it’s not exactly right that the causality is reversed. Teams don’t favour 4m3w tactically because they’ve chosen to bring a squad with more men than women. Teams bring squads with more men then women because more men than women play the sport. But the article is right that that’s a separate (hopefully short term) issue that needs to be addressed, so it shouldn’t be a reason to not try to address the gender imbalance in default tactics at the moment.

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      • CJ says:

        The question though is do less women play the sport because of how the sport is played rather than do less women play the sport because it simply isn’t as appealing to them.

        If it’s because of how the sport is played then increasing the amount of women playing the sport would increase the amount of women playing the sport, if that makes sense.

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  4. Robse says:

    May you try repairing something that does not need to be fixed? Leave the choice to the teams, who use it strategically and accept the outcome.

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  5. Lots of interesting ideas here. If we’re making an assumption that rules can be changed/added then I think it’s better to go backwards and look at the underlying problem rather than adding rules on rules on rules. The real problem is that if there’s an odd number of people on the field, you can’t split genders equally. So that’s where we should start, lets change ultimate to an even number of players on the field. And we can change the field size if we really want, and anything else really. Our sport is in its 40s, will likely look way different from now. I think our sport is young enough that we can challenge these norms to benefit the long term. Is there a really great reason that the sport is 7v7? Or has 40yard wide fields? They can change!

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    • A fair point. But I confess I personally love the added tactical/strategic element of varying 3:4 and 4:3. Different zone shape with different personnel? Love that stuff.

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      • pooner16 says:

        Agreed. What I like about 7v7 Mixed is that it is left up to captains to choose the Gender majority as they see fit. Sort of like SOTG leaving most infractions in players’ hands, leaving the issue of gender management / opportunity to the players somewhat (at least on Offense).

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    • Sam Harkness says:

      I agree with Mario that you have to go deeper and make some changes at the root of the problem and not build on top.

      If you were to ask me to describe mixed ultimate to someone who knew what ultimate was, but was curious to know about coed play, I would tell them this.

      – Mixed is a space for men to play ultimate… oh and women are invited to play too.

      I think originally the intent for mixed was to create an equal space for men and women to play together. Perhaps membership ratios (more men than women) played a role in playing with the specific numbers 7v7 once upon a time. Blinded by the good intentions and ideals mixed ultimate holds, we are failing to see the impact it’s having. The impact being summed up in my statement above, that women are an afterthought in mixed.

      We need to be paying attention to intent vs impact when it comes to gender balance discussions. Without taking accountability for the impact of our statements and rules made, people can get away with saying things like “But imagine also that you believe your men are less likely to turn over the disc on a given throw¹.” and ignore the impact of a statement where you just said women are more likely to turn it over because you had the best of intentions in this imaginary scenario. Or the idea that the powers that be who made the 7v7 rule in mixed intended to get more women involved, not create ANOTHER space for men to play ultimate.

      It’s strange to me that you are looking at a gender imbalance in mixed ultimate from a strategic standpoint and are wondering what changes need to be made to bring balance. I will tell you right now that the larger problem is that the sport is run by men. Take a look at the USAU board of directors, their CEO, their HQ staff, WFDF’s president, WFDF’s BOD (I think there is only 2 women on this), anyone running the pro-leauges, and I would even take a look at the smaller level league’s staff and even captains of mixed teams at nationals and worlds and tell me how many more men are in power than women. I think you’ll find a better answer as to why most teams play mixed 4 men and 3 women.

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      • Thanks Sam – really interesting. I think you’re right in a lot of what you say; for sure there need to be far more women in positions of power.

        It is a very difficult conundrum. I mean, at almost all levels (due to the smaller number of female players, and hence less depth) it’s genuinely true that the women on a mixed team ARE weaker throwers – not because they’re women, but because they come from a smaller pool. As a decidedly average player myself, I’ve seen multiple occasions where I and those like me are unable to play mixed due to lack of space on teams but women with 3 months experience are drafted in to make up the numbers (note – I’m happy that that happens, not saying there should be more opportunities for men; I’m just making the point that inexperienced women will definitely end up playing with experienced men). On average, across all levels of play, the women in a mixed team are less experienced.

        It’s hard to talk about that in a way which isn’t divisive, and which doesn’t run the risk of having an impact other than the intent. But I do think the effects of that are hurting the mixed division and it is a conversation worth having.

        I’d be interested in what you think the specific result would be of having more women involved in governance. I agree it would certainly be beneficial in lots of ways, but in this specific case of mixed Ultimate, what could be done differently? As I say, the very real phenomenon of the women being less experienced than the men on most mixed teams isn’t going to go away overnight, and regardless of the intent or the culture of the team captains (if we create a better, more gender-neutral environment), they’re going to keep calling offence with 4 guys if they think that will win the point. What would you do differently?

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  6. pooner16 says:

    This crowd seems a little more serious than reddit, I was wondering what yall thought about this proposal: For “official” Mixed events, cap the max per gender at half the roster’s max.
    So currently in USAU TCT events, 14 M or 14 F max. Not sure of the roster caps elsewhere, but TDs could also potentially set their own maxes. (A savage Mixed tourney would be as Crazy Eights!, 4F/4M)
    I am interested in the arguments for and against this proposal.

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