The Battle of the Sexes and the National Spelling Bee

Judging by the American workplace, the battle between the sexes rages hotter than ever. With the two genders now approaching parity, the jockeying in cubicles and management teams threatens (or promises) to upend millenniums-old assumptions about power and dominance. Adding heat to the conflict: now more than ever, both genders can claim victory.

Score one for the women. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tells us that women now hold the majority of managerial and professional jobs- 51.4 percent – almost double the percentage held in 1980. In another big reversal, in 39 of the 50 largest American cities, young, unmarried childless women earn more than their male counterparts. The reason: young women are now better educated. As journalist Hanna Rosin points out in her widely read “End of Men” article, “Women now earn 60 percent of master’s degrees, about half of all law and medical degrees, and 42 percent of all M.B.A.s. Most important, women earn almost 60 percent of all bachelor’s degrees—the minimum requirement, in most cases, for an affluent life.”

Given the surging success of women, it appears men are soon to be relinquished to the secretarial pool. Their role will be to fetch coffee and keep the office up to date on the latest Knicks-Lakers contest while enthusing about the latest Call of Duty videogame release.

But wait, not so fast, say men. Even a cursory glance across boardrooms and managerial teams reveals that male dominance won’t be ending anytime soon. The stats remain stubborn. Women earn just 77 percent of each dollar earned by men annually, and across the 40 most common occupations, men bring home heftier paychecks in nearly every one. Could this be because men are still in charge? Among the Fortune 1000, a mere 35 have women sitting in the CEO chair.

On balance, let’s face it, men still have the edge in the working world.

Of course the workplace competition between men and women is anything but a pure contest of abilities. Instead it’s a reflection of a long legacy of ingrained sexism, of male dominance, of a deck that’s been stacked distinctly against women. The workplace battle between the sexes is a rigged contest.

But what if the contest were fair? What if the pushing and shoving for power in Cubicle Land were based purely on merit, not a legacy of sexism. In this hypothetical, which gender would hold dominance?

A big question, one that’s hopelessly emotionally and culturally freighted. Any social scientist attempting to answer with a gender-blind test would face nearly insurmountable challenges. First, of course, the contest would have to be scrupulously referred from start to finish, to ensure it was purely meritocratic, without a hint of gender bias. Most difficult, it would require decades of data. Determining something as momentous as which genders would take the top spot certainly couldn’t be revealed in, say, one season of American Idol.

Impossible, right? Actually, the contest not only exists, it’s an iconic part of the American tradition. The National Spelling Bee has run annually since 1925. Cloaked in a hallowed aura of schoolmarm appropriateness, from its beginning the contest has suggested something deeply subversive: that boys and girls are equally equipped to do intellectual combat.

Back in an era when men by default held all the intellectually demanding jobs while women were consigned to home and helper roles, the Bee pitted boys and girls toe to toe in a true meritocracy. Regardless of gender, the winner has been the one most equipped with the work ethic, smarts and chutzpah – it takes courage to step up to that lone microphone – to navigate the torturous intricacies of the spelling of the English language. (The word judge takes an e, but judgment loses it; the word enough has an f sound. Go figure.)

So which gender wins in a completely fair contest? Since 1925, the score is: 46 wins for girls, 41 for boys. So there you go. In a meticulously refereed contest (fittingly held in Washington DC, the nation’s seat of power) girls hold a clear edge.

Or do they? If one were predisposed to spin the stats for the boys – okay, this argument’s a stretch, but bear with me – it could certainly be done. Up until about 1950, girls bested boys about two to one. Then, in the early 1950s, boys found their groove. By 1959, they had carried home the trophy eight years in a row (though one year was a tie between a boy and girl). Boys could launch another streak winning streak and pull decisively into the lead. Indeed, the five winners in the 2000-2004 period were all boys.

Alas, that method of spin can work both ways. The Bee gets increasingly competitive every year, with our current years demanding year-round hours-per-day dedication and familiarity with all the major language’s root structures (the American tongue steals from everywhere). In the hyper-competitive most recent years 2009-2011, girls won top honors every year.

The bottom line, really, is that in a purely meritocratic contest, neither gender holds a definitive lead. Sure, the numbers alone tell us the girls have a slight advantage, but each year’s tally is merely a snapshot in time, with every handful of years enabling the lead to change. The great battle of the sexes, if looked at purely as a contest of intellectual ability, rages on with no clear winner.

If we apply this truth back to the workplace, it’s good news for women. As the depressing legacy of sexism fades, women will continue to make overdue gains in an increasingly gender-blind and meritocratic workplace.

And for men? Well, at this point they hold a stronger position in the workplace than the Bee suggests they should, so they have some ground to lose. But don’t count them out. The boys are always capable of a winning streak. The timeless battle of the sexes remains perpetually undecided.

UPDATE: The champion is Snighda Nadipati, a young woman from San Diego, who won with “guetapens.” (Guetapens: an ambush, snare, or trap.)

James Maguire

James Maguire is the author of American Bee: Word Nerds and the Culture of the
National Spelling Bee.