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From the Desk of Christine Merser: Burning Question - Do We Need 'Women Only' Events?

I co-founded Women’s World of Backgammon three short years ago with one of the top women players in the world, Karen Davis. One of the things we have done is initiate and support women-only events to give women the experience they need to compete in a male-dominated sport. As we have gained ground, both in tournament results and in numbers showing up to play, there has been increased conversation around why women need women-only tournaments. We put out this response today to the backgammon community, but I think it's true for more than backgammon. Boardrooms. Funding presentations. And the list goes on. Backgammon is one of the few places where men and women compete equally. It has given me confidence and acumen in business, as well as backgammon.


I thought you might find it interesting.




The Burning Question: Why do Women Need 'Women Only' Events


Women's World of Backgammon Mission Statement: To promote women's participation, place, and preeminence in competitive backgammon.


You will read in this month's newsletter that the first-ever Women's World Team Championship tournament will take place in Sweden in July. Why is this important? After all, women regularly compete in various events open to both men and women. Some might ask why women need their own separate tournaments to compete? We thought you might be interested in our response to the question, with the understanding and open-minded curiosity to hear anyone's input after reading our thoughts.


In the summer of 2021, when we (Christine and Karen) first discussed women in backgammon and the challenges faced in competing in a male-dominated arena, we set out to find out why only 12% of tournament participants were women. We asked women whom we met along the way why they didn't play in tournaments or register for the main Championship, Masters Jackpot, or BMAB events. We heard stories about intimidation, not feeling welcome, or being treated poorly. And we heard from men as well. One of the top players in the world brought his wife to compete, and she was treated so poorly by a competitor that she never played in a tournament again.


As we dug into the data, we were shocked to see just how few women are top competitors. Only 6 percent of Championship division players in the U.S. are women. Only 5 out of about 50 Backgammon World Champions are women. Only 6 out of almost 300 BMAB Grandmasters or Masters are women. 


In 2022, we joined with Backgammon Galaxy to do a survey of backgammon players and asked survey respondents why they didn't play in tournaments or as many tournaments as they would like. The number one reason women gave was that they felt intimidated. They also reported lower skill levels than men but were strongly interested in improving their game. They were equally enthusiastic about playing, as evidenced by the fact that they played online as often as men. 


We've built on this interest in online play by creating the Women's World of Backgammon Mixed Doubles tournament; our third year doing it online is in session right now. Thirty-five teams from 16 countries competed this year. The first year, some women partners were quiet or very deferential to their male partners. Two short years later, we are delighted to see women's voices are stronger when playing, and women are stepping up to serve as commentators. The growth in women's confidence is palpable. 


But large-scale change doesn't come without focused and dedicated effort. It's interesting that Melinda Gates has just split off her funds from the Gates Foundation to focus her giving—more than $2 billion over the coming two years—on women's issues. Only two percent of charitable giving was to women-specific organizations, and she has acted to help correct that imbalance. 


When you are coming from so far behind that you can't catch up, you need the camaraderie, the safety, the support, and the mentorship of your own to catch up. If we have special events at tournaments, where a woman can show up for the first time to compete, without an additional burden of concern about her treatment and entry to the world of competition, she is more likely to take the plunge.


Our intention is not, and never has been, to give added advantage to women playing tournaments. It's to provide an introduction to tournament play in a fair and level playing field. And, let's face it, the results speak for themselves. 


Women are clearly not starting from the same position as men. Our mission at Women’s World of Backgammon is "to promote women’s participation, place, and preeminence in competitive backgammon." To do this, we have a number of different initiatives, from peer coaching, lessons online, key speaker events, and women’s competitions. Many of these initiatives are open to men as well as women, but the women’s only tournament is meant to be a safe, respectful, and comfortable space for women to enter competition, especially when they are starting out. Having said that, we absolutely want women to compete in the mixed tournament events as they gain confidence. The women’s tournament is in addition to, not instead of, the main competitions. 


We have had fantastic support from many men in helping with these initiatives, and when we have held learning sessions, there have been men leading these and other men attending. In our peer coaching, many of the coaches have been men. So we see this as a collaborative effort to further our mission. We hope men will understand this and continue to join us in promoting women in the game.


We look forward to celebrating the time when the transition from 12% participation to 50% takes place. We’re beginning to see modest progress – more women playing and winning in Intermediate divisions, more women moving up to test their skills in the Masters/Championship division. And, women are increasingly playing in BMAB events as well, both as a means of setting personal benchmarks against which to assess progress and to qualify for certification at higher skill levels.


Women's World of Backgammon has a clear, attainable mission: to promote women's participation, place, and preeminence in competitive backgammon. Right now, that includes sponsoring and supporting events where we can gain confidence with the support of each other to get to the Master's class that some aspire to hold. 


And, we'd also like to thank so many backgammon directors and players for their support in our efforts. They want a larger, more highly skilled competitive field. 


So do we. 


As always, we welcome your thoughts. 


-- Karen Davis, Melanie Hughes, Irina Litzenberger, and Christine Merser

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