I have been reading Shared Fantasy by Gary Fine. You can check out my previous posts here and here. In the latter half of Chapter 2, he devotes quite a bit of space to the curious lack of women gamers. He offers three explanations as to why that is: characteristics of women; the process of recruitment into the gaming world; and reactions of men to the presence of women players and female characters.
First, as previously noted, recall that this book was based on research done between 1977 and 1979. The nature of our hobby and the generally accepted theories of gender roles have changed since then. I think that several of these points still ring true, however.
Characteristics of Women
According to Fine and his sources, there is a general difference between "male" play and "female" play. Specifically, "boys tend to write longer and richer stories than girls do, and their fantasies are more likely to include aggression, self-assertion, and material objects." The first part indicates that women do not have the attention span for four to eight hour gaming sessions. The second, that women generally aren't interested in killing things and taking their stuff.
Personally, I'll strongly disagree with the first part. I am going to point to one community in particular that is largely dominated by women, most of whom succeed in writing very rich and long stories: fanfic. Now, I am willing to concede that my counter-example probably is not sufficient to disprove the cited psychological studies. But, I think that it is evidence that either those studies are flawed, or gender roles have changed so radically in the intervening decades that the studies are no longer relevant. (As a note, the study that prompted the quote above was published in 1943, though most of the other studies in the chapter date from the 70s.)
I will concede the second point, though. I will add the caveat, though, that we are talking about very broad generalizations. Eighty percent of women might not be interested in standard gaming pursuits, but self-selection could well mean that eighty percent of "gamer girls" are. When I look at fiction produced by and for women, though, I have to admit that most of it revolves around themes of love, family, and emotional drama. Very little of it focuses on war, exploration, or high action. So, we may need to admit that the majority of women are not going to be interested in the same sorts of stories commonly told in RPGs.
As an interesting note, Fine quotes a study that young boys actually engage in less imaginative play than young girls, preferring physical play. However, RPGs, most particularly the older sort that are closer to their wargaming roots, actually represent that physical play. "The physical role-playing of childhood [is] tamed into a verbal activity." I must admit that this is a factor that I had never considered before.
Recruitment of Women
This is, I think, a fairly obvious problem. Gaming originally grew out of wargaming, a hugely male-dominated hobby. It is now linked to video gaming, also, until recently, male-dominated. Further, it is generally tied to fantasy and science fiction. In the 70s, those were heavily male-dominated genres, though that is certainly not true any more.
So, the typical paths of recruitment into the hobby are from other hobbies that also have lower percentages of female participation. I'm fairly sure that if someone could develop an RPG (that wasn't called an RPG, to avoid existing stereotypes) that drew off of soap operas and prime time dramas (e.g., Grey's Anatomy), it would have a disproportionately large female fan base. Especially if you could market it to draw on the existing internet community.
The lack of female role models in genre fiction is another contributing factor. As Fine points out in the book, the best female warrior role model at the time was Red Sonja. Even today, the lack of strong women in the fiction is a matter of much discussion among fans. With no such role models to draw women into genre fiction, it becomes harder to interest them in role playing in the genre. As science fiction and fantasy has moved much more into the mainstream, that has changed somewhat. I've heard more than one report of wives becoming interested in giving D&D a shot after watching Game of Thrones. But, it is certainly still a factor.
Finally, of course, you have the self-reinforcing factor that women tend to mostly socialize with other women, and men with men. When it is hard to get even one woman involved in a game, it becomes very difficult for the idea of gaming to spread to other women. I have noticed, personally, that a disproportionate number of female gamers profess to not like other women. Since they tend to break the trend and socialize as "one of the guys," they are more likely to be exposed to gaming. (The fact that many women get introduced to gaming through a significant other is a factor that we will see more of below.)
One of the interviews in the book summed it up incredibly well: "They're not invited to get involved, so they don't get involved."
Attitudes of Males
Okay, there are a lot of references and anecdotes in this section that I find incredible. I have never been in a group that would have tolerated this behavior, even the group where the DM was a misogynistic gay man. But, from what I have heard from other women, these groups do exist, and in greater numbers than I would believe. My faith in humanity ebbs just a little more.
Most of the attitudes are not so harmful. Existing gamers may feel that their masculinity is threatened if a woman comes in and is better at the game. (Incidentally, I find the early strip of KotDT to be a great example of this attitude.) Men may make jokes that are fine when it's just the guys, but put some women into a difficult or uncomfortable position. Some guys may even turn it up a notch, as a way to either put the possibility of sex on the table (really? apparently so) or just because having a girl there adds a whole new dimension to previously tired jokes. (I think years of sexual harassment training have given all of us an idea of what kind of behavior this is.) Finally, of course, women will often encounter the blank stare and "YOU play D&D?" attitude. While not really insulting, usually, it's also certainly not welcoming.
Female gamers also have to struggle against another stereotype. Most women get introduced to the hobby through a boyfriend or husband. When they show up to the game, they are generally specifically viewed as an appendage of that significant other. Given some of the other sociological realities of the type of woman who is likely to be in this position, especially one in her teens, most gamers will have had some really bad experiences with visiting girlfriends of their friends. As such, there are stereotypes of the Distraction, the Whiner, the Manipulator, and so on. When a woman shows up who is legitimately interested in gaming, she already faces an uphill slog through some very unkind assumptions. A lot of women are unlikely to consider the game worth the effort.
Some attitudes that women encounter are harmful. First, you have men insisting on reinforcing medieval attitudes toward women. Women are property, with no rights of their own. I think that you see this attitude far less these days, especially as gaming companies have deliberately gone out of their way to make female characters viable in every setting. But, I'm sure it still crops up from time to time.
Second, as noted in previous chapters, sexual conquest, usually involving rape, was a frequent theme in the games that Fine observed. Some choice quotes:
"Because a lot of people I know go in and pick up a woman and just walk off. ... Some people get a little carried away and rape other people [in the game]. ... Well, I've see a lot of players just kind of calm down because of [females]."
"Dan and Alvin are talking about having their characters find a barmaid for the night. Alvin comments about his character's sexual prowess: 'I'll drown her in my squirt.'"
"Tom yells: 'I'm screaming at [the priestesses], 'Stop and be raped, you goddamn women!'' After all six are killed, Tom, still excited, suggests: 'Let's get gems and jewels and panties.'"Fine's own commentary after this last quote is also telling:
While Tom's reactions are extreme, he is never sanctioned by others. Given these examples, it is perhaps not surprising that few females participate in these games. ... Although females were not present when these comments were made, it is not surprising that male players do not invite their female friends to play. ... If female players were present, men would likely consider the game less 'fun,' and possibly make negative attributions to the female player.To which my only possible response is, "Really?" First of all, I deeply hope that the attitudes shown above are at least significantly less prevalent these days. Second, how can you possibly hope to attract women to your games when you allow your fellow gamers to spew filth like that? I just really have nothing else I can say. I'm flummoxed.