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Kicking the leadership gap

Standing in the fourth row of black belts at the 116th ITF Taekwon-do International Instructor Course in New York, I witnessed a real-life representation of the gender leadership gap.  Women were well-represented in the ranks of 1st Degrees, showed up to a lesser extent among 2nd and 3rd Dans, could be seen here and there in my line of 4th Dans, but only one or two stood in the front three lines. I literally got goose bumps when a woman was promoted to Master (7th Degree), joining just one other female Master in the room. It made me want to ask them: How? What’s the secret? 

The decrease in female representation with seniority is not unique to martial arts, of course.  One of the best visualizations of the leadership gap in business appears here.  Similar trends had shown up in academia and in politics. The reasons for these gaps remind me of the reasons why there aren’t more female Taekwon-do Masters.


Taekwon-do (ITF) was founded by General Choi Hong Hi on April 11, 1955. For the first 20 years or so, women were not allowed to train in the art, and the first female competitors appeared in the World Championships in 1978. According to the (current) official regulations, it would take a practitioner a minimum of about 25 years to attain the rank of Master. Thus, from the get-go, women lagged behind, simply due to lack of experience, with men having a 23-year head start.  This kind of historical lag applies to some extent to all originally male-dominated areas from politics to finance to academia, making it challenging for women to catch up.


But now there are no explicit barriers to entry into Taekwon-do, or any other activity or occupation for that matter. So, here comes the first of the implicit barriers: the disproportionate expectation of child-rearing that falls upon women.  Here, let’s ignore for a moment the real possibility that many women actually prefer to be primary caretakers (see subsection on preferences below), and focus on the societal perception that all women must sacrifice career ambitions in favor of family life. Then, it is not so surprising that even serious female Taekwon-do students fall out of practice around 4th Dan, right when they are in their late 20s/early 30s – the prime age in the US for marriage and child-bearing.  Yes, there is a real physical difference between men and women: women cannot really practice martial arts when they are about to give birth (though see my very pregnant pic below). But, once the natural hiatus happens and the baby arrives, priorities begin to shift resulting in a greatly reduced likelihood of the mother returning to her practice.  This latter part is simply not the same for a man, whose stereotypical role allows him to continue pre-children activities with little interruption. Princeton public-policy scholar, Anne-Marie Slaughter, sites care-giving obligations as a main driver of gender inequality in the workforce. Research by Claudia Goldin, a Harvard economist, shows that women choose to pursue occupations and activities that allow greatest flexibility to juggle work and family obligations. In return for this flexibility, some women accept lower wages and relinquish the ambition to climb to higher ranks (in Taekwon-do, as well as in the office).


What if women simply dislike certain aspects of Taekwon-do that are essential for advancing in the art? A similar question can be asked more broadly: Are there innate gender differences in preferences that can explain the prevalence of men in certain professions? Together with my colleague, Catherine Eckel, I explore these questions in a paper written for a forthcoming Oxford Handbook on Women and the Economy.  Research in psychology and economics suggests that women do indeed exhibit different preferences: they are, on average, more risk averse, less willing to compete in stereotypically male-dominant environments, and less willing than men to engage in negotiations. Despite the many caveats and exceptions to these general trends which are explained in detail in our handbook chapter, these differences can help us further explain the leadership gap. 

Unobservable stuff

Finally, there are two polar opposite explanations that both fall in the “elephant in the room” category. The first is, <gasp>, ability.  In Taekwon-do, it is easy to see that biological differences can drive some of the pure physical ability gap. A man and a woman who both weigh 160 pounds and who are both at the intermediate skill level can bench press 196 and 116 lbs, respectively (see here).  To draw the analogy to cognitive ability: there are confirmed differences in male and female brains. However, just like there is no evidence that these brain differences translate into inferior performance by women as leaders or as managers (in fact, some argue that it’s quite the contrary), there is no reason to think that physical differences should cause women to be inferior as Taekwon-do practitioners, in general. In fact, one could argue that women and children stand to benefit the most from the confidence boost and the self-defense aspects of the art. Therefore, I would argue that baseline ability differences should not be a factor.

The second category is, of course, discrimination. That is, two individuals who start a particular activity at the same time, who have the same background, experience, and training, who have the same preferences and family responsibilities are treated differently. Because there is no way for us to find truly comparable individuals in every respect, other than gender, it is next to impossible to prove existence of pure discrimination. However, plenty of studies suggest that implicit bias, rooted in stereotypes and biased beliefs, is real.

So, what’s the path to becoming a “Female Master?”

Unfortunately, I don’t have a quick-and-easy answer for how to become a “Female Master” in professions where men greatly outnumber women.  I will continue to post more thoughts on this in my later entries. Here, I will just speak to my own experience that only applies to Taekwon-do “Master-hood,” and explain why I have an actual shot at it:
  • I have the experience and the ability (20+ years of training)
  • I have the confidence to know the above
  • I am married to another Taekwon-do practitioner and a great life partner who is dedicated to us both continuing our progress in Taekwon-do (to be sure, the majority of female 4th Dans and higher who have children must fall into this category – see the Life part above)
  • I have perhaps “weird” preferences (people tell me as much): I love Taekwon-do despite being somewhat risk-averse
  • I am stubborn and I want to break stereotypes: I am dedicated to working on introducing more women to Taekwon-do
Perhaps, these points might apply more broadly than just to Taekwon-do after all.

Continuing on the path! (Photo credit: Luis Mejia Optik Elements)

8 months pregnant with my son at Central Taekwon-do Academy

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