Socialist Worker

Women's athletics: gender is more than just XX chromosomes

by Kelly Hilditch
Issue No. 2166

What defines a woman? The way you look? The way you dress?

The treatment of the South African athlete Caster Semenya over the past couple of weeks suggests that doing a little too well in your chosen field is one thing that will most certainly get tongues wagging.

Add short hair, strong features and a muscular physique and apparently it’s case closed – there’s no way you can be defined as female.

The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), in a statement released just hours before Semenya was due to race in the final of the world championships in Berlin, said she has to undergo gender verification.

She went on to win the race – which is apparently not very feminine. Where was all the emotional weeping? A real woman would surely not have been able to hold it together.

The IAAF has behaved in the most shameful way. This is the same organisation that, when an athlete is suspected of cheating – of deliberately taking performance enhancing drugs, for example – waits until it has the full details before making any public statements.

Instead, just hours before the final began, and weeks before the results of their tests could be known, the IAAF released a press statement that would throw Semenya, at just 18 years old, onto the front pages of newspapers across the world.

The IAAF’s decision to publicise Semenya’s case is incomprehensible, particularly in light of the devastating impact on athletes in previous cases. Middle distance runner Santhi Soundarajan attempted suicide after she was stripped of her 2006 Asian championships silver medal following a “failed” gender verification test.

Let’s be clear – Semenya is not being accused of being a man dressed as a woman, although this is the impression most tabloid readers will have. Nor is it being suggested that Semenya “used to be” a man.


If this were the case, the rules would be clearer. Athletes who have undergone gender reassignment surgery are legally recognised as a member of their chosen sex, and those who have undergone two years of hormonal therapy can compete in the Olympics.

Gender verification typically involves a gynaecologist, an endocrinologist, a psychologist and an internal medicine specialist.

It has a shaky reputation. The Journal of the American Medical Association described it in 2000 as “difficult, expensive, and potentially inaccurate”.

DNA tests can confirm whether a woman has the usual XX chromosomes. These tests could show that Semenya has a stray Y chromosome. But does that really matter? Men can have XX chromosomes just as women can have XY ones.

Aside from our genitalia, sex differences are for the large part simply statistical. There may be “norms” in terms of body shape, height or hair growth in terms of gender, but look around you – these are far from absolute.

I haven’t the space, or the biology degree, to go into too much detail here. But I do know that society’s entrenched view of an absolute difference between the sexes is not reflected in our genes. We do, after all, come from the same primordial sludge.

And gender is not something that is fixed – it is a social construct that changes depending on cultural, social and historical factors.

The truth is that women are judged as “unfeminine” if they do too well or if they have too much power. I despair of the number of times I have heard ordinarily sensible people say that Margaret Thatcher could not have been a woman. But she wasn’t a man, she was a Tory – which is a far dirtier insult in my book.

If we accept the idea of absolute differences between the sexes, this leads to the acceptance that the sexes neither want, nor deserve, the same things. There are real differences between men and women, but there are many more things that we share. And a sense of horror at the way this young woman has been treated should be one of them.

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Tue 25 Aug 2009, 19:23 BST
Issue No. 2166
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