About ten days ago, I returned from conducting a quiz at Nihilanth, the annual IIT-IIM quizzing festival. There were about 100 to 200 participants. Not surprisingly, only a handful were female. This kind of participant demographic is extremely common to Indian college quizzes and hardly evokes any comment. Once a year, quizzers do wonder, especially in conversations with non-quizzers, as to why there are very few girls in Indian quizzing. Almost everyone agrees it doesn't involve aptitude: while only a scientific analysis can prove or disprove this contention, there's enough anecdotal evidence to show that women can be as good at quizzing as men.
A recent discussion on Twitter and a resulting article picked reasons such as difficulties in finding team-mates, quizzes lacking sensitivity to gender diversity, and questions & timings being unsuitable to lady quizzers.
These reasons are valid, but I doubt these are the main reasons for the present lack of female participation in quizzes. Let's swim back in time through the quizzing pipeline to see what happens in school.
Scenes from School Quizzing
For the past two years, we at Choose To Thinq have been organising the Firodia School Quiz League in Pune. It's a series of 5 quizzes on varied themes and about 900 participants have attended the quiz each year. While the gender ratio is better than what you see at a college quiz, it's still low - only about 10% or so.
Why this is so, I do not know. Perhaps schools and parents think quizzing is for boys. Perhaps boys like to swot facts from quiz books more than girls. Perhaps girls (sensibly so?) have better things to do. One of the top quizzers in India, Jayashree Mohanka, thinks that "girls aren't encouraged to be nerdy". The ones, like Ms. Mohanka, who have managed to stay the course and retain their interest, usually turn out to be very, very good at quizzing.
It's fair to say that school quizzing don't have unsuitable timings and teams are usually formed by teachers. So I assume the unpleasantness that happens at the older levels of quizzing don't apply as much here.
To me, there are very few female quizzers taking up the sport at entry-level i.e. school quizzing. (The later opportunity is usually the first couple of years of college quizzing. That's been described by others.)
Forget girls, where is everyone else?
In fact, there are very few people taking up and sticking to these forms of quizzing as a whole, compared to other pastimes. Most college & open quizzes can be complicated and inaccessible for newcomers, even arcane at times. Long-winded questions whose answers aren't explained. Audiences forgotten about. Of course, the difficulty levels are high, as they should be. But we as quizzers and quizmasters do a poor job of helping non-quizzers understand exactly how good a question was framed or how well it was answered.
In the last two years, we at Choose To Thinq also been doing other forms of quizzing, such as pub quizzes, in addition to conventional open & college quizzes. While as far removed from classical quizzing as an office cricket game is to Test cricket, the aim is to design a different quizzing experience: more informal, less competitive and grumpy, occasionally silly, but still clever and enabling the display of wit and wisdom. We've seen women (and men) take part enthusiastically and also do well. 90% of them would not describe themselves as "quizzers". None of our venue partners have ever said that a quiz will alienate their female clientele.
Outside of pub quizzing, in other forums, we've seen elderly ladies, middle-aged men, and young 'uns all enjoying quizzing, albeit in different ways. All this has helped us look at quizzing afresh and see the need for different formats that appeal to different demographics. It has also required us to shrug some of our dogma about the way quizzing should be.
Skew all this
While we are talking about imbalances, there are several others if you wish to cast your eye: the open/college quiz community's questions are skewed towards a largely urban, middle-class, English-speaking, pop-culture driven audience. Add to the fact that college & open quizzing audiences are predominantly male engineers & B-schoolers and largely between 20-40, and it's easy to see why the current design of these quizzes is why it is - it works well for this audience and there are no pressures to change. Bit of a chicken-and-egg here.
What can be done about these issues can range from denial to apathy to activism. Some may think in terms of quotas, female-only quizzes, more female QMs, more female-friendly content etc. In this year's School Quiz League, we gave out a prize to the best girl quizzers of the league. This was preceded by much debate internally. But, as we pointed out to the two lady chief guests at the finale, this was to inspire the other, mostly younger, girl quizzers in the audience to keep at quizzing.
If I had 3 recommendations , it would be: - make it possible for more people, not just girls, to participate and enjoy quizzing. Explain answers. Help people solve questions. - look at the design of quizzes and their formats. Make spaces more comfortable and as inclusive as possible for everyone. For both quizzers and quizmasters. - like with the larger global debate of getting girls into STEM, see if school girls can find quizzes more fun & worth pursuing. Or if they prefer pursuing other cerebral pursuits, help support that as well.
A different writing on the wall
Before I go, another anecdote: last week, we also conducted a Spelling Bee at a Pune school. Two finals - 1 for class IV and class V each. Each final had 3 teams of 2 on stage.
There was just one boy in each final.
Ramanand has been quizzing and conducting quizzes for close to two decades now. He believes questions are the answer to almost everything.