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Original Issue

The Case for ... Challenging the System

In her best-selling book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg offers a twist on the conventional feminist manifesto. Without denying the existence of a glass ceiling, Sandberg contends that impediments to gender equality include an "ambition gap." Too often, she says, women are uncomfortable with confrontation and negotiation. Too often—and in contrast to their male counterparts—their desire to be liked interferes with their aspirations for leadership roles.

Sandberg builds her case using social science, academic studies about gender differences, and anecdotal evidence, some of it first person from her experience as the chief of staff at the Treasury Department and as a Google executive. She also could have supported her thesis by examining what amounts to a controlled experiment in professional tennis.

In 2006 tennis instituted a replay challenge system not unlike the NFL's. Provided the court is equipped with the technology, players can appeal line calls for review. The same ground rules apply for both male and female players: They are afforded three challenges per set and retain a challenge if it is successful. But as Margaret A. Neale, a professor at Stanford Business School, first called to our attention, the data indicate that WTA and ATP players use the system differently.

Consider this year's Wimbledon. Over the course of the two-week tournament, men challenged 375 times, while women challenged 179 times. This is a bit misleading, since men's matches are best of five sets and women play best of three, and men are assigned more matches on the "show courts," which feature the replay technology. (We'll save a discussion of this inequality for another time.) So, we looked at challenges per point. Research by SI intern Robert Hess shows that women challenged 2.6% of the points played at Wimbledon 2013, while men challenged on 3.3% of their points—more than 25% more often. At last year's U.S. Open, women challenged 2.8% of their points; men challenged 3.5%, again an increase of 25%. At the Australian Open, women challenged 3.4% versus 3.8% among the men. (The fourth major, the French Open, does not utilize replay technology because the balls leave marks in the clay, Roland Garros's version of forensic evidence.)

Why are men consistently and significantly more prone to question authority? Last week at the U.S. Open, SI posed this question to a number of players of both genders. None were aware of the disparity. "I use it, I don't abuse it," said American Sloane Stephens, 20. Many speculated that because men hit the ball harder, it's more difficult to see where shots land, leading to more calls that might be contested.

Sounds logical. But if this were true—if it were harder for linespersons to trace 140-mph serves, as opposed to 120-mile-an-hour serves—we would expect to see a disparity in accuracy of the line calls. Yet male and female players come astonishingly close in their success rate on their appeals. At Wimbledon, for instance, men won their challenges 27.73% of the time; women, 27.37%. Success rates at the U.S. Open in recent years were similar.

Presented with the data, Stacey Allaster, the CEO of the WTA, said, "Is it in our DNA that we're less combative, less forward? Those are stereotypes. What's confident and what's arrogant?" Says Martina Navratilova, "This is exactly what [Sandberg] was talking about. What are they called? Player challenges. Well, as women we need to be more comfortable challenging. Here's one area where there's no reason we shouldn't be just like the men."

Men challenge their points25%more often than women—though their success rates are virtually the same.