Are Men's Fingers Faster?

"Can anyone explain this to me?" Regis Philbin asked his Who Wants to Be a Millionaire audience of 30 million one evening in February. "Why is it that nearly all of our contestants are white men? I'm a white man, so you know I have nothing against them, but come on... . We would really like a little more diversity!" He ended his monologue with an appeal to women and minorities. "So here's the challenge," he said. "Everyone out there who has thought about being on the show--who isn't a white male--dial that 800 number, and let's get into the game."

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, of course, has been a runaway hit since ABC imported it from Britain last August [see Joshua Gamson, TAP, "Other People's Money," January 31, 2000]. The show begins with a lineup of 10 contestants, who race to answer a "fastest finger" question in the speediest time; the winner then heads to the "hot seat," where he--or, occasionally, she--is asked a series of multiple-choice questions worth from $100 to $1 million apiece. Millionaire's producers pride themselves on the program's open contestant selection process, in which callers to an 800 number try out by answering timed multiple-choice questions. Much of the show's success derives from its democratic appeal (and its easy, field-leveling questions): Anyone can come home a winner.

Anyone, that is, who's white and male. As of this writing, 147 men have sat in the "hot seat," compared to only 21 women; two men, and no women, have won a million dollars; 38 men have won at least $125,000, compared to only three women. "The program looks like a '50s game show in more ways than one," says Robert Thompson, the director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. And Michael Davies, the show's executive producer, admits that the gender gap bothers him, and has considered changes in the show to make the contestants more demographically representative of the country.

That may be harder than it sounds because the quiz show gender gap isn't unique to Millionaire. Jeopardy!, for example, the grand dame of TV quiz shows, is dominated by men: 80 of the show's top 100 contestants have been male, and only one woman has won Jeopardy!'s year-end "tournament of champions" in the 16-year history of the show. And NBC's Twenty One and FOX's Greed, which aim to copy Millionaire's success, have succeeded in featuring more diverse contestants only by selecting competitors through casting them, not via a blind test.

Theories abound for why men dominate these shows. Men, some say, are more competitive and aggressive; women, more nurturing. Men, say others, pursue trivia as a form of adolescent one-upmanship; women have the sense to concentrate on more productive things. A Washington Post article even suggested that men's love of trivia was "fueled by the same sublimated aggression and status competition born on the playground."

Another possible explanation is that the questions are somehow biased toward men. Critics point to the high number of sports questions, which may favor males; the show's producers reply that Millionaire has a diverse team of question writers and that an equal number of questions could be said to favor women.

Could the gap derive from the multiple-choice telephone quiz used to decide who goes on the show and the "fastest finger" question that decides who competes for the money? Possibly. In one sense, after all, TV quiz shows are more a test of finger reflexes than a real test of knowledge, and many people suspect that men are better than women at delivering rapid-fire responses to trivia questions. Robert Schaeffer, the director of public education at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), uses the literature on standardized tests to support his argument that this type of questioning puts women at a distinct disadvantage. "Fast-paced multiple-choice games with an emphasis on strategic guessing favor a style that is associated with whites and males in our society," he says. The College Board's Advanced Placement exams, for instance, typically include two types of questions: multiple choice and constructed response (involving essays, diagrams, and other more detailed answers). Boys tend to outscore girls on the multiple-choice questions, but "the gender gap narrows, disappears, or reverses," Schaeffer says, when it comes to constructive-response exercises. The reasons for this aren't entirely clear, but, Schaeffer argues, the same dynamic helps men outperform women on Millionaire's qualifying questions.

The show's producers dispute this explanation. "There is no evidence that women are any slower than men at the 'fastest finger,'" Davies said at a January press conference. One woman, Shannon McGehee, has logged the best time ever on a "fastest finger" question; another holds the record for the fastest time during a pregame rehearsal. But these women were atypical--they had already made it through two rounds of similar questions. On average, men tend to outperform women on speed-based questions--and that may explain the quiz show gender gap.

But why should men have "faster fingers"? One theory holds that the men who make it to the show are simply more determined. Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a class of hypercompetitive men determined to appear on the show--and willing to call back repeatedly in order to do so. Sev-eral men have beaten the odds and appeared on the show twice, and one contestant told Rosie O'Donnell that he had called the toll-free number 40 or 50 times before getting on. Another theory postulates that Millionaire (and game shows in general) appeal to a distinctive subspecies of the American male, the sci-fi geek, for whom the show's space-age special effects and video-game-like "fast finger" are comfortably familiar.

But Millionaire's gender gap may not just be a quirk of game show culture. Here's a discomfiting fact: Males dominate nearly every competition based on the recall of knowledge, at whatever age level, whether or not speed is a factor. Consider the National Geographic Bee, an annual geography competition for children in grades four through eight. The competition begins at over 15,000 elementary and middle schools, each of which crowns a school champion; each school champion then takes a written exam; the high scorers on the exam head to the state finals; finally, 55 state and territorial winners travel to Washing-ton, D.C., to compete for the grand prize, a $25,000 scholarship. But to the chagrin of the event's sponsor, the National Geographic Society, boys outnumber girls at every level of the competition, with the gender gap increasing at each step along the ladder. Over the bee's 11-year history, in fact, only one girl has won, and every year, at least 50 of the 55 national finalists have been boys.

Puzzled by this, the National Geographic Society commissioned a study by two Penn State researchers, geog-raphy professor Roger Downs and psychologist Lynn Liben. Their report found that boys and girls entered the bee in roughly equal numbers; that the competitors most likely to succeed were those who loved geography--not those who wanted to win for winning's sake; that the fear of competing in public did not harm the performance of girls; and that boys tended to have slightly better spatial skills and a greater interest in maps. In short, Downs and Liben found that the gender gap in bee winners is probably based on "small, but real" differences in how much boys and girls know about geography.

Look at similar competitions, and the pattern repeats itself. Every spring the nation's capital plays host to a series of national academic competitions for elementary- and middle-school students, on topics ranging from spelling and geography to math and civics, but only the National Spelling Bee--the contest with the least emphasis on the recall of knowledge--fields roughly equal numbers of boys and girls. The same is true of the high school and college quiz bowl circuits, where a similarly commanding majority of the competitors are men.

Part of the explanation for the gender gap at competitions for younger children presumably lies in the realm of education policy. Many critics argue, for instance, that schools shortchange girls, subtly encouraging boys to act assertively and to dominate classroom discussions. This in turn establishes a series of selfreinforcing assumptions: When girls see boys winning geography bees or trivia contests, they're less likely to join the high school quiz team or try out for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire later on.

Nevertheless, women have recently begun to appear on Millionaire in greater numbers, perhaps because of the show's appeal for diversity. In the month following Regis's plea, in fact, roughly 40 percent of the contestants in the "hot seat" were women. This may just be a temporary blip--and only three of these contestants earned as much as $125,000--but it may be a sign that a little recruitment has helped Millionaire buck the trend.

Whatever its origins, the most interesting thing about the quiz show gender gap could be that it had been so widely noticed and discussed. Maybe this isn't surprising. When your co-workers keep asking you, "Is that your final answer?" and your grandmother is offering you lifelines, you know America is in the throes of a pop culture phenomenon that will, for a while, be Topic A of conversation. But given the persistence of more significant gender gaps-- in wages, in executive positions, and in a number of other areas--that go generally undiscussed in the popular culture, it's striking how much attention is being lavished on a differential that is, ultimately, trivial.