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Gender Equity and Collegiate Fencing

Durham, NC is set to host the 2023 NCAA Men’s and Women’s Fencing Championships March 23-26, 2023 in the historic Cameron Stadium on Duke University’s campus. The championship event includes individual events in each of the six weapons (women’s épée, women’s foil, women’s saber, men’s épée, men’s foil, and men’s saber). This exciting, unique, co-educational format makes this championship event a favorite, but what has been its impact on women’s equity in fencing? What can we learn, and how do we evolve to grow our sport responsibility?

What Makes the NCAA Fencing Tournament Awesome

Being part of the NCAA sports scene connects us to the top tier competitive arena for collegiate sports in the United States. Most of the 144 competitors who qualified this weekend are thrilled to gain the competitive experience and prestige of being selected. In this year's tournament, twenty-eight teams had fencers qualify. However, only a few teams can focus on winning the title. Winning the title is based in part on qualifying the maximum number of team members across weapons, in both sexes.

According to the NCAA website, "Fencers will compete in a round-robin format of five-touch bouts. After round robin, the top-four finishers in each weapon will fence in semifinal 15-touch bouts, with winners fencing to determine first and second places, and non-advancing fencers being awarded a tie for third place. An institution’s place finish in the championships will be based on points earned by each individual. A team will be awarded one point for each victory by its student-athletes during round-robin competition."

What the website fails to mention is that the teams must include both women and men in order to win the title. Only three institutions qualified full teams of 12 athletes (6 women and 6 men): Columbia University-Barnard College, Princeton University, and the University of Notre Dame. It most likely will be guaranteed that one of these legacy teams will be crowned team champion at the end of the event. For a full list of teams who qualified and their numbers click here.

Co-educational Championships Impact

When the decision was made to have our men’s and women’s fencing championships together, it ended up giving our women’s teams virtually identical student-athlete experiences as the men. However, the gross inequity is caused by holding a co-ed championship itself. This has been noted in an independent Gender Equity Review overview of women’s and men’s NCAA sports and highlighted below.

Numerous schools sponsor a women-only fencing team. Although those teams may compete, they cannot win the national NCAA title, because the team champion is determined by combining the men’s and women’s points from a given school, and the entry rules limit the number of student-athletes of each gender who can participate per school and per region. There are no men-only teams, meaning that no men are prevented from winning the NCAA championship title by these rules.

Northwestern Fencing is a women’s-only NCAA team, shown here celebrating at a home dual meet in Evanston, IL. Photo from Northwestern Fencing Facebook photos.

Discussion for Equity for Women in Fencing

WFencing has led discussions about fairness in fencing since the publication of The WFencing Report Card in 2021. Many WFencing members, both women and men, participate as referees and coaches, including serving as coaches and referees in collegiate fencing, and are part of these discussions. Conversations about “Why can't women’s teams earn an NCAA title?” often end with the conclusion, “It will hurt the men’s teams.”

Fencing’s history of losing its men’s teams, or having them threatened to be shut down in order to bring their schools into Title IX compliance, requires reflection. Women’s teams appear to be caught in a catch-22. Asking for anything for themselves could potentially put our sport on the chopping block. Furthermore, it appears the losses of our teams have been made in order to comply with Title IX. The federal affirmative action mandate to bring women’s and men’s sports to equal standing had unintended negative consequences to the growth of our sport. Schools chose to end non-revenue men’s teams in order to keep big revenue-producing sports, like football, and be in compliance. Fencing lost during this stage of the Title IX implementation era.

Coach Daria Schneider from Harvard lifts the second place trophy at 2022 NCAA Championships. Eleven Harvard fencers qualified to the championship event in 2022. Photo credit

Moving Fair Solutions Forward

The current championship format is an example of structural inequality as defined in diversity and inclusion work. Meaning simply there is a systemic disadvantage(s) of one social group compared to other groups, rooted and perpetuated through discriminatory practices (conscious or unconscious) that are reinforced through institutions, ideologies, representations, policies/laws and practices. The fencing community has known this; we have been whispering of the inequities, and hoping NCAA and fencing leaders will notice, make changes, and not accidentally diminish our programs.

The fear of losing our men’s teams fades when we are armed with knowledge about how the championships are structured. We, as a sport, are not searching to add enough teams to get recognition like women’s wrestling, which had to meet Emerging Sport Sponsorship criteria of 40 teams. Fencing already has this recognition. Fencing has forty-five teams currently with the latest addition of Wheaton College. Eight of these fencing schools have women-only teams. Forty-five minus eight is thirty-seven, which is below the required number of forty teams to be added to the NCAA. This must be where the fear comes from, but that is not where we are today. We have our championships, we just have apparent structural inequity.

The NCAA championships’ equity issue is an easy fix. Crowning both men’s and women’s squads gives women fencers an opportunity to win a title. We believe there to be an even bigger bonus for fencing if the NCAA adds a women’s championship event. Larger schools, which have dropped fencing altogether, need a reason to add back women’s teams in order to assist in Title IX compliance. Many of these schools still have active fencing clubs primed for organizational support.

Adding fencing to athletics programming is a win : win : win. A win for women’s sports, giving nod to the intention of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in educational programs and activities. A win for the growth of fencing. By adding programs, we make room for women professionals to be hired into more leadership roles. (Only six of the current forty-four programs have women head coaches!) The final win, on behalf of current athletes and the future of our sport, would be to create more school choices. Participation on a team is a developmental gift, offering real-life leadership and interpersonal development experiences, which benefit the athlete across a lifetime.

In 1952 N. C. State University was granted varsity status for fencing as one of the first coed sports at the school. The varsity program was dropped in the early 1990s. Photo University Archives Photograph Collection. Athletics Photographs, 1893 - 2003 (UA023.004), Special Collections Research Center at NC State University Library

Education and Sports Value Shifts

The pandemic reminded us why we need community, teams, and physical activities. Anxiety and depression are skyrocketing, suicide rates are up among young people, and adding sports, music and other competitive group activities are solutions who helping us feel connected and valued in communites. Universities and colleges are seeking to expand their intrinsic value. Keeping students safe, and creating opportunities for personal and group growth are ways colleges and universities will better ensure their own recruitment pipeline.

Seizing this opportunity will take a group effort. We should not only ensure we have a minimum of forty teams for each gender, but evaluate our value and sell it better. Are our regional formats still viable and fair? Would adding a separate women’s championship event in the NCAA help bigger schools add back women’s fencing? How can we help right the negative consequences of compliance with Title IX? Perhaps a joint partnership of coaches and referees can create a task force to investigate ourselves objectively, and make suggestions to the NCAA and other competitive events in order to help our sport grow responsibly.

Women’s foil fencers from ACC teams Notre Dame and Duke fence off in the 2023 ACC Fencing Championships. Photo credit:

Growth and Parity Initiatives

The Atlantic Coach Conference (ACC) figured out buying more trophies was an easy solution to gender equity when fencing was reintroduced as a championship event in 2018. The ACC has both a women’s and a men's fencing championships. The NCAA can do this too and, to ease our minds about losing men’s teams, keep the combined trophy as well. Who doesn’t like more trophies?! This is virtually no differential cost.

Stakeholders in our sport, like WFencing, do not want to compromise the sport we all love. Creating a women's collegiate championship will increase participation and allow us to build and elevate new leaders, including women, by expanding our programs and pipelines for fencer, coach, and referee development. The fencing community should showcase ourselves front and center across the higher education community, focusing especially on our adaptability, our integration of women’s and men’s teams, and our approach to shared resources. Our sport can be a leader for showing lifetime development and collaboration between women’s and men’s sport programs.

The demand for schools to add health- and community-based benefits to enhance enrollment cannot be overlooked. Young fencers search on the internet for what schools have fencing; they follow social media and they want to connect. Athletes want to compete and feel connected to our world in a meaningful way. With fencing Olympians peaking closer to age thirty, long after the college years, college fencing teams can even transition into being the pipelines for the Olympic team as well as being great social, emotional, and psychological support networks.

USA Fencing also has caught on to the impact NCAA Fencing has on its business model. With college and university fencing being an essential part of the American athletic experience, efforts are being made to ensure NCAA fencing long into our future. Coaches and universities recruit and base their understanding of the strength of a player based in part on USA Fencing rankings.

Phil Andrews, the CEO of USA Fencing, has announced a recent collaboration with the Pictor Group. This agency is advocating for athletic departments to rethink, refocus and recalibrate the intercollegiate athletic experience. From the athletic department perspective, fencing should be on demand. We bring up GPAs, have soaring graduation rates, and give back to our alma maters by donating directly to the athletic department. USA Fencing membership is currently over 40,000 members. With generally twenty spots per gender, per team, the teams get competitive quickly!

Suggestions on plans for equitable growth:

  • Let’s add those extra trophies to the table for the NCAA Championship next season: Women’s, Men’s, and Combined Team trophies.

  • Lift women fencing professionals to these new coaching and leadership roles as we create new teams and programs.

  • Brainstorm with our clubmates about adding fencing as a varsity program with your local schools. Contact CEO Phil Andrews of USA Fencing or The Pictor Group if you have a good lead or need guidance.

  • Create your own Gender Equity Review Committee within your fencing network. Review not only how your local collegiate events are run, but fairness in general for hiring and assigning referees and tournament organizers.

  • While we finish up this season, let’s start building for the next ten years. Grassroots efforts to boost enrollment and help enhance the student-life experience are happening now. Below is a list of collegiate organizations supporting our athletes across the United States. Be curious and engage!

This list of collegiate conferences and championships may be incomplete. If we missed something, let us know! We would like to encourage a call to action to check in on the health and status of these programs and foster their capacity to grow. Let’s work together to help ensure regional fairness and gender equity come into focus. Please consider joining WFencing, if you haven’t already, and thank you for taking the time to engage on a systemic level with the sport we all love!

Coach Jennifer Oldham was a former NCAA fencer for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She co-founded WFencing and is an advocate for equal treatment and fairness within the sport of fencing. She coaches at Forge Fencing in Durham, NC and works to build leaders and foster equity with Forge Teams. Edited by Cathleen Randall, a former Duke fencer, and Chair of WFencing. Please consider donating to WFencing and keep these type of publications going – click here.

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