Pretty In Plate: Why Are Female Tanks Rare?

It’s been widely observed, and been the subject of no small amount of ad hoc stereotyping and evo-psych, that broadly speaking, female players prefer to heal, and male players prefer to tank. Up to a point, this isn’t quite true; lots of male players like healing, and our own healer corps is just about fifty-fifty divided between men and women. Likewise, there seems little notable gender difference in DPS; if DPS are majority male, it seems to reflect nothing more than that male players are the majority period and DPS itself is the majority role.

However, much to my irritation, there does seem to be a marked gender imbalance in tanking; a strong majority of main-spec, main-toon tanks are men. At this point enough players are female that “girls don’t play WoW” is now a tongue-in-cheek /trade joke rather than accepted truth, but so relatively few tanks are women that it really IS relatively striking to find out the tank is a chick. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if there weren’t more male players playing female avatars that tank than there were actual women playing tanks. A great deal of this is my own prejudices- I’ve actually never seen any specific demographic breakdown for real-world gender and role choices. Class choices and demographic choices in general have been analyzed repeatedly, but not with any attempt that I’ve seen to differentiate between male and female players and their preferences for class X that can DPS or tank or heal and which they choose. I’m going off the fact that so relatively few other tanks I meet seem to be women; there’s one or two on my blogroll, and I know at least one other dedicated tank lady on my server, but most of the women I know who do tank do so as an offspec- frequently as off to a healing spec.

Lots of reasons are thrown around for why this seems to be. One is that none of the tanking races/classes look “feminine”, which is not only a pretty shallow assumption about female players’ need to feel pretty in an MMO, but rather easily refuted by the existence of the wildly popular Fruit Blood Elves as the only Horde paladin choice, not to mention women seem to have no problem at all playing female tauren in herds when it comes to druids. Another is that tanking is just too high-pressure for the delicate sensibilities of women, which is also rather easily refuted by the undeniable bias to healing classes- it may just be my own bias, but healing has always struck me as a much higher pressure task in raids than tanking. Unless I have a job chasing down a lot of bitchy adds, I’m pretty much just standing there 969ing with a wide threat lead while I look for opportunities to use my utility abilities and occasionally move the boss out of fire. I have my Grid frames set up in a healerish fashion just because I like having the information, and chasing those health indicators looks like a far more stressful job to me than the one I have. I spend the entire fight in control, and it’s usually a surprise to me when something happens that put something normally controllable by me out of that control.

Another common theory is that women are drawn inexorably by their ovaries into the “nurturing” role of healing while men are drawn likewise by the testes to the “protecting” role of tanking. This has never made too much sense to me, given that both roles are two different ways of looking after the raid rather than killing the hell out of something, and women and men seem about equally drawn to the “killing the hell out of it” side of things. That, and my healers and I seem to be about equally of the same feelings toward the people under our care, especially as regards their tendency to stand in fire, watch DPS meters rather than threat meters, and so forth- and it’s not with sweet nurturing adoration. We both spend our game time “saving” people; most of the difference lies in whether we’re staring at boss crotch or raid frames. Healing isn’t a gentle activity like raising a child, it’s even more reactive than tanking is. I’ll grant more potential “grain of truth” to this whole school of thought than any of the preceding reasons, but the fact that men seem just as attracted to healing as women still makes it fail overall for me. It’s “why don’t women want to be tanks as often” that requires explaining, not “why is there this gender polarity in healing and tanking (that doesn’t exist for healing)”.

The best theory I can come up with is that while healing is a high-pressure job that often involves leadership skill (the latter most needed in raids), it’s not nearly so visible as tanking. Especially in dungeons where everybody is often a stranger, everybody expects the tank to lead the way, and if the tank screws up, it’s incredibly visible. Everyone expects tanks to walk into the instance fully formed from the head of Grom Hellscream, and especially since the advent of the random dungeon system, woe betide the tank if he or she is still learning their craft or doesn’t have such great gear. Tanking brings out your inner control freak whether you thought you had one or not, because it’s your job, fundamentally, to be in control at all times. Men get a fair amount of social reinforcement to appear tough and confident and even cocky, while the social description for women that act the same way often comes along with some variant on the theme of “bitch”. Women and men both have defined cultural templates for leadership, but for women it tends to be more “let’s team-build” than “Okay, I’m here, here’s how we’re going to do it”- and tanking, especially when one is playing with people they don’t know well, falls much more into the latter category. Men fall more easily into the role because they’ve received a lot more cultural training and a lot less discouragement to act the way tanks are “supposed” to act.

Of course, all of this is coming from an acknowledged tomboy whose only concessions to girliness are occasionally painting my nails for good luck on raid night and long hair, so maybe my ovaries just haven’t had a chance to tell me how much happier I’d be as a healer the way they do for other female gamers. I DO have that holy set I’ve been building…


9 Responses to Pretty In Plate: Why Are Female Tanks Rare?

  1. Askevar says:

    As a female tank, I can say that I have always been perfectly happy off-tanking for my hubby [I rolled a tank set initially because our 10 man couldn’t keep a reliable offtank and my dps was… replaceable]. I’ve found that I quite enjoy tanking and take the role I’m best suited to depending on the tanks we have… If I’m the most single target tank, I get the single mob. If we have a warrior, they typically get it, etc.

    I CAN lead, but I’m perfectly happy and prefer to let my hubby or a friend do it. Then again, I run 3-4 tanks through their dailies every day… so eh.

    Because I didn’t NEED the spotlight and would do whatever the raid needed, another of the guild’s tanks had no respect for me and would constantly taunt my target off during raids, and even whined about my tanking/threat/etc on officer/vent/etc. He also demanded the spotlight and wanted to be “THE” main tank.

    He’s one of those “special stars” that thinks he should be worshiped because he’s there and women belong in their rightful place – aka NOT in HIS tanking spot [so what that he’d been gone 6 months and was tiers behind on gear]. I also saw him put down a fellow tank in the guild [also a woman] for his own failures [tank swapping on Gormok – he couldn’t figure out why he’d go full blast and rip it back off the lesser geared tank and was going on and on about how she should never use hand of reckoning to take the boss and how he shouldn’t have to watch his threat… ugh]. His pushy highness did eventually ragequit the guild and still rages about how we stole his tanking spot etc. Laughable really.

    I have noticed that as a tank, you do develop a bit of an ego – which is necessary to a point – you have to believe you can tank it and get people to follow you. Some people do take that too far, but eh… I’ve seen what happens when tanks don’t believe in themselves – and it usually ain’t good.

    Yeah, I know, random thoughts.

  2. LabRat says:

    There’s probably an entire other post in there about what “Mr. Hyde” versions of each of the roles look like. You’re right in that the dark side of tanks’ inherent control-freakness is an entitled rock-star “all eyes on me” mentality, and while there’s a certain self-centeredness to all bad behavior, it definitely seems to take different forms depending on the role.

    Fortunately I have a pretty laid-back relationship with my co-tank. I wind up MTing more often, but it’s not because I’m in any way better than him so much as it is he’s better than ME- at kiting, which I hate with a firey passion. Kind of pathetic to have the bear on the ooze while I yawn my way through Rotface, but it works better than the other way around did…

  3. Ophelie says:

    I’m not going to lie, one of the reasons I decided to pick up tanking in tBC was because it seemed so strange for women to tank. I had other reasons too, but the gender disparity was definitely a motivating factor.

    Speaking from a personal perspective, I like the teamwork and reactive parts of healing. Tanking involves a lot of teamwork too, but the proactive deciding when to pull, when to move, etc part of tanking is very stressful to me. Reacting to damage patterns just feels more natural. I don’t know if my preferences have to do with my gender, but I suspect they do.

    I never really understood what is supposed to be “nurturing” about healing in WoW, though. I keep hearing that women like to heal because it’s “nurturing” but there’s nothing “nurturing” or “caring” about filling up green bars.

    • LabRat says:

      I actually find the proactivity of tanking very comforting and the reactivity of healing kind of frightening. The latter is one reason I’m putting together that Holy set, gotta show myself it’s not as scary as I’m making it out to be. The part where I’m usually the only paladin in our raid and have a backlog of stuff from ICC and ToC will no doubt help… not starting at the beginning gearwise gives me cushioning.

  4. Nazaniel says:

    Interesting post 🙂

    Our guild has a main spec female tank, and my old guild had a main spec female main tank as well – I think they’re becoming more common!

    We know that there are stats that say that a lot of women haven’t played many games before WoW, and that a lot of women are brought into WoW/gaming by their male partners – I wonder if this is part of what’s discouraging females from the tank role. Less experience and the feeling of being “shown the ropes” doesn’t really go with “leading the way” as the tank. You could also hypothesise that perhaps male perceptions of healing as nurturing/feminine (although I agree that it isn’t) might mean that they push their girlfriends/wives into the role?

    I didn’t play a healer when I started playing because I hated the female healer stereotype – but I switched to healing later and loved it. I’ve tried tanking on paladin and druid and am not a fan, but have just started a prot warrior which I’m loving tanking on (lowbie instances). I’m now considering switching role in Cataclysm 🙂

    • LabRat says:

      I expect you are right; it needn’t even be all that hard a push either. A healer is a mighty handy thing to have in one’s back pocket, after all, and to someone who hasn’t been a gamer long enough to develop their own preferences about the kinds of classes they like to play “whatever’s useful to you” is an easy choice to make.

  5. […] Labrat at Paladinpants ponders why female tanks are rare. I have noticed the same phenomenon. « The first step is admitting you have a blogging problem Tracking raider attendance through world of logs » […]

  6. Roksa says:

    I am main tanking with my Prot Paladin Roksa for some time now – 8 years. And I like that people don’t treat me like a girl and underestimate me. They treat me like equal.
    I have started streaming recently and people seem to be interested in it.

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