Gender disparities in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) are apparent and well-known. The reasons for this gap in gender participation ranges from a lack of female role models, preconceived gendered notions of aptitude from parents and teachers, and an exclusive environment perpetuated by the idea of a “boys only club”. There are a myriad of programs designed to increase the number of girls’ in STEM undergrad/grad degree programs and careers. However, these efforts may be too little too late. By the time children reach the age of 6, they begin to have gendered beliefs about intelligence.[i] Should more programs be targeted towards younger children?
The aforementioned reasons for gender disparities in STEM sound eerily familiar in another subject: chess. As of July 2017, there is only one woman who ranks in the top-100 chess players worldwide. In the history of grandmasters (the highest accolade a chess player can achieve), there have been 1552 total, of which 1517 are male and 35 are women. That’s just around two percent. While a few male chess grandmasters have attributed this to an innate intellectual difference between men and women, biology has little to do with the shortage of women chess players.
“If we talk about pure abilities and skills, I believe there should be no reason why women cannot play as well as men.”—Susan Polgar (First Woman to Earn the Men’s Grandmaster Title)
In a 2013 study, psychologists Hank Rothgerber and Katie Wolsiefer found that six year old girls were already aware of the stereotype that “good chess players are boys”.[ii] The self-fulfilling stereotype threat, a self-confirming concern that one will be evaluated based on a negative stereotype, has proven to lead people to perform worse than they usually would.[iii] Even if parents encouraged their daughters to participate in chess clubs at the same rates as their sons, young girls may find the chess tournament atmosphere overtly competitive and toxic, and feel pressure to opt for more traditionally “girly” activities where they wouldn’t be in the minority. If girls are told at a young age that they will never be as good as the boys, then continuing to play chess is futile. So it’s no surprise girls are not signing up in droves to play, which mathematically results in a smaller proportion of females competing for grandmaster status, ultimately reinforcing the negative stereotype that women are and never will be as good as men in chess.
This not an uncommon stereotype, one could easily substitute STEM with chess. It falls on the shoulders of parents and educators to constantly be aware of this effect on young girls and step in early to combat it. Programs to encourage and stimulate interest in STEM subjects and chess should begin at an early age. The benefits of chess are undisputed, chess playing has been shown to be strongly correlated with higher grades in both math and English, and in tests measuring critical thinking and creativity.[iv] Chess involves strategic, tactical, and spatial reasoning along with abstract and concrete thinking. It trains students to think and plan ahead, quickly and carefully consider multiple options, and inculcates in them the importance of winning and losing graciously. Chess can be easily added into any school curriculum, either as a side activity or as a curriculum enhancement.
First Move, a program developed by America’s Foundation for Chess, a non-profit located in Seattle, promotes chess as a method of learning math, history, and vocabulary.[v] Instead of purely learning chess, teachers teach classroom subjects through playing chess. Teachers do not need to be experts in chess to use this program. Training is provided to teachers as well as an instructional DVD, a DVD player, chess sets and boards, online resources, a manual, and an experienced player who is available to answer questions. The curriculum is taught in 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms and only requires 50 minutes once a week. Idaho is one of the first states in the US to begin implementing this program.[vi] While in over 30 nations around the world, including Armenia, Brazil, China, Venezuela, Italy, Israel, Russia, and Greece, chess is part of the country’s national curriculum.
Programs like First Move are not advertised nor should they be thought of as a panacea for the problems of gender inequality in society. But they are a well-needed component in reducing inequality. By encouraging young girls to play chess at the same rates as boys and ensuring their continual participation, girls can begin to overcome outdated and false stereotypes. Parents and educators would do well to remind both boys and girls that intelligence and chess ability are not fixed factors. Starting girls at an early age, encouraging them to keep playing, and giving them the same opportunities of sponsorship given to boys is definitely the best ‘first move’ to close the gender gap in chess.
[i] Ed Yong. (2017, January 26). 6-Year-Old Girls Already Have Gendered Beliefs About Intelligence. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/01/six-year-old-girls-already-have-gendered-beliefs-about-intelligence/514340/
[ii] Hank Rothgerber, & Katie Wolsiefer. (2014). A naturalistic study of stereotype threat in young female chess players. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 17(1), 79-90.
[iii] David G. Myers. (2004). Exploring psychology. Macmillan.
[iv] David C. Barrett & Wade W. Fish. (2011). Our move: using chess to improve math achievement for students who receive special education services. Int. J. Spec. Educ. 26, 181–193.