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Women (and Men) in Chess

The demand for equality in all forms is unrealistic and ignores the profound diversity between the sexes.

In December 1774, Benjamin Franklin was in London making a last attempt to avoid war. A certain Lady Caroline Howe invited Franklin to her home to play a friendly chess game, “fancying she could beat me,” according to Franklin. They played on December 2, and then again on December 4. During their second game, Lady Howe brought up the question of reconciliation between the colonies and the crown. During another visit, she introduced Franklin to her brother Lord Howe, who asked Franklin to cooperate with him and other British moderates in a covert effort to avoid war through negotiation. Franklin and the Howes continued to meet at Lady Howe’s home for several months, using chess as a cover for their secret diplomacy.

It’s fun to imagine alternate versions of history in which events after Franklin and Howe’s first chess game proceeded differently. In one, we could imagine that Franklin and the Howes were able to effect a reconciliation between Great Britain and the colonies. In another, we might imagine the game of chess developing differently. Just as Franklin and Howe’s match was perfectly gender-balanced, we could imagine a world in which women participated in chess as frequently and enthusiastically as men did, with the top level of chess populated by a 50/50 balance of men and women.

Of course, neither of these alternative histories came to pass. Here we are in the United States of America, and as for the development of chess, even after centuries full of women’s suffrage, women’s liberation, women’s empowerment, feminism, affirmative action, and expanded opportunities around the world, the top level of chess retains a striking imbalance in favor of men. At the time of writing, the top-ranked 100 chess players in the world consist of 99 men and 1 woman, Hou Yifan, who is ranked 84th. The imbalance between men and women in chess is not localized to one part of the world, but appears more or less everywhere, including the most progressive nations of the West. At the time of writing, the U.S. Chess Federation’s top 71 ranked players, for example, consist of 70 men and one woman (ranked 71st).

There is no easy way to explain away the huge gender imbalance at the top level of chess. The worldwide chess rankings are not gender-biased: They’re based on objective “Elo” ratings, which are accepted by chess players and mathematicians as fair and accurate. Chess is much more mental than physical, so the height, weight, and muscle mass differences between men and women shouldn’t make much of a difference in outcomes. There are no opportunities for teammates to sabotage a talented player, and almost no room for biased referees to suppress talent. Chess has very low barriers to entry, so even someone without sponsorship or strong networks can make it to the top. Many of the world’s top tournaments are fully open to entry by any man or woman from anywhere, so a world-class woman could enter and win those without hindrance. Beyond these equal opportunities, there is widespread affirmative action: FIDE (the organization governing world chess) gives special titles to women and holds prize tournaments that are only open to women, as do many countries and private organizations.

So, we have a level playing field with fair, accurate skill measurements in a widespread, easily accessible, primarily mental activity with worldwide affirmative action efforts to improve outcomes for women. The 99/1 imbalance that we see at the top level of chess cries out for an explanation.

Games and sports are usually full of randomness and variation, rises and falls, so we might suppose that the current gender imbalance is a temporary blip. But this “blip” has lasted 50 years so far. The first official worldwide chess ranking list was released in July 1971, and there were no women in the top 100 at the time (Nona Gaprindashvili was the highest-ranked woman, tied for 285th). This 100/0 gender imbalance among the top 100 officially ranked worldwide players continued until January 1987, when the top 100 were 99 men and Maia Chiburdanidze, ranked at 77. Today, the gender ratio in the top 100 remains at 99/1, having barely budged from the 100/0 ratio of 1971. Day-to-day or even year-to-year randomness and variation cannot explain an imbalance that is this steady across five decades.

Some theories about the sex difference in chess performance are primarily social. In Aeon, Hana Schank argued that women could succeed at chess on equal terms with men, but they drop out of chess when they are young. She proposes that girls may “be put off by the hyper-competitive atmosphere that tends to develop” in teen-boy-dominated chess clubs. This, according to the theory, plus a lack of female role models, along with idea of “stereotype threat” and the general awkward rudeness of young boys combine to mean that young girls don’t thrive in chess’s social world, and therefore drop out before they have a chance to reach their natural potential.

If these social factors were the only reason for the differences in chess performance between men and women, then we should expect women to perform as well as men in a more numerically even social milieu. But the data indicate that, if anything, the opposite is true. Males consistently outperform females in countries around the world, but according to one study, countries with the lowest female participation rates had the smallest performance differences between men and women, while countries with higher female participation rates had larger performance differences. The Caucasus nation of Georgia is a notable example. Georgia has produced several women’s world chess champions, and more than 32 percent of registered chess players there were female in 2012. But even with more balanced participation numbers and female role models, Georgian men have consistently outperformed Georgian women by substantial margins for decades. More even participation numbers don’t erase the consistent performance difference between men and women, indicating that girls struggling to fit in socially is not the primary factor at play.

If the performance gap is large and persistent and not the result of social factors or temporary random variation, then what remains that could explain it? The most reasonable explanation is quite simple: men and women have different outcomes in professional chess because men and women are different.

It’s very important to note: to say that men and women are different is not to say that men are “smarter” or better than women. Chess is a game, after all, and there’s no reason why we should think that dominance in chess is more valuable or intellectually impressive than dominance in, say, learning languages. Intelligence is multidimensional, and even if we admit that men perform better than women at chess, that doesn’t force us to admit that men possess a general superiority.

It’s also important to note that dominance in chess could also be due to differences in interest rather than aptitude. In 2012, only 8.51 percent of international chess players were women. The 1 percent female representation among the top 100 players is still disproportionate compared to this participation rate, but the participation rate itself shows a remarkable imbalance for an activity that could theoretically be gender-neutral. Even ignoring any performance differences, women show a marked disinterest in serious chess compared to men. That disinterest in chess is not evidence for any kind of inferiority—it’s just a difference.

As mentioned, the highest-rated woman in the world at the time of writing is Hou Yifan, who has been involved with several substantial activities outside of chess, notably including a university education, a Rhodes scholarship, and a professorship. Compare this to Bobby Fischer, who dropped out of high school as soon as he was legally allowed to and dedicated himself to chess. Fischer’s rejection of everything outside of the game led him to a world championship and total domination of the chess world; it also led to a life on the edge of sanity (or beyond) filled with paranoia, isolation, and more than a fair share of misery. Hou’s classes at Oxford and professorial duties may not improve her chess results, but it’s likely they help bring a fulfillment and balance that Fischer never achieved. The female disinterest in pushing the envelope at the top level of chess could represent a healthier approach to life than the more commonly male attitude of degenerately single-minded obsession, and this might help explain the gender performance gap without requiring one to take a position on differences in innate cognitive aptitude.

The top level of the chess world gives us strong evidence that men are mentally different from women, and that the differences are substantial, consistent around the world, and stable across time. So what?

The mental differences between men and women are important because huge swaths of our culture are built on denying them. Corporate and government affirmative action programs have goals, either explicit or implicit, of 50/50 gender balances in socially prestigious positions like corporate C-suites, Ivy League campuses, and Nobel Prize award ceremonies. In typical discussions of gender differences, the 50/50 gender balance goal is taken as a starting point, and discussions revolve only around tactics: How do we get to 50/50? What’s stopping us and what needs to change? But since men and women are different, the goal of a 50/50 gender balance itself deserves serious, skeptical scrutiny.

Aiming for a 50/50 gender balance seems appropriate because it represents equality. Since men and women are equal, participation rates should be equal, and 50 equals 50 (50=50), so the matter seems settled. But there is a fallacy of equivocation in the previous sentence. When we use the word “equal” to compare men and women, we are using it to mean that men and women have similar worth or merit. When we use “equal” to compare 50 percent participation rates, we are using the word in the mathematical sense that conveys that two things are identical. These two senses of the word “equal” are not the same. Though we may agree that men and women are equal in merit and worth, we should also agree that they are not identical in the way that 50 is identical to 50, since (for example) men are heavier and taller than women on average, not to mention more numerous at the top level of chess.

When two groups are not identical, the assumption that an identical 50/50 balance between them is natural or necessary is not justified. For example, we may agree that tall people are equal to short people, but they are not identical, so it does not follow that there should be an identical 50/50 balance between tall and short people in professional basketball. Similarly, people who enjoy basketball are equal to people who hate basketball, but since they are not identical, we should not expect a 50/50 balance among basketball professionals between these groups either.

In the case of men and women, equality of worth and merit exists alongside substantial differences that rule out identicality as a reasonable goal for many outcomes. Differences in interest, and potentially in aptitude, mean that even a world with perfectly equal opportunity, perfectly balanced social programs, and perfect freedom to pursue one’s interests will have gender imbalances at all levels across many domains. In today’s culture of equals-sign bumper stickers and obsession with equal outcomes, this idea is hard to even utter because it lies somewhere between disagreeable and anathematic.

But the differences between men and women don’t need to be bad news. Our knowledge of this is encoded in common sayings such as “variety is the spice of life” and “diversity is our strength.” Every patch of sky on a dreary day is identical, but the striking differences between the colors of the rainbow make it beautiful. Men and women being different adds richness and depth to our social interactions and cooperation. Pushing women and men to be identical may lead us to the 50/50 balances we so zealously pursue, but there would be great costs.

Consider the case of female participation in military combat roles. If we push men and women to be identical in every way, we could expect to someday get a 50/50 balance of equally talented, equally interested men and women in these roles. This might seem desirable if we think of all women gaining the positive attributes associated with soldiers: bravery, physical strength, and steely nerves under pressure. But if we really want to push women to be excellent soldiers, we cannot avoid pushing them at the same time to gain the negative attributes associated with soldiers: callousness, over-aggressiveness, and domineering belligerence. It is a good thing to be an excellent soldier, whether one is a man or a woman, but it is also good to be gentle, compassionate, and tender. We tend to unthinkingly suppose that a 50/50 balance in combat, or in any other field, is unequivocally a step “forward.” But if it requires decreasing the sum of soft, unsoldierly sweetness in the world, it seems much more like a step backwards.

Having two identical genders would not be the best for the world or for ourselves. It could really be better to have complementarity between two different genders. Economists assure us that division of labor and role specialization are great drivers of economic productivity and wealth. But in the miniature economy of a couple or a family, there is a constant push to abolish the specialization that comes with gender roles. It’s at least worth considering that aiming for identicality of the sexes and their roles may not be ideal in the home just as identicality is not ideal in the economy.

If identical genders are not the ideal social arrangement, then we should abandon the blanket goal of 50/50 representation everywhere. Instead, we should think of ways that men and women, as beings that differ substantially, can perform roles that are different but still give them scope to reach their fullest potential. If we were utopians who were designing an ideal society, we might consider designing two genders as a valuable feature of a healthy social world. One gender could be more risk-seeking and occasionally reckless, while the other could add salutary prudence and restraint. One gender might be over-represented among corporate executives, but the other gender could provide an antidote to the executives’ overweening avarice. One gender might make up the bulk of the aggressive warrior class, but the other gender could be better at providing something to fight for. These healthy tensions could lead to fruitful cooperation. It’s not clear that it’s worth it to sacrifice these other kinds of balance for the unimaginative goal of 50/50 representation in boardrooms.

Equality is a good, but it’s not the only good—and it’s not always good. When we look at the evidence from chess and see that men and women are different, we could choose to mourn that perfect identical 50/50 balance in all domains may forever be out of our reach. Or we could choose to rejoice that men and women, being different, can complement and help each other, cooperating with fruitful tension, excelling at different things, performing different roles, together creating a healthy society and a worthwhile world.

Bradford Tuckfield is a data scientist and writer. His personal website can be found here.