A couple of weeks ago, I ran into my first chess teacher—Jim Tallmadge—at the Arizona Grade School Championships. As we reminisced about my elementary team, Mr. Tallmadge retold a story about the time the girls on our team “proved the boys wrong.”
Once, Mr. Tallmadge overheard players from another team talking about how easy the next round would be for the ones that were paired against girls. Chuckling, he explained how much he enjoyed watching not only as our team won the round, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as all the girls on our team won their games.
Gender stereotypes are prevalent throughout the chess world; unfortunately, they are not always debunked. I recently read "Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport” a paper that examines just how difficult “proving the boys wrong” can be. 1 The paper describes a study conducted by Anne Maass, Claudio D’ettole and Mara Cadinu from the University of Padova. According to the study, gender stereotypes not only affect the under-representation but also the under-performance of female chess players.
Maass et al. examined the effect of gender stereotypes on performance by creating a series of Internet chess matches between male and female chess players. The chess players were paired against players of the opposite sex of equal ability. Maass et al. found that when unaware of the gender of their opponent, female chess players played approximately as well as male chess players.
In contrast, they found that when female chess players knew they were playing against males, the female chess players under-performed and played less aggressively than the males. Interestingly, when these same women played the same male opponents but were told (falsely) that they were playing women, the females performed approximately as well as the males.
These findings raise interesting questions regarding the responsibility of chess teachers and coaches to address the negative effects that gender stereotypes can have on the performance of female chess players. Not only is it important for chess teachers to actively recruit and support female chess players, but also, like Mr. Tallmadge, they can make a point of citing situations when these stereotypes are proved wrong.
What else can coaches, teachers and players do to combat stereotypes? Please leave your comments, suggestions and ideas below.
1. Maass, A., D’ettole C., & Cadinu M. (2007). Checkmate? The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport. European Journal of Social Psychology (in press). Published online in Wiley InterScience.