Vox: Why do Female Chess Players Lose More to Men?

Just read an interesting recap of a study that looked at why top women chess players tend to lose more to men than women.

An excerpt:

It is important to note that we also find that, after controlling for players’ characteristics, the average quality of play of woman versus woman games and man versus man games are identical. So, it is not that women dislike competition or are just worse at competing; the problem appears when they compete with men.

These results are thus compatible with the theory of stereotype threat, which argues that when a group suffers from a negative stereotype, the anxiety experienced trying to avoid that stereotype, or just being aware of it, increases the probability of confirming the stereotype. As indicated above, expert chess is a strongly male-stereotyped environment.

Other results from our study show that men also modify their behaviour when playing against women. Given two opponents of equal ability and two identical board positions, men resign later when they play against a woman. This result echoes the observation of the 19th Century American writer Charles Dudley Warner, who said that “nothing is more annoying for a man than losing a chess game against a woman”. Probably, resigning against another man can always be interpreted as a ‘gentlemen’s pact’.

We also observe a detrimental effect of increased competitive pressure on performance when such pressure is measured by increased stakes in the game. When the Elo points at stake in a game are larger, players, both men and women, commit more mistakes. A similar result was obtained by Paserman (2010) using data from Grand Slam tennis tournaments. But we do not observe gender differences in the effect of increased competitive pressure.

Finally, let me mention two policy suggestions that can emerge from our analysis. First, it could be a good idea to introduce ‘blind’ tournaments in which the gender of players would remain unknown, as in the case of blind orchestra auditions (Goldin and Rouse 2000).

Second, note that expert women chess players are highly professional. They have reached a high level of mastery and they have selected themselves into a clearly male-dominated field. If we find gender interaction effects in this very selective sample, it seems reasonable to expect larger gender differences in the whole population.

One comment

  1. Several orchestras now employ ‘blind’ auditions when selecting candidates even going so far as to recommend women wear footwear that doesn’t give their gender away. What was once a mostly male-dominated field is seeing more women, even in principle positions.


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