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Chess wrongly perceived as a ‘brilliance’ game, leaving girls out: NYU study

Researchers say coaches, parents don’t recognize own biases against girls 

Fewer girls play chess competitively because their own parents and coaches hold biases about skills such as “brilliance” that they connect to male players, according to a new study out of New York University.

The researchers said their study, published last month in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, provides “the first large-scale evidence of bias against youth female players” and holds “implications” for the roles parents and mentors play in women entering other male-dominated fields, such as science and technology.

“These beliefs are more likely to be harmful both to girls who already play chess and to those who could want to: Would you be interested in participating in a sport where your potential is downgraded by your parents and by your coaches before you have even started?” the researchers wrote.

However, the researchers also noted that parents, coaches, and chess organizations are making efforts to ensure girls have opportunities to play chess competitively if they want to.

Daniel Lucas, a spokesman for the U.S. Chess Federation, told The College Fix they see anecdotal evidence that supports the researchers’ conclusions.

Female participation in chess is low, but the federation has been taking steps to encourage more women and girls to play, Lucas said.

“We have been working hard for many years to increase our female membership to at least 50%. We are currently only at 13% so there is a lot of work to do,” Lucas told The Fix.

For the study, researchers interviewed 286 parents, chess coaches and mentors to explore potential biases against young female players. Through a series of questions, they found evidence that “parents and mentors thought female youth players have lower potential than male players.”

“This bias was stronger among those who thought that brilliance is required for success in chess,” according to the study.

Chess mentors, coaches, and parents who believe the game requires “brilliance” also “reported that female mentees were more likely to drop out of chess due to low ability,” according to the study, which received funding from the National Science Foundation.

Sophie Arnold, a doctoral student at NYU and lead author, said in a statement that women are underrepresented in competitive chess, and their research aimed to identify reasons why.

“Parents and coaches are biased against the female youth players in their own lives,” Arnold said.

The Fix reached out to Arnold several times asking about the motivation behind her research and what biases women face in chess, but she did not respond.

When contacted by The Fix, Andrei Cimpian, a psychology professor at NYU and senior author of the study, said he was traveling and would respond later. However, The Fix did not hear from him again.

Researchers said they found that the coaches and parents did not “recognize that their own presumptions may function as a barrier to girls succeeding in the game.”

“Specifically, coaches who thought brilliance was required to succeed in chess also thought their female mentees would be more likely to stop playing chess due to a lack of ability than their male mentees. And, in fact, parents and coaches did not believe that girls—relative to boys—encounter a less supportive environment in chess and might stop playing chess as a result,” the researchers said in a news release.

However, the researchers also found that parents and coaches are investing time and money into encouraging girls to play chess competitively.

And some girls are. There have been female winners of open chess competitions in recent years, such as Alice Shen who won the second-grade title of the K-12 championship in 2022.

The U.S. Chess Federation also runs a women’s program and holds female-only chess competitions. Conversely, it does not hold male-only chess competitions.

MORE: Study finds ‘gender imbalance’ among academics on Twitter

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About the Author
Emily Rosecrans -- Clemson University