The role of gender stereotypes in the ultimate intellectual sport
Women are surprisingly underrepresented in the chess world, representing less
that 5% of registered tournament players worldwide and only 1% of the world's
grandmasters. In this paper it is argued that gender stereotypes are mainly
responsible for the underperformance of women in chess. Forty-two male-female
pairs, matched for ability, played two chess games via the Internet. When players
were unaware of the sex of opponent (control condition), females played approximately
as well as males. When the gender stereotype was activated (experimental condition),
women showed a drastic performance drop, but only when they were aware that
they were playing against a male opponent. When they (falsely) believed to be
playing against a woman, they performed as well as their male opponents. In
addition, our findings suggest that women show lower chess-specific self-esteem
and a weaker promotion focus, which are predictive of poorer chess performance.
A number of novel findings emerge from the present study that complement cognitively-oriented
research on chess. Most importantly, gender stereotypes can have a greatly debilitating
effect on female players leading to a 50% performance decline when playing against
males. Interestingly, this disadvantage is completely removed when players are
led to believe that they are playing against a woman. This may, in part, occur
because women choose a more defensive style when playing with men.
A second and more general message of our study is that self-confidence and
a win-oriented promotion motivation contribute positively to chess performance.
Since women show lower chess-specific self-esteem and a more cautious regulatory
focus than males, possibly as a consequence of widely held gender stereotypes,
this may at least in part explain their worldwide underrepresentation and underperformance
Thus, women seem disadvantaged not because they are lacking cognitive or spatial
abilities, but because they approach chess competitions with lesser confidence
and with a more cautious attitude than their male opponents. Hence, a motivational
perspective may be better suited to understand (and prevent) the underperformance
of women in the ‘ultimate intellectual sport.’
Anne Maass, PhD
Maass, born in Germany, living in Italy since 1984, received her MS in Social
Psychology from the University of Heidelberg (1978) and a MS (1980) and a Ph.D.
(1982) from Florida State University. She has been employed at the University
of Kiel (Germany) and subsequently at Padova University (Italy), and has taught
and conducted research at other universities (Arizona State University, University
of Heidelberg, University of California at Davis, Griffith University, Free
University of Amsterdam, International Graduate School at Jena University).
She is currently the head of the Doctoral Program in Cognitive Science at the
University of Padova. Anne has published research (including 70 articles in
prestigious international journals) in diverse areas including minority influence,
eyewitness testimony, sexual harassment, prejudice development, and stereotype
threat. Her current research interests are mainly concerned with the link between
language and social cognition, investigating both interpersonal discourse and
language used in mass communication.
Additional information is available on this University
of Padua page.