Gender differences in chess achievement were recently thrown into the spotlight once again, by a rather sardonic article by Nigel Short. Since the available statistical evidence indicates that gender differences in achievement are largely or entirely due to differences in participation (Chabris and Glickman, 2006, summarized here; Bilalic et al., 2009), the causes of this participation gap should be the primary focus of attention. Even if, like Short, one does not believe those studies, the participation gap might be of interest in its own right.
Much has been written about why far fewer women than men play chess, including on this site by Natalia Pogonina and Peter Zhdanov, (here, here, here and here) and most recently by Nisha Mohota. Although these articles have brought up highly plausible mechanisms, the debate would be aided by having more hard data available. In particular, wouldn’t it be great to have a large data set about the chess world in parallel with data about similar fields that have more female participation, so that possible causes of the participation gap can be tested for?
The bad news is that it is difficult to find many mind sports that are comparable to chess in terms of popularity and organization. The good news is that such a comparison can easily be made in academia, where different disciplines have widely different proportions of women. A detailed statistical study of gender disparity in academic fields in the United States appeared in January in the journal Science, and I believe that as a chess community, we can learn from it. The lead authors were Sarah-Jane Leslie from Princeton University and Andrei Cimpian from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; the latter was kind enough to fact-check what I write about his paper here.
“Hard” sciences such as physics and statistics on average have a larger gender gap than social sciences and humanities – no surprise there. However, this is only part of the story. According to 2013 data from the National Science Foundation in the United States, there is large variation within each category: whereas women earned only 19% of PhDs in physics and 18% in computer science, they earned no less than 54% of PhDs in molecular biology – amounting to gender parity. Within the humanities and social sciences, those numbers ranged from 78% in art history and 72% in psychology to a dismal 27% in philosophy and 28% in music theory and composition.
What, then, are the factors that cause not just the gender disparity between “hard” and “soft” sciences, but also the variation within each? The key claims of Leslie and Cimpian’s paper are:
that fields vary in the degree to which its practitioners believe that innate ability (“genius” or “brilliance”) is required for success; and
that society often promotes the notion that men have greater innate abilities than women.
If both claims are true, then the variation in the size of the gender gap can be explained relatively easily: women might be reluctant to enter or continue in fields where they believe they don’t have what it takes, or practitioners in those fields might discourage them to enter or continue.
The authors offer strong evidence for both claims. From a survey answered by 1820 faculty, postdoctoral researchers, and graduate students across the United States, they estimated the strength of the innate-ability beliefs in 30 academic disciplines. There was a clear negative correlation between the strength of the innate ability beliefs and the proportion of female PhDs (correlation coefficient of -0.60 across all 30 fields, with a p-value smaller than 0.001). The following figure from the paper shows the correlation, split out between “hard sciences” (A) and social sciences and humanities (B).
The more emphasis on brilliance, the lower the proportion of female PhDs. For example, mathematicians (whether male or female) widely believe that you have to be a genius to be successful, whereas neuroscientists (whether male or female) consider hard work to be more important; neuroscience produces a much larger proportion of female PhDs than mathematics. Philosophers believe that innate ability is critical, education scientists not so much; education produces a much larger proportion of female PhDs than philosophy. A follow-up paper by first author Meredith Meyer reported a very similar negative correlation between the proportion of female PhDs in a field and the innate-ability beliefs about that field held by people outside of academia.
It is important to keep in mind that beliefs about the importance of innate ability in a field are just that: beliefs. The degree to which they are justified is difficult to assess and was not part of this study. Another caveat is that correlation does not equal causation: it might be that innate-ability beliefs do not cause lower female participation. This concern was addressed by Cimpian and colleagues in a series of laboratory experiments. In one of these, the experimenters made up a story about a new science major being introduced at a university. If the study participants were told that this major required brilliance, then significantly fewer women were motivated to pursue it, whereas if they were told that it required hard work and dedication, there was no gender gap. This strongly suggests that there is a causal link between beliefs about brilliance being required and low female participation.
The authors performed a more detailed analysis in which they determined how important innate-ability beliefs were compared to other possible factors such as the number of hours worked per week, the selectivity of admissions, and the importance of abstract thinking versus empathy. None of these other factors came even close to the role of innate-ability beliefs in terms of accounting for the proportion of female PhDs.
As to the second claim of cultural stereotypes linking men but not women to brilliance, there is strong evidence from laboratory experiments. In one, the experimenter told children a short story about a “really, really smart person” at work. The experimenter then showed the child two pictures of men and two of women and asked the child to guess who this smart person was. Five-year-olds generally chose their own gender as smart (and thus showed no evidence of a stereotype), but six- and seven-year-olds started to show a bias towards choosing men more frequently than women. Where those prejudices come from is perhaps not surprising: parents google “is my son gifted?” 2.5 times as often as “is my daughter gifted?” Authors like Lisa Bloom, politicians like Jo Swinson, and even a campaign by Verizon Wireless have pointed out that girls get praised for their looks, while boys get praised for their smarts. The belief that mostly men are geniuses is further promoted by popular culture, from Good Will Hunting to House M.D., and persists among highly educated adults: on Ratemyprofessors.com, the word “genius” is used much more for male than for female professors. Objectively, there is no scientific basis for claiming that women are less brilliant than men; for example, in American schools, girls are 11% more likely to be in a gifted program than boys.
In short, in a field like physics or music composition, practitioners (men and women alike) believe that one needs to be a genius to succeed, and in society as a whole, women are considered unlikely to be geniuses. The disastrous consequences of these two belief sets combined are easy to imagine: women select themselves out because they don’t think they are suitable, interviewers and admission committees discriminate against women, or women in these fields drop out at higher rates due to the pressure of having to fight a stereotype (stereotype threat). In a schematic by Cimpian:
The strength of the Science paper stems from having data from many survey respondents and many academic fields, and it is does not seem a stretch to assume that its message also applies to chess, another institutionalized intellectual endeavor. Chess might be similar to physics, philosophy, and music composition: innate-ability beliefs are front and center in the ways chess players and society at large talk about chess. Chess prodigies are considered born, not made, and popular culture widely uses chess as a cue for genius. Leslie and Cimpian’s study would suggest that the primary reason why women are not motivated to pursue chess or are discouraged by others is that they or people around them do not believe they have the brilliance everyone believes to be needed for success in chess. (Again, this is regardless of the extent to which brilliance is truly required.)
Where to go from here? There are logically two possible starting points for improvement: the cultural stereotypes and the innate-ability beliefs. Of these, the latter might be easier to address than the former. In chess, László Polgár has been the leading warrior against innate-ability beliefs, arguing that hard work and good training are sufficient for success. Although his pedagogical experiment was by no means scientifically controlled, his message was an important one. In fact, the advice for educators offered by the authors of the Science paper has a very similar flavor:
If educators, academics, and administrators wish to increase the diversity of a particular discipline, our work suggests that they may wish to alter the messages they send regarding what is needed for success in the discipline. A brief summary of suggestions on how to begin to do this can be found here. In addition to potentially increasing diversity, a very impressive body of work by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues reflects that everyone -- regardless of gender -- benefits from viewing success as requiring hard work, dedication, and effort, rather than simply being a matter of raw, inherent talent. Moving away from "brilliance required" cultures may thus have a range of beneficial effects. – From Gender Gaps in Academia, retrieved on May 2nd, 2015.
These pointers might be relevant for chess educators interested in addressing the participation gap in chess in a more fact-based manner.
About the author
Wei Ji Ma (photo by Jody Oberfelder) got his Ph.D. in a field with one of the worst gender gaps – theoretical physics – and is now a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at New York University. He is also an inactive FIDE Master.
The study he is commenting on is not his own, but was conducted by Sarah-Jane Leslie, Andrei Cimpian, Meredith Meyer, and Edward Freeland. Their paper can be found here. Wei Ji would like to thank Andrei Cimpian for the seminar that inspired this piece, and subsequently fact-checking the piece.
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