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How to make chess community and environments more welcoming to women/girls?

Chess is not a sport/game of choice for most women. The following two nice answers discuss why -- one, two. These are answers given to a question stated in an unfortunately intimidating way. There is a related phenomenon of more girl players dropping out from kids who took part in a club/academy.

Irrespective of gender, I do respect people's decision not to choose chess, or move on to something else. Still, I have two questions.

1. How can chess community encourage girls/women to pursue chess?
Women titles may be a good idea in this direction. Anything else?

2. How can a chess club encourage girls/women to pursue chess?
(To give the context that I am interested in: I am talking about a chess club in an institute where many girl students study) Any nice ideas?

I was thinking about activities with a social side such as human chess where a 'counselor' decides which piece to move but the piece gets to decide what move to make. Admittedly, this is more like a fun event than a chess event; But, that is for better I think. But, would this help to this aim?

PS: I would be happy to get yours answers to questions 1 & 2, rather than diverging to arguments on whether this is needed or not (Even better to explicitly state which question you are answering). I respect your opinion, but if your differ on the assumptions made in the question, it would be better to express them as comments to the question.

Thank you

Note: I am not sure whether women tag is correct here. But gender tag seems to be unused.

  • Just as, on average, women tend to be more nurturing and men more aggressive, getting someone interested isn't a matter of how. Although a know barrier, especially in such a male dominated field, is the sexual predatory atmosphere. Eliminate the objectification that men tend to do, and then we can discuss the biological mutations of women. – Mike Jones Apr 9 at 23:23
  • @MikeJones Your comment should rather be in the chat. A chat room was created for discussion (instead of having it in comments); unfortunately, (it seems) somebody removed that chat room. – Cyriac Antony Apr 26 at 7:16
  • @Cyniac Antony So you left me a message that my comment would be better someplace that no longer exists – Mike Jones Apr 26 at 12:06
  • @MikeJones Exactly. Now think what your comment was saying. – Cyriac Antony Apr 28 at 16:26

11 Answers 11

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Addendum to address the misunderstandings that have become apparent in the comments:

What is being discussed here, is not to encourage women to play chess against their will or to fulfill some other agenda. It's about the fact that there exists an active discouraging attitude towards women in the chess world. Namely, the disrespectful attitude that players have become accustomed to, the dismissal of female players in media coverage and in the literature, the cultural bias against women playing chess (even in the west mind you) where either from childhood girls are told chess is not for them, and similarly in society.

Examples will help: (I'll avoid giving names and titles, the intent here is not to disparage people/clubs/books etc, but to give the reader an idea of the explicit discouragement that exists)

Go to any local club, almost irrespective of where you live, what you will typically witness is:

Players acting in dismay when resigning against a female player, commonly not agreeing to stay for post-mortem analysis (neither of which they have a problem with against male players), their fellow colleagues laughing at their friend for losing to a woman. This attitude is witnessed and passed on to the younger generation: boys constantly mock one another saying "haha you lost to a girl", which means this idea has already been seeded in their heads that boys are supposed to be smarter than girls. Coaches and trainers making comments to (boys) team about them being able to beat anyone in the women's team. Team coaches favoring to select men players to complete their team despite there being stronger female players in the club. Your typical first encounter with your teammates is "oh so you're the exception to the rule, it's nice to see women play chess..."

In the media coverage and literature, often there's a clear disregard towards women, e.g. books starting off in their preface by saying "they will refer to a hypothetical chess player as a he for as long as there hasn't been a female world champion!" In other words, they're saying "I'll start respecting women in chess when they become one day world champion." Or worse, books trying to give analogies for a chess concept and including sexist remarks such as: "For the lady chess player, I would use the comparison with buying clothes corresponding to latest fashion...". And sadly, the list goes on and on... A lot of these things are not just inherent to the chess world.

So as things stand, the scene is not at an equal footing for men and women, instead, female chess players are being constantly disheartened from playing the game they love, or being discouraged from pursuing it. So the discussions here are not about preferential treatment, it's about fighting against the clear bias that exists and how to give boys and girls equal chance and same level of enthusiasm to find out about this beautiful game.

Luckily, not all is lost, nowadays there are many players both men and women who are actively fighting and making a difference in this matter.

End of addendum.


Your first suggestion of separated events already sets the wrong agenda, and here I'll try to focus mostly on this aspect. Not only does the separation create the false assumption in young players' minds that the two genders cannot play at the same level, but it also lowers the number of competitions and the diversity in opponents.This would be a major setback, considering that as is there are currently far less girls getting into chess due to wrongly seeded cultural biases. I strongly recommend reading Judit Polgar's article on the importance of mixed competitions. However, as pointed out in the comments by user Greg Martin (see addendum 3), one shouldn't be completely dismissive towards female-only events either, as they do provide an inclusive safe-space to start competing in.

So first suggestions I'd have are:

  • Level the playing field: Organize mixed events! There should be no separation between men and women in chess, which is a purely intellectual endeavor, just like fields of mathematics or biology are.

  • Create a healthy environment: Prevent wrong biases from being perpetuated, as a coach or parent. Don't call a girl being good at chess as being the exception. Be encouraging towards children, and have same level of considerations towards boy and girls playing the game. If you teach or analyse games for a group of people, don't be dismissive towards the games played by your female students, and provide studies and coverage of high level chess from a diversified set of players, irrespective of their gender. This increase the chances of each of your students in finding both a playing style closer to their own and also a character that resonates with them.

  • To be encouraging and to popularize the game, it is absolutely mandatory to stand up against assumptions against gender bias which can makes themselves apparent in how we talk about chess players (e.g. not assuming a hypothetical chess player is male, see these discussions (1), (2) on the matter), how we write about the game (many famous chess books start outright making sexist remarks in their preface towards a potential female reader), and in our ways and manners when playing the game (related, here).

Instead of being encouraging towards women, often even the high ranking renown players feel entitled to make the utmost ungrounded misogynistic comments about women in the game. I quote below from an article on the Guardian, titled "The World Chess Championship is thrilling. But where are the women?":

More concerning is the realisation that these unproven arguments are not confined to the niche world of online chess communities. High-ranking male chess players have a long history of making disparaging and misogynistic remarks about women and chess. Bobby Fischer, in what would turn out be one of his tamer offensive opinions, suggested in a 1963 interview that women were terrible chess players because “they’re not so smart”. Half a century later the men are still at it, with British grandmaster Nigel Short arguing in 2015 that women are simply not “hardwired” to play chess.

As J. Polgar argues, a healthier competitive scene is beneficial to raising the level of play, for all players! This is important both for 1. achieving a level of normalcy in people being or becoming passionate about the game of chess irrespective of their gender, similar to how education (in any field) should be pursuable on an equal footing without bias or restraint, and 2. it helps create role models and idols for girls finding out about the game. On the topic of absence of female world champions and idols, I further quote from the previous article:

The real reason behind the absence of a female world champion, however, has less to do with crude biological reductionism than simple statistical science. A recent study has argued that the dearth of women in top chess tournaments is to be expected, given the gender disparity in participation at all levels of the game.

The authors analysed the population of about 120,000 players active in a single country, with a ratio of male to female participants of 16:1. Their findings highlighted that 96% of the difference in ability between genders could be explained by the fact that extreme values from a large sample are likely to be far larger than those from a small one. In other words, there have been more men represented at the world championship because more men play chess. This, in turn, means that a higher number are bound to reach the skill level of Carlsen and Caruana.

If – then – we want to see a woman win the World Chess Championship, we first must address the lack of female participation in the game. The reasons behind this are complex, and likely manifold, but let us focus here on just one: the lack of prominent female chess players.

There are no real female role models for young girls, even though women have been playing chess for a really long time (the first official Women’s World Chess Championship, for instance, was held in 1927). There are, of course, female players who have been recognised for their outstanding skill, such as the Polgar sisters and the current women’s number one, Hou Yifan. Yet these women aren’t assigned the same level of importance within chess’s historical narrative as men such as José Capablanca, Garry Kasparov, Fischer and Carlsen. As all the “heroes” of chess are men, women are taught from an early age to associate good chess with being male.

If we have any hope of addressing this, we need to raise the public profile of female chess players. Alongside the news features on Carlsen, we need to run one on Hou. We need to cover the Women’s World Chess Championship with the same fervour as the “main” world championship – or at the very least we need to, you know, actually cover it.

Some women have already made attempts to address the discrepancy in media coverage and to raise the profile of female chess players. Take, for instance, the Chilean chess player and musician Juga, who is currently releasing music exploring her identity and experiences as a woman in chess. By branching out, she is able to both boost her reputation within the traditional community as well as drawing attention to female players among audiences who have had less exposure to the world of chess tournaments. It seems that this may be just the time to bring about the endgame of male-dominated chess.


Addendum 2: Parallel with esports

As mentioned earlier, these issues are not inherent to the chess world. On a much larger scale, same issues of toxic behaviour towards female gamers and sexism permeate the online gaming world and its underlying industry.

To read more on the topic, below are a select of articles I recommend reading:

Addendum 3: important role of separated events

User Greg Martin makes an important point regarding the adverse effects of taking abrupt measures in abolishing female-only events. I quote the comment here (as comments might not be lasting in SE)

One point of disagreement (in a sea of things on which we definitely agree): Polgar certainly is promoting participation in mixed tournaments, but that is not the same as being against participation in female-only tournaments, and I would suggest not dismissing them so quickly. One of the characteristics of systemic sexism is that it creates situations for which there is no great solution. Having female-only events is not great, but not having them is also not great (you have described many of the reasons why). Feeling included is a very powerful aspect of the situation.

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    I disagree with the premise. I tried getting my daughter and her friends interested with ZERO results. I don't know of any parent who disparaged their girls from learning chess. AND, as a side note, younger brothers of two of the girls became instantly interested in chess and are now, years later, playing chess on their own, There is more to this issue than simply "the patriarchy." – Mayo Jan 24 at 18:03
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Before I start, I will quote "Batgirl" who responded to a similar question on chess.com: "Why do you think it's necessary to have more ladies playing chess?"

I think if someone is interested, great, but I am not convinced that this needs to be looked at as a gender issue.

I do think that it is beneficial to kids, in general, and it is necessary to start them young if you are going to get high volumes of interest. I think that the single best way to get kids involved, including girls, is if you can convince an elementary school that it will help kids learn in other subjects, and thus, make it a class a few times per week.

There have been studies going all the way back to the Soviet Union supporting this theory.

It is very ambitious, but I would start there because if you are successful, you will affect the lives of many children, including many girls, in a positive way.

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    I am a teen girl and I was taught when I was 7. I did not like it at first but I love it now. It would have been great to have chess in school. I don't know any girls in school who play but more prob would have if they started back then too. – user20520 Jan 22 at 21:10
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Maybe, for the most part, people are people and some like chess and some do not. Worrying about gender is irrelevant. People doing what they like, does not need to be "fixed." My wife and daughter are fair players but neither even came to a tournament I ran. And that is okay.

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    The problem is that some women may be interested in chess but give up, or may not have the opportunity to develop an interest for chess, because of a male-dominated environment. – Taladris Jan 23 at 2:13
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    @Taladris Do you have any evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) for these assertions, or is it purely speculation? – Pharap Jan 23 at 2:37
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    @Pharap: I took the claim of the OP that the chess world is mostly masculine at face value. Other areas that are predominantly masculine (some sports, science, computer science, video games,...) share the same problem of not being very welcoming to women. I was simply commenting that joining a club (chess or whatever) is not only a question of personal taste ("some like [whatever] and some do not. People doing what they like, does not need to be fixed.") – Taladris Jan 23 at 4:05
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    Some people have a pathological need to find non problems and claim they are important then impose their fix that makes everything worse for everybody else but at leas the fixer feels good about themselves for eliminating the non problem that did not exist. – edwina oliver Jan 23 at 4:49
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    And yet in competetive scenes it's still male dominated. To me that shows that they are being discouraged in some way from publicly being 'gamers'. There is a difference between doing something in private and being under intense public scrutiny which. The few female esports players have often spoken about how poorly treated they are specifically because they are female. For examples see Scarlett in Starcraft and Remilia in League of Legends. – Bytes Jan 23 at 16:27
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Here's an idea: why don't you ask them?

Just find some women and ask them: "Are you interested in chess at all? No? Why not? You are? Then why aren't you involved in tournaments? Why do you think there aren't more women playing chess? What do you think could be done to change that? Does it even bother you at all?"

If the statistics that get thrown around are even half correct then chances are that everyone (or almost everyone) involved in commenting on and answering this question is likely to be male, which means you'll probably only get a male viewpoint by asking here.

Don't ask the donkey what's wrong with the horse, get the answer from the horse's mouth.

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According to the statistics, which can be extracted from the latest FIDE players list, female participation rate in FIDE rated chess (100 x No. of active female players / No. of active players) = 15.56%. However there is considerable variation between different federations.

Looking at federations with more than 1200 active players we see female participation rates varying between 3.04% (Denmark) and 40.37% (Mongolia). Clearly come federations or societies are "getting it right" and some are not.

Here is a list of the

Top 10 "worst offenders":

Federation Participation Rate
Denmark 3.04
Finland 4.42
Netherlands 4.59
Ireland 4.61
Norway 5.20
Argentina 5.69
Israel 6.17
Switzerland 6.61
Austria 6.80
Sweden 7.10

And here are the

Top 5 Good Guys:

Federation Participation Rate
Malaysia 28.47
Vietnam 30.89
Sri Lanka 34.91
United Arab Emirates 34.97
Mongolia 40.37

Surprisingly the 10 "worst offenders" are all amongst the most emancipated countries in the world. They are the countries where women have the most opportunities to live full and fulfilling lives. As for the top 5 "good guys", well, women in society in those countries don't have it so good. Their rights are not respected. They are not allowed to lead full, emancipated lives.

This gives us the answer to the question:

How to encourage women/girls to take up chess?

Very simple. If we want female participation in chess to increase then the best way in those "benighted" countries with low participation rates is to turn the clock back, reduce women's rights in society so that chess is one of only a very limited number of options available to them. Then they will have little choice but to participate.

Of course there is another possibility. We could just stand back and applaud women's greater common sense in prioritising what is important in their lives and deciding that they have better things to do than waste their time playing chess. We could celebrate women's much greater freedom to choose. I know which one I prefer.

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    Look at the top 100 rated players in the world. No amount of encouragement will get women to fill half those slots. There is no reason to encourage anyone to play chess except to help FIDE or USCF or some national federation make more money. People should be able to choose whatever interests they want to pursue and merely have an equal opportunity to try. – edwina oliver Jan 22 at 18:33
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    Hypothesis: There is more female chess participation in unemancipated countries simply because chess is one of the few things that are culturally acceptable for them to do, compared with emancipated societies. It doesn't mean they would still play chess if they had more choice! – alephzero Jan 22 at 22:31
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    While your answer is funny, it does make a good point that women who are free to do what they want are not choosing to play chess. Broadly speaking, chess isn't interesting to most people, so it isn't that surprising. As men become more free I would expect them to find other things to do too. – user21278 Jan 23 at 7:13
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    "The Handmaids Tale" in a nutshell and a game... And the Sarcasm was noted and appreciated. One thing you left out of your analysis was that in countries where women's participation is high, games are probably seen as things of little importance, hence allowing women to participate doesn't threaten the men. Would also be interesting to see if in those countries, the chess clubs were coed or were for women only. – boatcoder Jan 23 at 16:39
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    This answer touches on something the (in?)famous Jordan Peterson often mentions. Countries like my Sweden where the women's liberation has arguably progressed the furthest are also the countries where you see the most gender differences when you look at the choices people make. – pipe Jan 24 at 23:19
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Get female teachers to teach chess. Find somebody that can inspire other women. Give them a safe space.

The worst thing you can do is invite women to play chess, and then they show up to a class with 20 guys and a male teacher. Yeah, that ain't going to work.

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    chicken and egg? where do you find all these female teachers. – edwina oliver Jan 22 at 18:27
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    At the same place where you find other women, I imagine. You don't need a million of them, because one female teacher can inspire 100 female students, so even if there aren't many of them, if you can just find a few, they can make a big impact, and thankfully, there's not a place on earth where there aren't at least a few female chess players - and in my experience, they're desperate for some same-gender company, so they're usually happy to engage with others, to teach, contribute. To find them, ask people in your network, put fliers up on school boards, or force your little sister to do it! – rare Jan 22 at 20:34
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    As a male who has been in a class of 20-30 females and only 2 other males (only one of whom I ever conversed with, the other I never spoke to) with 3 female teachers, I find it very hard to believe that the reverse situation would be "the worst thing you can do". The male-to-female ratio had zero impact on my interest in the subject, nor my decision to eventually drop the subject. (Granted the subject was psychology, not chess, but the specific subject of the class seems irrelevant.) – Pharap Jan 23 at 2:33
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    I find this infantilizing of women to be troubling. Women are perfectly capable of learning from male teachers and with male colleges. Men go through their entire education under a vast majority of female teachers, and with majority female colleges. I don't think the barrier to women is that they are so sexist that they need a female teacher and female colleges. – user21278 Jan 23 at 7:10
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    It's quite sexist to assume that women are so fragile and easily scared off that the prospect of playing with men would turn them off the interest entirely. – Hugo Zink Jan 23 at 10:17
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Look at it from a broader perspective. Address the bad behavior wherever it appears, regardless of who it is being aimed at.

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I landed on this topic from the sidebar on the right, so I'm not a member of the competitive chess community, but I am familiar with this question from other games and hobbies.

My suggestion is to look outside of chess to other communities and find out what has worked and what has not. This question is far from unique to chess.

To perhaps start the search, I found this after a little bit of searching... The Makers of Magic: the Gathering Say They're Trying to Make It Less of a Boys' Club

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Here is a story that was on the web some years ago, but seems to no longer be available.

An elementary school teacher formed a chess club in the school. According to him, around fourth grade, the girls in the club started dropping out because they tended to be more interested in communication and cooperation than in competition.  And around fifth grade, the boys started dropping out because there were no girls.

To mitigate this problem, he invented a chess variant with both competition and cooperation—a team would cooperate to compete with another team. He called it Pi Chess.”

https://web.archive.org/web/20170625101518/http://pi-chess.com/

https://www.facebook.com/Pi-The-Chess-Game-of-the-21st-Century-208519166298175/

When I created a three-person chess variant about nine years ago, he (or the company marketing it) gave me enough pieces in three colors to use with my game.

However, the current owner of the last few sets says the above story is false.

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  • I have been told today that the chess club story above is false. I know that I read it on the web around 2010 or 2011, but I believe my source (that it is false) is reliable. – WGroleau Jan 24 at 1:51
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In my (somewhat outdated and German specific experience) there is only two ways to attract new young chess players to a club. This is family ties and community building (youth work).

Incidentally most of the great female chess players I meat had a family history of active chess playing parents. Which is not a very wide audience, but a chess club certainly has to start recruiting in the families of their own members. (And this obviously only works if there is a reliable, age appropriate, engaging, structured offering).

This might already attract more interested outsiders, because those children might recommend and drag in friends.

And the second thing is an active youth work, offering fun/engaging activities like trips, organizing parties and generally working in relationship with schools. It certainly helps here to have female mentors or at least mentors who don't creep out females.

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Those who play chess do it for the fun of it, not to satisfy the fevered dreams of some gender-centric ideologue. Why is there this ceaseless push to pathologize social circles populated by men? There is nothing stopping you crybullies in building the chess clubs of your own desires.

Quit treating society like a petri dish and humans like cattle!!

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