Ellie Simon ’15 Examines Gender Disparity in Chess Competitions

Although Ellie Simon ’15 has loved chess since the age of five, she became disheartened as she grew older when noticed that she was one of the few girls participating in chess tournaments.

Noting the lack of female players at competitive chess tournaments, Simon, who stopped competing at the age of 14, decided to research and explore the reasons why the ratio of boy to girl players grew increasingly imbalanced as individuals aged, and she presented her findings at her Brace Fellow Presentation in the Mural Room last Friday.

“When I would sit down for a match, people would say, ‘Are you saving this seat for your dad?’ or, ‘You play well for a girl.’ I didn’t really pick up on those [comments] for a while, but they’re all implying this underlying mentality in the chess world, which is that girls aren’t good at chess,” said Simon in her presentation.

In her research, Simon found the ratio of boy to girl chess players to be 16:1, and that women only make up one percent of the top chess players in the world. Her initial hypothesis proposed that girls perceived more negative social feedback from their peers for playing chess and that the pervasiveness of such stereotypes led to a subconscious belief in them.

“What I found was that I was half-right. Yes, girls were the most aware of such stereotypes, but they also disagreed with the stereotypes more than any other cohort, which is a positive thing. The retired girls perceive the stereotype the most, which is a strong indication that [the stereotype] was a reason why they quit,” said Simon.

In addition to these negative stereotypes, Simon found three other factors that determine why girls quit playing chess: a lack of confidence, personality differences between boys and girls and social factors. “The game of chess is just naturally masculine. If you think about it, it’s very bellicose. You have two teams with medieval fighters who are trying to beat the other. The main objective of the game is to attack and gain your opponent’s king, which is a masculine piece,” said Simon.

After surveying both active and retired female chess players, Simon came to the conclusion that overcoming the gender barrier in chess will turn the game into a more positive experience for girls.

“Girls are actually enjoying [chess] more than the boys are, out of the people that I surveyed. A study I looked at showed that female chess players are more satisfied with life, had fewer physical complaints, and a higher achievement motivation than the normal population, which is kind of ridiculous. Overcoming this barrier has the potential to transform your life into a better thing,” said Simon.

Simon found that overcoming the gender barrier could provide a solution for getting more girls involved in chess and assist in balancing the gender ratio.

“The fact is that it’s this unbalanced gender ratio that’s leading girls to feel like they don’t belong [in the chess world] and that they don’t have support. Breaking that is the way to bring more girls into chess and get more female coaches. That can be increased by awareness, but is also just a problem that needs to be solved,” said Simon.