Abolishing women’s titles: a different perspective

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Women's ChessI’ve been known to defend the position that women’s tournaments are all nonsense: after all, we don’t have math competitions especially for women, nor do we have girls-only musical concourses. But a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, pleading for abolishment of women’s FIDE titles, made me think again. Barbara Jepson’s piece is actually a collection of various opinions rather than a bold op-ed of her own. Her main point is that FIDE “persists in the anachronistic and demeaning practice of awarding separate titles for women at lower levels of accomplishment.” Interestingly, the (female) chess players Jepson interviews are all top-level. For instance, when Jepson argues that “the time has come to drop gender-segregated titles for women”, she quotes IM Irina Krush saying “women's titles are really a marker of lower expectations.” Other strong female chess players she quotes are Alexandra Kosteniuk and Jennifer Shahade – all seem in favour of abolishing the female titles, though it’s Krush’s voice that speaks loudest in the article.

But what about women who are not as strong as Kosteniuk, Shahade and Krush, or the ones who have not been fortunate enough to pursue their chess goals due to lack of means, time or focus? Although I initially tended to agree with its basic premise, I suddenly felt that the Wall Street Journal article was strangely biased, so I asked Dutch women’s international master (WIM) Arlette van Weersel about her opinion on the discussion. Here’s what she said:
Arlette van WeerselI think abolishing women’s titles is a bad idea. Earning a title and working towards the goals to obtain it can be a great incentive, especially for young girls. In my opinion, women (and young girls) need this kind of incentives more than men, given the fact that we’re still living in a male-oriented society.

The idea that women’s titles are unnecessary seems rather black-and-white to me. Of course, a WIM or WGM title doesn’t mean much at a global top level: all female top players have men’s titles. On the other hand, it’s not always possible for girls to invest much time in a chess career. But these players may still want to distinguish themselves from inactive or lower level women.
Van Weersel’s ideas about male-oriented societies will no doubt raise a few eyebrows - until you think about non-Western countries. Chess is not only a game played by people from the US and Europe, and FIDE – gens una sumus – has to think about all countries rather than the ones where female emancipation happens to be rather advanced. Also, sadly, there are still plenty of examples in Western countries where male orientedness seems to be in place as firmly as ever. And it’s not as if Van Weersel is blind to the disadvantages of women’s titles:
It may be argued, of course, that female titles prevent young girls from trying to become stronger. They can be a WIM with a 2200 rating, whereas a boy would need about 200 rating points more for the same title. But for me personally, trying to obtain the WIM title was a big motivation. Given the time I want to invest in chess, becoming a grandmaster is simply not an option, but the goal of WGM does seem possible.
It seems to me it all depends on what you want to achieve with chess. Is chess just for fun or is there money involved as well? This is another point raised in Barbara Jepson’s article: the commercial aspect of women’s chess. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk notes “the most serious challenge for top-rated female chess players in general is to find commercial sponsors or institutional support, like from sports foundations or government sports committees.”

Reigning Women World Champion Aleksandra Kosteniuk

Yet Van Weersel points out that here, women’s titles could actually come to the rescue:
Tournament organizers actually benefit from the existence of women’s titles. The thing is that these titles are regarded as regular titles for calculating [male] norms. If women’s titles are abolished, fewer female players will be invited to closed tournaments. In my opinion, this certainly doesn’t help women’s chess.
Unavoidably, the gender-debate also rears its ugly head in Jepson’s article, and as always, principles often appear to be more important than facts.
Wall Street JournalA number of aficionados claim that men have an edge because chess is a game of spatial relations, and some studies show men scoring higher than women in "mental rotation." Chess teachers say that girls are usually not as competitive as boys, and that hinders their performance.(…) Yet in the long term, women will benefit from having the titles they hold conferred on the same basis as men. "While some men may remain sexist no matter what," observes Mr. Pandolfini, "for the bulk of humanity, ability wins out and speaks the loudest."
Jepson seems to argue that despite these possible differences, competing on the same level is called for anyway. Jepson and the people she interviews seem to hold the opinion that these differences someone must be really overcome, and should be ignored as much as possible at all costs. But perhaps a more sophisticated point of view is called for. As the primatologist Frans de Waal once said, “You can take an ape out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the ape”. In other words, perhaps we should simply accept these differences rather than pretend they don’t exist. Van Weersel, in any case, seems to have a more realistic attitude than the people interviewed for the Wall Street Journal:
The true reason for wanting to abolish women’s titles seems to be that women aren’t dumber than men and therefore can become just as strong as them. I agree with this, but there really are differences, too, such as social issues, dealing with emotions and the way women focus on things. Reaching the top is still very difficult for girls in practice, and only a very small percentage of chess playing women obtain men’s titles. As long as chess development between men and women is so far apart, I think women’s titles are okay.
In a perfect world, we may want a competition that absolutely fair and equal, but reality often forces us to look differently at things. On one level, I am definitely annoyed every time I see women with lower ratings than myself having their entry fee and hotel paid for, while I must pay for everything myself, just because they happen to be WIM. And it's a nice comfort to know that Krush and others acknowledge this feeling.

But when I think about it from another angle, I must admit it’s not such a bad idea. Women really are different than men in some aspects, both by nature and by nurture, and this is especially true for women in underdeveloped countries. Perhaps we should think twice before turning our backs on them just because our ideals tell us so.
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