Media Storm Over Grandmaster Gender Column

Media Storm Over Grandmaster Gender Column

PeterDoggers
PeterDoggers
Apr 21, 2015, 1:30 AM |
106 | Misc

A month after publication, a column by GM Nigel Short on gender differences has suddenly caused a heated debate in English media. Short's remark that “men and women's brains are hard-wired very differently” is in the center of the argument.

The question is almost as old as the game itself: why are women performing worse in chess than men? In his column for New in Chess Magazine 2015/2 GM Nigel Short attempted to put a different perspective, suggesting “rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

Here's the final paragraph of Short's column:

“Men and women's brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don't have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do. Likewise, she doesn't feel embarrassed in asking me to manoeuvre the car out of our narrow garage. One is not better than the other, we just have different skills. It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

Media storm

This week, a month after the magazine came out, English media have suddenly picked up the column. Here's a selection of the many reports:

The debate seems to have started with the Telegraph piece, published one minute after midnight GMT on Monday. [Update: the Telegraph was indeed the initiating medium for this story, and all other media seem to have picked it up from them.]

The newspaper quotes Amanda Ross, who runs the Casual Chess cafe in London: 

“It's incredibly damaging when someone so respected basically endorses sexism. Judit Polgar, the former women’s world champion, beat Nigel Short eight classical games to three in total with five draws.

“She must have brought her man brain. Let’s just hope Nigel didn’t crash his car on those days, trying to park it. At least this resolves the age-old debate as to whether there’s a direct link between chess-playing ability and intelligence. Clearly not.”

On Twitter, Ross and Short argued as well:

Judit Polgar

Calling Polgar a “former women’s world champion” is not only factually wrong, but also misses the point Short makes in his column: that Polgar is an outlier. On average, women are performing worse, whether Polgar or Hou Yifan can compete with the best men in the world or not.

Interviewed by Sky News, Short said about his bad score against Polgar: “The fact that I have one bad score against one individual doesn’t prove anything with the general point. I’m talking about averages here. (...) Statistically [women] don’t [compete] in the same numbers. The average gap is pretty large and I think that is down to sex differences.

I don't know what those differences are. (...) But whatever the reasons for that [difference in] skill in chess, those sex differences exist.”

However, Polgar herself thinks that more women could have been as successful as her, if they had put in the same amount of time and energy. To The Telegraph she said:

I believe that as I have proved it with my career that with the right amount of work, dedication, talent and love for the game it is possible to compete the best male players in the world of chess even though many of my colleagues were sceptical about my potential.

“Of course this is not easy as generally a lot of male players say that I was an exception. I do hope that there will be more woman players who will be able to prove it again that women focusing their energy on this goal can play chess at the level of the top male players.

“Men and women are different but there are different ways of thinking and fighting still achieving the same results.”

To Time, Polgar said: “Whenever I speak to parents or to kids, I always encourage them that if they believe, if they do the work, if they are really dedicated, then they can do it,” she says. “No matter whether they are a boy or a girl.”

Sexism?

It is known that many more men than women play chess, whereas the numbers are different among kids. Why are some many girls quitting the game? 

“High female drop-out rates are something of a mystery,” writes Nigel Short. The question is better asked to female players. WIM Sabrina Chevannes said to The Telegraph: “Chess definitely has a problem with sexism, I have faced it all my career. I’ve been asked if I want to play in the junior section; I’ve even had men refuse to believe I’m there to play.”

WIM Rita Atkins told The Guardian: “I teach a lot of chess to school kids and I think it is to do with the fact that girls shy away from aggressive competitiveness at a young age whereas young boys are very competitive. I think that is the main reason why girls don’t get into it as much when they are young, and so don’t get to competition level.”

Numbers?

In a follow-up piece, The Telegraph argues that “the problem isn’t that women are worse at chess than men — it’s that there are far, far fewer women chess players.” IM Lorin d'Costa is quoted saying: “Girls don’t continue playing because they drop out too early,” he explains. “They think it’s not worth all the hassle. A lot of girls think, ‘why should I do this when I can hang out with my friends?’”

However, this is one of many examples where it becomes clear that the reporter hasn't carefully read the actual column in New in Chess. As Short points out, a recent study has pointed out that the situation is not different in places where the numbers of participating women are bigger. Short, who quotes a study by Robert Howard at the University of New South Wales, Sydney:

“(...) even in countries like Georgia, where female participation is substantially higher than average, the gender gap actually increases — which is, of course, the exact opposite of what one would expect were the participatory hypothesis true.”

Neuroscience

It cannot be denied that there are differences between the male and female brains. Short's remark that “men and women's brain's are hard-wired very differently” probably refers to a 2013 study of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia that showed notable differences in male and female neural wiring.

The difference discovered was that inter-hemispheric connectivity was much stronger in women's and girls' brains, whereas intra-hemispheric connectivity was much stronger in the brains of men and boys.

More differences between between the male and female brains are known of, but we're still awaiting scientific proof of whether there's a direct link with performance at chess.

Short's suggestion that there is, is at least controversial. Whether it is right or wrong, nobody knows.

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