Women Perform Worse When Playing Men, New Study Shows

Women Perform Worse When Playing Men, New Study Shows

| 76 | Chess Event Coverage

Do female chess players play better or worse when they play against men, or is there no difference? A recent study suggests that women perform slightly worse as a result of what has been labeled "stereotype threat."

Co-authored by Australian GM David Smerdon, the study is called "Female Chess Players Show Typical Stereotype-Threat Effects: Commentary on Stafford (2018)" and was recently published in Psychological Science, the top empirical psychology journal.

As the title of the study suggests, it cannot be properly contextualized without taking into account the earlier research by Tom Stafford, a doctor at the University of Sheffield who came to a different conclusion in his 2018 paper, "Female chess players outperform expectations when playing men."

Stafford's research also deals with "stereotype threats," a term that is used as a potential explanation of differential performance between men and women in some cognitive domains. The concern that a person might be the target of demeaning stereotypes can disrupt performance, for example in mathematics, as one study has shown.

What's interesting for our readers is that both papers are using chess as a way of measuring the stereotype threats. Besides the fact that chess focuses on cognitive capacity, the existence of the Elo rating system provides valuable data points for scientists.

As Staffored notes, the stereotypical grandmaster is a man due to the game being heavily male-dominated, both in terms of the absolute number of male players and in terms of male representation among the best chess players.

Why there are fewer female chess players overall and among the top players, is a different question which was, for instance, widely discussed five years ago when a column by GM Nigel Short went viral. The issue discussed in the science here is whether the performance of women is affected by the gender of their opponent.

From looking at the results in a database of standard tournament games played between January 2008 and August 2015 and limiting the games to players holding a FIDE rating, Stafford concluded that stereotype threat does not appear to affect chess at this level. In fact, his research showed that women actually observed a small boost in performance when playing men compared to playing women.

Using a larger sample from the same dataset, Smerdon and his co-authors first managed to replicate Stafford's results. After that, they followed up with a multiverse analysis in which they included many possible combinations of control variables that correlated strongly with performance, including opponents’ age and players’ age difference from their opponents.

As it turned out, most of the multiverse analyses revealed the typical stereotype-threat effect, with women performing worse when they play men than would be expected on the basis of their Elo ratings. The stereotype-threat effect was especially large when games were played under faster time controls such as rapid or blitz.

The new results are similar to the results of a 2016 study that examined computer-rated quality of moves in games by strong players. There, it was shown that female players make moves of equal quality to male players when they play other women but make moves of lower quality when they play against men.

In a final note, Smerdon and his co-authors are pessimistic about the usefulness of the Elo system for similar, future research. They note that because Elo ratings change dynamically with performance, they should incorporate any stereotype-threat effects. In other words, if women tend to underperform when they play men, their Elo ratings should already reflect that fact.

Peter Doggers

Peter Doggers joined a chess club a month before turning 15 and still plays for it. He used to be an active tournament player and holds two IM norms.

Peter has a Master of Arts degree in Dutch Language & Literature. He briefly worked at New in Chess, then as a Dutch teacher and then in a project for improving safety and security in Amsterdam schools.

Between 2007 and 2013 Peter was running ChessVibes, a major source for chess news and videos acquired by in October 2013.

As our Director News & Events, Peter writes many of our news reports. In the summer of 2022, The Guardian’s Leonard Barden described him as “widely regarded as the world’s best chess journalist.”

In October, Peter's first book The Chess Revolution will be published!

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