Women in competitive environments evidence from expert chess

Ladies in competitive environments: Evidence from chess

Maria Cubel

Recent explanations for the persistence of both gender wage gap and the under-representation of ladies in top jobs have centered on behavioural aspects, specifically on differences in the responses of women and men to competition. This column shows that it could not be competition itself that affects women, however the gender of their opponent. Analysis of data from a large number of expert chess games demonstrates women are less inclined to win weighed against men of the same ability, and that is driven by women making more errors specifically when playing against men.


Despite heated academic debates plus some bold policy reforms, the gender wage gap and the under-representation of ladies in top jobs persist. This persistence challenges explanations predicated on pure gender differences in human capital or preferences, and also explanations predicated on statistical discrimination for employers (Blau and Kahn 2016).

Newer explanations have centered on behavioural aspects, specifically on differences in the responses of women and men to competition. For instance, Gneezy et al. (2003) find that men perform much better than ladies in competition, and Niederle and Vesterlund (2007) discover that women are more reluctant than men to enter competition, even though they perform aswell as men in non-competitive environments.

Many see these results as proof that women genuinely dislike competition or they are innately handicapped for this. But is that so? Could it be competition that bothers women, or could it be who they are competing against?

This last question may be especially important in male-dominated environments where women have problems with strong negative stereotypes and where they face male competitors generally. This remains a comparatively unexplored question, mostly since it is difficult to acquire data on real-world competitions where innate ability could be observed and where people compete on the same footing.

Professional chess tournaments offer a fantastic framework to review the existence of gender interaction effects in competition for three reasons. First, people compete on equal grounds and face to face. Second, luck plays no role in the results of a casino game – rather, this will depend on effort and ability. Third, that ability includes a public and well-established measure, the Elo rating, named following its creator, the physicist Arpad Elo.

Online databases of games played at international tournaments include information on players’ characteristics, the movements they manufactured in a game, and the results. Highly motivated players regularly check these databases to review their opponents also to learn new movements.

Expert chess can be an extremely male-dominated game. Right now, it appears easier for a female to be American president than world chess champion – only 11% of players in international mixed gender tournaments and 2% of grandmasters are women, and there is one woman among the world’s best 100 (the Chinese player Hou Yifan).

In addition, you will find a persistent and non-negligible performance gap between people. Typically, women have 15% lower Elo points than men. As a result (but also as a cause) of the under-representation and underperformance, stereotypes against women are widespread in the chess world. For instance, in the 1960s, American grandmaster Bobby Fischer declared:

“They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid in comparison to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you understand. They’re like beginners.”

But one doesn’t need to return to the 1960s to find such prejudices. As recently as 2015, the English grandmaster Nigel Short said that “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess”. Unfortunately, it appears that many professional chess players think that chess is similar to Dr Pepper: “it’s not for women”. But there is absolutely no compelling proof men’s innate superiority in chess.

Expert chess also resembles highly competitive professions for the reason that it needs determination, tenacity and a lot of hours of practice. Women who are professional chess players, exactly like ladies in many competitive occupations, have selected themselves right into a highly demanding male-dominated environment. With all this selection, you might expect women never to be suffering from the gender of the individual they are competing against – however they are.

In a recently available paper written jointly with two colleagues, Peter Backus and Santiago Sánchez-Pages, and two computer scientists, Matej Guid and Enrique López-Mañas, I study the existence and possible factors behind gender interactions in competition through the use of data from expert chess players – those in the most notable 5% of the distribution of world players. Benefiting from the thorough efforts of chess enthusiasts through the years, we obtain data on a large number of games and players, their Elo rating, age, federation, tournament and, of course, their gender.

The first consequence of our study was expected. Typically, women underperform weighed against men of the same ability.

Our second result is more worrying (and interesting). The gender gap in performance is because of the gender composition of games. Whenever a woman plays against an other woman of the same ability, she’s a 50% potential for winning. But when a female plays against a guy of the same ability, she only includes a 46% chance. That is equal to a handicap of 30 Elo points when the opponent is a guy.

To clarify the reason why behind such a depressing result, we use information on the movements manufactured in each game to calculate a way of measuring quality of play for every player in each game. To take action, we follow the methodology of Guid and Bratko (2006). We compute the difference between your quality of the movement chosen by the player and the grade of the movement a chess engine could have chosen instead. The chess engine we use comes with an Elo rating above 3,000 points and for that reason it is best than any human player, like the current world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Our way of measuring the standard of play may be the average of the differences within the ‘middle game’. That’s, it is a way of measuring the errors committed through the most creative phase of the overall game and where improvisation is vital. Whenever we regress this way of measuring error against our controls and the gender of the opponent, we find that women commit more mistakes if they play against a guy. The caliber of play of men, however, isn’t suffering from the gender of the opponent.

It is vital to note that people also find that, after controlling for players’ characteristics, the common quality of play of woman versus woman games and man versus man games are identical. So, it isn’t that women dislike competition or are simply worse at competing; the problem appears if they contend with men.

These email address details are thus compatible with the idea of stereotype threat, which argues that whenever a group is suffering from a poor stereotype, the anxiety experienced trying in order to avoid that stereotype, or simply being conscious of it, increases the possibility of confirming the stereotype. As indicated above, expert chess is a strongly male-stereotyped environment.

Other results from our study show that men also modify their behaviour when playing against women. Given two opponents of equal ability and two identical board positions, men resign later if they play against a female. This result echoes the observation of the 19th Century American writer Charles Dudley Warner, who said that “there is nothing more annoying for a guy than losing a chess game against a female”. Probably, resigning against another man can continually be interpreted as a ‘gentlemen’s pact’.

We also observe a negative aftereffect of increased competitive pressure on performance when such pressure is measured by increased stakes in the overall game. When the Elo points on the line in a casino game are larger, players, men and women, commit more mistakes. An identical result was obtained by Paserman (2010) using data from Grand Slam tennis tournaments. But we usually do not observe gender differences in the result of increased competitive pressure.

Finally, i want to mention two policy suggestions that may emerge from our analysis. First, it may be smart to introduce ‘blind’ tournaments where the gender of players would remain unknown, as regarding blind orchestra auditions (Goldin and Rouse 2000).

Second, remember that expert women chess players are highly professional. They reach a high degree of mastery plus they have selected themselves right into a clearly male-dominated field. If we find gender interaction effects in this very selective sample, it appears reasonable to anticipate larger gender differences in the complete population.

Backus, P, M Cubel, M Guid, E López-Mañas, and S Sánchez-Pages (2016), “Gender, Competition and Performance: Evidence from Real Tournaments”, IEB Working Paper 2016/27.

Blau, F, and L Kahn (2016), “The Gender Wage Gap: Extent, Trends, and Explanations”, IZA DP No. 9656.

Gneezy, U, M Niederle, and A Rustichini (2003), “Performance in Competitive Environments: Gender Differences”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 118: 1049-74.

Gneezy, U, and A Rustichini (2004), “Gender and Competition at a Age”, American Economic Review 94: 377-81.

Goldin, C, and C Rouse (2000), “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians”, American Economic Review 40: 715-42.

Guid, M, and I Bratko (2006), “Computer Analysis of Chess Champions”, International VIDEO GAMES Association Journal 29 (2): 65-73.

Niederle, M, and L Vesterlund (2007), “Do Women Shy From Competition? Do Men Compete AN EXCESSIVE AMOUNT OF?” Quarterly Journal of Economics 122: 1067-101.