Academic Minute Podcast

Andrei Cimpian, New York University – Parents and Mentors Perceive Less Chess Potential in Girls

Women still face discrimination in certain competitive games today.

Andrei Cimpian, professor of psychology at New York University, looks into one.

Dr. Andrei Cimpian is Professor of Psychology at New York University. His research investigates motivation and academic achievement, with a particular focus on how educational outcomes are shaped by gender and racial/ethnic stereotypes. Dr. Cimpian’s research has been published in top journals such as Science, Science Advances, and Psychological Science, earning him the 2018 American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Award for Early Career Contribution to Psychology.

Parents and Mentors Perceive Less Chess Potential in Girls

Chess has one of the worst gender problems in American society: Girls and women make up less than 15% of the membership of the US Chess Federation. My colleagues and I were struck by the fact that most research on this topic had been looking at this issue by trying to understand what’s different about women that’s holding them back in chess: Is it their reluctance to compete? Is it their spatial thinking?

Our team, which includes two-time US Women’s Champion Jennifer Shahade, decided to focus instead on the environment in chess: Might it be that women are held back by prejudice rather than their personality and abilities? And we decided to look early in life – when girls and boys first encounter chess. Looking early is important because the gender imbalance in chess starts in childhood and only gets worse from there.

We surveyed nearly 300 parents and coaches of chess players. Their answers were revealing.

Parents and coaches thought that girls’ highest potential US Chess rating was quite a bit lower than boys’. This bias was worse among parents and coaches who held a certain view of chess: that you need to be a brilliant person to be a good chess player. Among parents and coaches who held this view, girls’ highest potential rating was underestimated by almost a full rating bracket.

The beliefs that we’ve identified here are likely to be harmful both to girls who already play chess and to those who could want to: Would you be interested in a sport where your potential is downgraded by your parents and coaches before you’ve even started?

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