Why Fewer Girls Play Chess and What to Do about it

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Sandy Ruxton is an Independent Consultant and Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Durham. He is undertaking research on gender norms for the UK Government Equalities Office, together with Nicole Westmarland and Stephen Burrell, which will be published in 2020. At the conference he presented a survey on what tutors say about girls in the chess classroom which he conducted on behalf of Chess in Schools and Communities. The following article reflects his personal views.

Much discussion at the 2019 London Chess Conference understandably focussed on how to present chess as an attractive game for girls, and promising practices in engaging and sustaining their participation at all levels. But less attention was given to how wider gender norms influence the attitudes and behaviour of girls and boys from a very young age, and how they can undermine or support involvement in chess.

It is still common in the chess world to hear it said that girls’ brains are just not hardwired for chess and that their absence is merely a reflection of this biological fact. But in academic circles the notion that the differences between girls and boys in terms of skills and capacities are predetermined and fixed is increasingly discredited[4]. Modern neuroscience shows that there is very little difference between male and female brains. Indeed, the brain is very ‘plastic’, and the wider environment has a huge influence on any gendered differences [5].

Translated to the field of chess, this suggests that it is not that girls can’t play chess, rather that there are social and cultural influences that mean that they don’t. For example, parents often create a gendered world for young children by providing different play environments, toys, and clothing for boys and girls[6]. They also tend to encourage girls to engage in ‘feminine’ play and boys to engage in ‘masculine’ play[7]. So if parents see chess as a boy-dominated activity, they are unlikely to inspire their daughters to get involved.

School and nursery practitioners report that they often unknowingly treat children differently based on gender[8]. Boys are often paid more attention than girls in class, even when there are fewer of them[9]. Practitioners often reward ‘gender appropriate behaviour’ and use gendered language to refer to boys and girls in stereotypical ways. A combination of factors such as these can influence children’s play preferences, and hence their attraction to chess. This may be reinforced by the preponderance of male chess tutors, for whom gender issues may remain largely invisible as they are part of the dominant norm.

Children and young people are not just passive sponges of gender norms, but actively perform and learn gender through social interaction with their peers. They often police one another too, ridiculing those who behave in ways that do not conform to certain gender norms and rewarding gender-typical behaviour from their peers[10]. In practice, this can lead boys (and sometimes other girls) to undermine and/or dismiss girls’ participation in chess.

The weight of these influences can seem overwhelming. So what can be done? In some ways, it is impossible to divorce measures to address gender norms that affect girls’ participation in chess, from those that seek to raise the position and status of girls more widely. Within primary schools and other early years settings, teachers and tutors need to check their own unconscious biases and challenge stereotyping, and gender training has a role to play here as part of a whole-school approach. In the same way that gendered language can reinforce gender bias, it is essential to audit the use of language and imagery in leaflets, websites, and information for parents. Another important step is to ensure that staff and tutors feel able to engage and talk with children about not excluding themselves or others from certain types of play, such as chess. It is also vital to listen to and discuss girls’ (and boys’) own perspectives on what they would like to change so that they can all enjoy all aspects of school life, including chess. Finally, it is crucial to engage with parents and carers to help them explore and challenge gender stereotypes too, and thereby open up opportunities for their children that they might not have otherwise considered.


[1] The Fawcett Society is the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights at work, at home and in public life. In 2019, Fawcett launched an expert ‘Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood’ to build a new consensus on the impact gender stereotypes have and how they can be ended.

[2] Martin, C., & Ruble, D. (2004) ‘Children’s search for gender cues: Cognitive perspectives on gender development,’ Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13(2)

[3] Bian, Leslie, and Cimpian, (2017) ‘Gender stereotypes about intellectual ability emerge early and influence children’s interests’, Science 355

[4] Fine, C. (2011) Delusions of Gender: the real science behind sex differences, London: Icon Books

[5] Rippon, G. (2019) The Gendered Brain, Bodley Head: London

[6] Etaugh, C. & Liss, M.B (1992). ‘Home, school, and playroom: training grounds for adult gender roles,’ Sex Roles, 26

[7] Etaugh & Liss, ibid.

[8] The National Unions of Teachers (2013) Stereotypes stop you doing stuff, challenging stereotypes through Primary education, https://www.teachers.org.uk/files/stereotypes-stop.pdf

[9] Chick, K., Heilman-Houser, R., & Hunter, M. (2002) ‘The impact of childcare on gender role development and gender stereotypes,’ Early Childhood Education Journal, 29(3)

[10] Martin, C. L., Kornienko, O., Schaefer, D. R., Hanish, L. D., Fabes, R. A., & Goble, P. (2013) ‘The role of sex of peers and gender-typed activities in young children’s peer affiliative networks: A longitudinal analysis of selection and influence,’ Child Development, 84

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