I came across a post today by Fanou Lefebvrea, a young French woman writing and drawing about her experiences of sexism and abuse as a female chess player. She addressed the post to Magnus Carlsen, the newly crowned Norwegian chess world champion.
It’s a sad story, and as I was reading it, I began questioning how universal her experiences were in the chess world. Norway is ranked in the top few countries ranked according to gender equality (see the Gender Equality Index), so I wondered how the situation was in Norway, and how it was elsewhere in the world.
I have no way to measure abuse or sexism, so I took the closest proxy I could find and looked at the rating lists according to FIDE, the international chess body, to see how the ratio of male to female chess players stands for each country.
The topic of female chess strength comes up frequently, and, in most cases, the question is asked why men are stronger. There has never been a female world champion, and the top female players are far weaker than the top male players.
However, the discrepancy is almost entirely explained by participation rates, as this study indicates. Essentially, the ratio of male to female chess players at the top level matches the ratio of male to female players at all levels, so that there’s no significant difference in strength, simply a difference in participation.
So, let’s take a look at the levels of participation of some of the top chess countries, as well as a few others thrown in for geographical curiosity:
The ratios listed above are likely to over-represent females. Since FIDE competitions are divided by gender, the existence of weaker female-only competitions and the need to fill teams, and therefore the higher likelihood of a female appearing on the list than an equivalently rated male, probably means that a higher proportion of females are rated by FIDE than are actually present in the overall chess-playing population. I know in South Africa, at the lower level, the ratio is certainly higher than 4 to 1. But for comparative purposes at least, the figures probably hold.
The first thing to note is that Norway fares very badly by this measure. There are almost 17 male Norwegian chess players rated by FIDE for each 1 Norwegian female. Other Scandinavian countries are even worse, with Denmark propping up the table at 59 to 1, while Finland is 33 to 1. There seems to be no correlation between gender equality in society in general, and an equivalent chess ratio.
Western European countries on the whole fare poorly. England is 16 to 1, Spain 21 to 1, France 13 to 1, Germany 18 to 1, Italy 25 to 1. Scotland, albeit with smaller sample, leads western Europe with a ratio of 12 to 1.
The situation in the United States is similar, 17 to 1, and Australia 10 to 1.
In eastern Europe, traditionally chess powerhouses and still dominant when it comes to the top players, both male and female, the situation is somewhat different. Armenia (where chess is compulsory in schools) has a ratio of 5 to 1, Ukraine 7 to 1, Uzbekistan 5 to 1, Poland 6 to 1, Hungary 7 to 1, Russia 6 to 1, Azerbaijan 3 to 1 and Georgia 2 to 1.
Further east, the ratio improves even more. China, Vietnam and Mongolia all have ratios of 2 to 1, with Vietnam’s 1.61 the best of any country in the sample. India and Japan don’t fare quite as well, both at 9 to 1, but still better than Western Europe. Looking at a few other areas in the world, South Africa has a ratio of 4 to 1, Cuba 5 to 1 and Iran 8 to 1, all substantially ahead of the Western European norm.
So, it seems there’s very little correlation between gender equality and chess equality, but there is a strong correlation with geographic location. Western countries have the worst ratios, and China and neighbouring countries the best.
It’s possible to do more with the data, and consider changes over time, growth rates. What are the differences between countries relatively new to chess, or experiencing strong growth rates, and those with a long, established chess culture.
I can only speculate on the reasons, but it’s clear that the west has a lot of work to do towards making chess a more inclusive pastime.
If any chess players, especially female chess players, do come across this post, I’d be interested in hearing about experiences in your part of the world in the comments below.