Many years after our society was huddled in caves, now that we live in a complex technological environment, do the gender roles imposed on our previous lifestyle still make a difference today?
Even if there is no genetic predisposition involved in the ability of females to compete at the same level in a game like chess, the structures we have created thus far definitely create barriers.
The best players begin at an early age, as can be seen with the best players such as Vaishali’s own brother. The hurdle here is that at these particularly young ages societal norms mean that this is where a lot of the gender stereotyping comes into play. This girls are encouraged and therefore are happier to do atypically female activities and boys their own. This means that for a girl to cross the gender gap already imposed by chess at this point is a great leap. Let’s say for example that a girl aged 5 begins taking up chess, at this point the difference between girls and boys is 5 to 1. If she manages to continue for another few years that number will change to 10 to 1. This lack of peers and role models is another reason that could discourage a girl from becoming passionate about the game.
These stereotypes that surround us daily actually have an impact on our performance. Even in the most neutral of environments a female in a chess match against a male is likely to feel an internal sense of inferiority, whether or not her skills are up to scratch. This is called Stereotype threat. As seen in a study conducted in 1995 by Steele & Aronson et al, those who are expected to perform poorly often do as a result of a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs very deep in the brain of those affected. Further studies have shown that when primed (or reminded) of certain characteristics such as race or gender before performing a task, results can be impacted even more aggressively. In a chess game this could mean something as simple as announcing that one competitor is female, could be enough to psychologically cause self destruction. This is why stereotypes are so dangerous, and why games like chess are only seeing a marginal shift in the genders of its players even today.
Today in chess boundaries are being broken, though the male gatekeepers at the very top are no doubt careful not to upend the system they have catered to. Now there are championships and titles that are exclusive to Women, though the entry levels are lower than the regular ones, which could be seen as another little dig. Nonetheless as a whole we seem to be becoming more open minded to others in many fields, which is why now is a fantastic time for girls like Vaishali to get into the game. There are still many moves to make before we reach equality here, but luckily all great chess players are mentally several moves ahead.