Nigel Short and Sexism

Nigel Short and Sexism


Howard Adelman

To my grandson, Jo Jo.

Nigel Short is a fifty-year-old English chess grandmaster who earned his status at 19 and was, at the time, the youngest international master after Bobby Fischer, who achieved that pinnacle at the age of 151/2. By the time Nigel was 23-years old, he was ranked third in the world. In 1993, he was badly beaten by Garry Kasporov in the world chess championships. Nevertheless, he has won a slew of victories since. For example, two years ago in the Canadian Open Chess Championship match in Ottawa, he bested Canadian grandmaster, Eric Hansen, in a tiebreak.

Because of his superior role in the international and British chess world, he was awarded an MBE in 1999, was named Secretary General of the Commonwealth Chess Association in 2005, and received an honorary doctorate by the University of Bolton in 2010. He has also a record of getting into controversies: a dustup with Bobby Fisher in 2001, charging another Grand Master with cheating in 2007, but the issue which got him into the deepest hot water was his claim this year that: a) men were hardwired to be better at chess than women; b) that women had other skill sets in which they were superior; and that c) inequality was just a fact of life. He went on to grant that his wife had a higher degree of emotional intelligence than he has, but he was superior in spatial orientation, in particular, in his ability to back his car out of his narrow garage.

Whether his claims are or are not true, they had policy implications. In the field of chess, it meant not going out of his way to encourage female chess players and, instead, simply accept as a fact that men in general were better in chess than their female counterparts.  To repeat, he did not mean men were superior to women, just superior in the particular field of chess and some other areas of expertise. For example, when his e-book, Cancer 0, an account of his survival from cancer, went viral (proceeds went to the Weston Park Hospital), he credited his editor from Solopreneur Publishing, Gail Powell, as being “a brilliant lady” who pushed, cajoled and pressured him to write the book. He tweeted, “compared to her, I’ve done very little.”

It seems clear that he does not believe or claim that men are superior to women. In many areas, women are superior to men. Sometimes he implies that overall they are superior. But he does assert that in the field of chess that it is a “fact” that men are superior to women. Before examining this “fact,” does his claim justify charging him with sexism? If sexism is prejudice based on stereotyping women, with the implication of discriminatory behaviour against women on the basis of their gender, the charge is not easily made. If his claim is not a “fact” but a result of stereotyping, one basis for such a charge is present. But does such “stereotyping,” assuming for the moment his claims amount to stereotyping, include the second qualifier? Is he prejudiced? It is not clear. What seems clear is that he does not seem to favour special measures to encourage and facilitate women playing chess. There seems no evidence that he discriminated against women in chess.

He may be guilty of stereotyping (yet to be determined). He may even be guilty of prejudice, but the evidence on this seems equivocal. The third necessary foundation for a charge of sexism does not seem to be present, the translation of these beliefs into discriminatory behaviour. If these indeed are both the necessary and sufficient foundation for a charge of sexism, then the charge seems unwarranted in his case because of the lack of evidence for a charge of prejudicial behaviour. However, if the meaning of sexism is reduced to just attitudes, he may, and I stress “may,” be guilty of sexism.

Was his remark “sexist”? If sexism is the belief that one sex, the masculine one normally, is generally superior to and/or more valuable than its opposite, the feminine sex, then he is not sexist. Sometimes to be sexist means believing one gender, whether male or female, is superior to the other, but generally sexism is behaviour where limits are imposed on what women (or men in the more neutral version) can and should be allowed to do. An individual who holds such views is sexist if he (or she) engages in the practice of sexism.

Judit Polgar, who beat both Bobby Fischer’s and Nigel Short’s record by becoming a chess grandmaster at the age of 15, used her own case to rebut Nigel Short’s case. After all, she has beaten Nigel Short in chess and even Garry Kasparov. Judit argues that if women are permitted to have not only the same, but the right opportunities, they are just as capable of becoming chess grandmasters as men. As children, boys and girls currently start off as equal players, but by the time they enter their teens, parents, teachers and others discourage them from continuing.

Now neither Nigel nor Judit are biologists, neurologists, geneticists or psychologists. They are engaged in a common dispute – on whether the brains of men and women in certain areas are hardwired differently so that in different areas, men can perform “naturally” better while in other areas, women are superior performers. Note that one can hold such a position without it translating into discriminatory behaviour. That position can also lead to policies to go out of one’s way, using social and even preferential arrangements, to foster and encourage superior performance in the gender with the allegedly weaker aptitude in a field. If women are indeed not hardwired as well as men to play chess, then social policy could be made to provide extra efforts to encourage and develop women’s skills in the sport. Sexist attitudes need not lead to sexist discrimination re the gender allegedly claimed to be inferior. For some, it can lead to the advocacy of policies and extra funding to further the development of female skills in an area where they have performed, on average, poorly in the past. “Is” does not entail what ought to be. This is clearly not the position Nigel Short holds. While not promoting prejudicial treatment against females, neither does he favour special measures to foster female skills in chess.

Note, Nigel Short never said, as some journalists have claimed (Radhika Sanghani), that girls don’t have the brains to play chess. His claim is that women do not have the same natural endowment in the same proportion as men to eventually produce an equal number of female as well as male chess champions. Women can play chess. Women can play superior chess. Women can clearly even beat male grandmasters. One day, a woman could even become the world champion. But probably not without special measures. With special encouragement and facilitation, more women can become top players. But Nigel Short seems to believe, that any and all effort in that direction is not worthwhile because men will always dominate top chess playing. “It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact.”

Kasparov explained women’s inferior success in general because they were not as aggressive as men. Nigel Short suggested that women on average and in general were not hard-wired to become as good chess players as men because of the male superiority in spatial visualization, a claim that applies in general and on average, but does not apply to Judit Polger. Further, Judit’s position is closer to Nigel’s than first appears. She seems to grant that men and women are hardwired differently. “I believe that as I have proved it with my carrier that with the right amount of work, dedication, talent and love for the game it is possible to compete with the best male players in the world of chess, even though many of my colleagues were sceptical about my potential… Men and women are different, but there are different ways of thinking and fighting and still achieving the same results.” After all, she beat Nigel 8 games to 3 with five draws.

Judit accepts that natural gender differences exist, but those natural benefits (aggression and/or spatial visualization) need not lead to different results. Further, women’s special set of skills are not developed because women drop out of playing tournaments around the age of twelve because they are grabbed by other interests. I am curious whether this will happen to my grandson, Joe, who is a youthful prodigy headed up towards higher and higher rankings in the chess world. Will his enormous interest in and aptitude for music lead him not to be as preoccupied with chess as he was until he entered his teenage years?

Lorin D’Costa, an international master, has been actively involved in programs to encourage girls to continue playing chess, programs that have been quite successful. But even he admits that boys become more obsessive than girls and girls are more easily seduced by other activities because chess is not regarded as “cool”.  Further, they have so few models to copy –Hou Yifan and Alexandra Kosteniuk as well as Judit Polger.  So the question is whether hardwiring (spatial visualization, aggressive or obsessive traits) or social arrangements, including the few idols available or the financial support available to male players in Russia that is unavailable to women, lead to differences, and whether those differences can be offset by alternative social programs? Condescending and disrespectful behaviour of male colleagues to their female counterparts clearly does not help.

However, this blog is not intended to sort out the nature/nurture argument as applied to chess, let alone in general, for it is a debate that goes back almost a century. Rather, my question is what should be done when various males on the spectrum of different opinions and explanations utter their opinions, and often do so from positions of authority? When those positions appear prejudicial towards females and are uttered by males, should the males who utter those words be fired, stripped of their honours and/or ostracized?

I believe they should be criticized but not pilloried. Even when males occupy positions of authority, they need not be stripped from those positions. Let me offer one example from my experience. In the seventies or early eighties, a female colleague was retiring from the university. In the course of the retirement party for her, I learned that her pension would not be as high as a male colleague with the same number of years of employment at about the same level. I thought this seemed self-evidently wrong and got my faculty to appoint me to the five member panel that set policy for the university pension fund. (All the members were then male.)

I soon learned that the alleged facts were correct. She would receive less pension payments each month than her male colleague. When I asked the actuarial consultant why this was the case, he explained that she received the same pension amount, but over more years since women on average lived longer than men.

At the next meeting I tabled a motion. Black members of faculty should receive higher pensions than white members because, on average, blacks in Ontario had a shorter life span than whites. This, of course, shocked my colleagues who were both startled and embarrassed at the tabling of what was regarded as an outrageous motion. They asked why I was making such a motion. I said that I would give my arguments when someone seconded the motion. The Vice-President Finance, who knew me well and was a very fair gentleman, out of courtesy seconded my motion so it could be debated. When the motion came up for discussion, I argued that if gender differences could be used to pay men more per year than women, then racial differences could be used to pay blacks more than whites. All three groupings would, on average according to actuarial tables, earn the same pension amount in total over the rest of their lives. (I did not get into the issue of black female professors.) The problem lay in the categories in terms of which discriminatory pensions, if there were to be discriminatory pensions, should be paid.

But, that would mean men would get smaller pensions than they received now if women were to get the same annual pensions. I admitted that the conclusion was right, but so what? Further, since men were about 85% of the faculty, the impact would be relatively small, but the impact on our female colleagues in their ability to live with a decent life style was large. But these and a myriad of other arguments were beside the point. The real question was whether natural differences in gender or race or IQ or any other category you want to imagine – height or weight for example – should be used as a basis for allocating pension funds.


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