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By all appearances

Reporting on women and girls in chess can go wrong in many ways, but do not despair, help is near. Tatiana Flores has some guidelines.

Women’s chess was all over the FIDE website during the last week.
Women’s chess was all over the FIDE website during the last week.

There was no shortage of reporting about women’s chess during the last two weeks due to the Women’s Grand Prix in Gibraltar. However, some of it read like it had been a youth event. Players were referred to by their first names. Boyfriends got mentioned. Hair-styling was a recurring topic.

Most of the time, women’s chess doesn’t make the top of chess news or federation websites, and you have to scroll to the bottom or you find it hidden in a women’s section if there is one. Media reports about girls and women in chess often emphasize the gender rather than the achievements. When we write or say “the first girl who achieved …” or “the first woman that …” we are pushing their gender in the foreground and their performance in the background. Have you ever read that Kasparov or Carlsen “was the first male player to achieve a certain rating“? Of course not. In chess it is still assumed that the player in question is male.

Some of the Gibraltar Grand Prix reports read like it had been a youth event. Players were referred to by their first names. Boyfriends got mentioned. Hair-styling was a recurring topic.

The presence of women and girls is ornamental in the eyes of officials as revealed when they comment on their appearances, often in clumsy, unpleasant or outright sexist ways. In coverage of mixed or “open” events, female players are much more likely than male players to be pictured but in some cases are not even mentioned in the actual reporting, says Lilli Hahn from the German Chess Youth. This observation motivated her to add an online round table on “How to publicly present and report about women’s chess” to the European Girls’ and Women’s Chess Weekend that she organised recently with support of the ECU (that reported here) and of the FIDE Women’s Commission.

The European Girls’ and Women’s Chess Event included tournaments, coaching sessions, webinars and round tables as on reporting about women’s chess.
The European Girls’ and Women’s Chess Event included tournaments, coaching sessions, webinars and round tables as on reporting about women’s chess.

Misrepresentation in the media coverage harms the way people – also from the outside – see women’s chess. It conveys to the next generation of players that girls and women are not fully accepted in the chess world and cannot grow and feel comfortable in the same degree as their male colleagues. Many are tired of hearing or reading the words “women’s chess” with connotations and a context that suggests it to be something inferior.

In coverage of mixed events, female players are much more likely than male players to be pictured but in some cases are not even mentioned.

Women who play in a mixed tournament instead of a women’s section are often quizzed about their decision, which many find annoying and superfluous. During media interviews female players often have to change the direction back to chess and away from other completely irrelevant topics, says Alice O’Gorman from the ECU Women’s Commission. She adds that “there is too much focus on women playing women in chess. We need to start focusing on women playing in open tournaments.”

This video by US Chess on the gender gap in competitive scholastic chess serves as an eye-opener. A must-read about the sexism female players experience and how the stereotyping of women in chess runs downs from FIDE to the online chess community and the club life is this essay anonymously published on the Lichess blog. A fine example of turning around a stereotype is Play Like a Girl! by Jennifer Shahade where she presents superb combinations by female players. More good and best practice examples will definitely help and inspire. While English words like player, arbiter or coach refer to males and females alike, many languages make females invisible, and gender-sensitive terminology like the guideline developed by the German Chess Youth can be of good use.

A good start to detect gender bias in chess reporting is the Finkbeiner test. This checklist was developed for science journalists and inspired by the Bechdel test to detect gender bias in fictional works, but it can easily be adapted to chess journalism. The following checklist is derived from points made during the round table.

Is the reporting fair and equal?

In the text

  • Are the headings and text free of comments about the players’ appearance?
  • Does the chess performance of the players lie in the foreground?
  • Are their performances in mixed tournaments mentioned and presented?

On the pictures

  • Do they convey or represent clichés, gender roles, sexism or stereotypes?
  • Are the images free from prejudices or do they reinforce them?
  • Are women and men represented equally?
  • Would it be important to see an equal number of women and men?
  • Is there a corresponding social diversity being shown?
  • Are female players shown as competitors or as bystanders?

In teaching contexts

  • Is there a sufficient number of female players shown?
  • Is gender-sensitive language being used? Don’t forget that opponents, coaches and arbiters can also be female!
  • Are teaching lessons or videos explained by female presenters? For more on gender-sensitive chess teaching read this.
Tatiana Flores is a chess journalist based in Germany. She has a monthly column, blogs and tweets.
Tatiana Flores is a chess journalist based in Germany. She has a monthly column, blogs and tweets. (photo: private)

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