Why are so few of the world's top chess players women?

This study, by the psychologist Robert Howard, then at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, compares male and female performance in international chess, and finds that men consistently perform better than women, even when there are more women chess players. Howard claims that by looking only at top players, his study eliminates the issues of ‘glass ceilings and male gatekeepers downplaying female achievement’, as though these issues can be simply dismissed once a woman makes it to the upper echelons of the chess world. Howard also points out that in Georgia, a former-Soviet republic where 30 per cent of chess players are women, the performance gap still exists, though less so. A solid explanation, Howard concludes, is that men are innately better at chess than women.

Howard has been conducting studies on the topic of male intellectual dominance for the past 10 years. His publications read like the reading list for a men’s empowerment club, with titles such as ‘Are gender differences in high achievement disappearing?’ (2005) – not according to Howard – and ‘Gender differences in intellectual achievement persist at the limits of individual capabilities’ (2013) – ie men are smarter. But whatever Howard’s motivation, his study was an attempt to discredit the prevailing explanation for why there are so few women chess players at the top, which is that there are so few girls at the bottom.