Quotas, women, chess and Stuart Wheeler

Stuart Wheeler is an absolutely first-rate chap.  He’s a great Treasurer and passionate believer in the UKIP cause.

He opposes quotas for women on boards, and his comments comparing the shortage of top women in chess, bridge and poker with the shortage of women in the boardroom have led to some serious criticism.  In this post, I’m talking about the issues raised not the comments themselves.

I’m a pretty decent poker player but I know absolutely nothing about bridge.  Chess, I do know something about.  I was an England Under-21 international and have represented the top British side in the ‘Champions League of Chess’ (the European Club Cup) on more than one occasion.

There’s a shortage of women at all levels in chess.  In the 4NCL (Four Nations Chess League) teams must not all be single-gender.  Seven men and one woman is acceptable, as is seven women and one man.    In one match a few years back, a team aiming to prove a point fielded a team of seven women and one man.  It was a pretty strong team.  This is the exception rather than the rule.

I’ve coached chess at all ages through my work with the Sheffield junior club, and more boys than girls turn up to learn to play.  When a new child joins the club, in my experience there’s a 95% chance that they’ll be a boy.   The opportunities for boys and girls are by and large the same, although a girl who is a strong player is more likely to get involved in the England set-up for her age group than a boy of similar strength.  Some extra specialist coaching then becomes available, so there’s an argument that girls have (slightly) better opportunities to develop their game.  Chess is not at all sexist.  I’ve competed in numerous countries, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any discrimination against anyone because of their gender (or colour of skin, sexuality, etc for that matter).  But the fact remains, for whatever reason, males are more likely to take a long-term interest in the game than females.

Under such circumstances, there are bound to be more men than women at the highest level in chess.  Even so, the top women can – on their day – beat the top men.  Judit Polgar might have shook the core of the chessplaying world when she beat [then world no.1] Garry Kasparov, but her chances over a 24-game match of doing the same would be minimal.  She peaked at no.8 in the world in 2005.  The top

Are men intrinsically better than women at chess?  Men and women are equal.  Is it possible though, that in general men and women have different talents and abilities?  Perhaps men are predisposed towards some strengths and women towards others?  These are questions which can be debated by sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and any other ‘ists’ who wish to comment.

Whether men ‘in general’ are more likely to beat women ‘in general’ at chess is completely irrelevant.  When I’m playing a game of chess, I’m playing the opponent not the gender.  It would be patronising, insulting and plain wrong for me to treat an opponent differently if I happen to be playing a woman.  The battle takes place on the same 64 squares regardless.  Chess is the ultimate meritocracy: if I beat a woman at chess, it’s not the result of ‘discrimination’; if she beats me, I cannot claim that it was the result of ‘positive discrimination’.

In the boardroom, I want the situation to be exactly the same.  I don’t want anyone – man or woman – to get a job because of their gender.  I want it to be, like in chess, completely based upon their ability.  This is why quotas are fundamentally wrong.

Quotas put gender above ability.  How can we know, within any given industry, what the ‘correct’ percentage of men and women getting board-level jobs should be?  In some jobs, women are over-represented.  Is anyone really suggesting that we should have ‘quotas for men’ as a result?  My background is in teaching.  Suppose that I were working in primary schools, were men are under-represented.  I would feel enormously patronised if I were to form part of a ‘quota’ because neither I nor my colleagues would know whether I got the job on merit or on the basis of my gender.

Quotas open a can of worms.  They create resentment.  They focus on gender not merit.  They are divisive.  They are wrong.  So-called ‘positive discrimination’ is still discrimination, even if you add the word ‘positive’ to it.  UKIP are right to oppose quotas, and I hope that the point made in this article is the point that Stuart Wheeler was making!

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