The Toll of Being the Only Woman in the Room
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The Toll of Being the Only Woman in the Room

Being the sole representative of my sex in almost every chess club I walked into took a toll that I only began to understand recently. My experience offers some insight into how fragile and inauthentic being the token woman in a male-dominated area can be.

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This is a response to What It's Really Like To Be The Only Woman In The Workplace

I’ve played chess competitively on and off since I was nine years old. It was my source of pride and strength that I could draw on in times of need, a place where I felt respected for my abilities if I worked hard on them. I never felt explicitly discriminated against, never feeling the typical drawbacks of being the only girl as I shoved through a crowd of boys to look at pairings. I was often puzzled by my friends’ stories of being singled out for their gender in other activities. At chess tournaments, I never even thought about it, too absorbed in beating my opponents.

Being good at chess felt invigorating. When I was caught up in the bliss of victory after victory, I floated away on cloud nine, never feeling more powerful than when I dealt the winning move.

But it was off the board, off season, that the disempowering effects of this lifelong tokenism really set in.

As I grew older, I began to notice and question my unnatural behavior around my chess peers. While I vibrantly embraced all parts of myself around my female friends, I’d monitor my every movement in the chess club, always anxious of how my personality would be perceived. You see, I started to realize that the kinds of guys I played alongside–these brilliant, talented individuals whom I adored–didn’t habitually talk to or meet women aside from me. When I messed up or slacked off, they wouldn’t just see a teammate lagging behind: they’d generalize it, consciously or not, to women in chess as a whole. For this group of guys, I was their only reference point.

This might sound dramatic, but it’s an unfortunate reality of the competitive chess world, still characterized by a disdain for female players. At the highest levels, the misogynistic idea prevails that men are genetically predisposed to being better at chess than their female counterparts. It’s a ridiculous claim, but it’s a reflection of how women have been marginalized in chess. High profile players like Magnus Carlsen and Alexandra Botez both agree that misogyny in chess negatively affects the number of girls involved in the game, with Botez noticing that the girls she knew would stop playing after grade school.

Combined with a severe lack of female role models in upper-level chess, it makes sense that it remains deeply gendered. When hardly anyone who looks like you is succeeding, you start to question if you belong there. And if you do make it far enough, you’re tasked with the incredibly unfair and impossible burden of representing a complex community in its entirety.

And although I’d hardly say I made it to chess’s upper echelons, I still felt this herculean task keenly. By being extra careful to not look stupid or to not be disagreeable, I was actually subconsciously begging my male chess friends to view women in chess as capable and agreeable equals. Impressing them seemed key to my survival in this boys’ club. No matter how outwardly amicably they behaved toward me, I didn’t want that to come from benevolent sexism, a sugar-coated way of pitying my inferiority. I wanted it to come from a respect for my abilities, the way it used to be when I was in elementary school. Tasked with representing all women’s capabilities for my chess group, I axed parts of me that didn’t fit that perfectly positive image. When certain concepts didn’t make sense, I pretended to understand, fearing that if I asked too many questions the guys would further internalize the mistaken belief that their female chess peers just couldn’t keep up. My personal defects felt like they’d be turned into women’s defects unless I fixed or buried them.

This constantly imbalanced and nervous state is the toll of being the only woman in the room. I didn’t feel comfortable being authentically myself, because my flawed, complex personality would somehow do a disservice to my male peers’ perception of women. I felt fragile, like one misstep and the doors of the boys’ club that I so painstakingly pried open would slam shut in front of me. It’s what happens when you look around and everyone expects you to be their sole reference point for how to perceive an entire group of people.

And this isn’t just true for me. It’s an experience I’m sure almost every woman in a male-dominated area has felt in some shape or form. Being the token woman feels like you’re playing a game set up for you to fail because you’re fundamentally outnumbered.

The only way to solve it? Bring in more women, so we can let go of inauthentically representing others and just show up as ourselves.

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