Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Girls-only competitions build confidence – and the ranks of women in math

Not everyone agrees that the gender-specific contests are needed, or will endure. But the young competitors say that for now, such opportunities support and nurture them in a field where they are underrepresented.

Gretel Kauffman/The Christian Science Monitor
A participant in the Advantage Testing Foundation's Math Prize for Girls contest works her way through the exam, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Sept. 24, 2017.

When she heard her name called, Megan Joshi couldn't quite believe it. 

Earlier in the day, 266 of the brightest young minds in the country – the 16-year-old Californian among them – sat hunched over desks in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's largest classroom, silently scribbling numbers and formulas as test monitors strolled the aisles.

At first glance, it could have been just another math exam at MIT. But the Advantage Testing Foundation’s Math Prize for Girls contest, held in September, had some key distinctions: Participants competed not for grades, but for $31,000 in cash. None had yet graduated high school. And, as the competition's name would suggest, all were girls.

During the contest itself, Megan, a second-time participant, had felt unusually relaxed. Later in the afternoon, as she was named one of three first-prize winners at the awards ceremony, that calm feeling quickly disappeared.  

“As soon as I was called, I was just freaking out and hugging my friends,” Megan, a senior at Newbury Park High School in Thousand Oaks, Calif., recalls. “I kind of remember walking up to the stage, but not really.”

A sense of both competition and camaraderie permeates throughout the annual Math Prize for Girls event, one of a number of all-girls math competitions aimed at righting the deficit of women working in math and other STEM fields.

While some critics argue that gender-segregated math contests send a message that women aren’t capable of competing with men, others say such competitions can be a crucial pipeline for young girls hoping to pursue STEM careers. They offer an opportunity to gain recognition in the field while forming a network of female friends and mentors with similar interests. 

“So many of our participants share the story of being the only girl on their schools’ math teams,” said Arun Alagappan, co-founder of the Math Prize for Girls, in an email to the Monitor. “We want to give these girls the opportunity to thrive in an environment in which their sense of belonging is never in question.”

Battling the gender gap

The gender gap in math and other STEM fields is well-documented. Roughly 4 in 10 undergraduate math majors are female, according to data from 2014. But women hold just 15 percent of tenure track positions in mathematics, and roughly 9 percent of all math journal editorial positions.

Ami Radunskaya, professor of mathematics at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, compares the gender ratio along the trajectory from math student to high-level mathematician to a “Pacman pie chart,” with the percentage of women diminishing as the level of difficulty and prestige rises. 

“[The percentage of women] cuts up in half, and half, and you look at who wins the big math prizes: it’s like zero [women]. The pie chart that completely closes up,” she says. “If you see women winning prizes at these contests, or being applauded as one of the top researchers, that might give you encouragement that you could [do] that as well.”

For aspiring young mathematicians, competitions can provide key visibility and lead to scholarships and other opportunities, Dr. Radunskaya and other observers say. 

Thus, to narrow the STEM gap later in life, it’s important that girls engage in math contests early on, says Richard Rusczyk, co-author of “The Art of Problem Solving” textbook series. 

“If you have an event that’s dominated by men or one ethnic group, they experience the culture earlier, they learn to navigate it sooner, they learn its mores and ways, and what obliquely stated things actually mean,” Mr. Rusczyk says. But, he adds, getting more girls involved in the world of competitive mathematics at a young age wouldn't just benefit women in STEM. 

“If [women] can experience this culture earlier ... they might also be able to improve it” by offering a new perspective, he suggests. “If you can bring in an outside group who comes at the problem from a different angle or help develop a group along different lines, that's really powerful.”

Whether all-girls competitions are the best avenue for narrowing the STEM gap is up for debate in the math world. Events such as the European Girls' Mathematical Olympiad, an international competition founded in 2012, have been criticized by some women mathematicians for promoting negative stereotypes about women in the field. 

Such a contest “only helps stigmatise all girls as being less talented and capable in mathematics,” argued Jana Madjarova, president of the Swedish Mathematical Contest, in an interview with The Guardian, a London-based newspaper. A better way to increase the number of women in the field, Dr. Madjarova suggested, is through sponsoring and publicizing unisex competitions. 

An important tool

Megan, the first-prize winner at this year's Math Prize for Girls competition, says she understands the arguments against all-female contests, but sees them as an important tool for bringing more girls into mainstream unisex competitions, where some might feel discouraged by a lack of peers. 

“If you have a competition bringing 300 girls into practically the same room, then they automatically see that, 'Hey, these are a group of girls who I could hang out with,’ and that will motivate them to join the regular math competitions,” she says. “So I think that they're definitely necessary, and hopefully after girls become a bigger part of the mainstream competitions, then we won't need all-girls competitions anymore.”

The social aspect of the competition was a big part of why Sara Rubin chose to participate in the first Math Prize for Girls contest as a high school senior in 2009. This year, Ms. Rubin, now a graduate student in the Health Sciences & Technology track of the MD-PhD program at MIT and Harvard University, was one of a handful of alumni who returned to offer wisdom and a helping hand.

“It was cool to be a part of something where other people like me would be getting together, and I was hoping to make some new friends,” Rubin says, noting that while she had several friends at her high school who were also interested in science and math, most of her competitors in other math contests were men. Throughout college and beyond, she says, she has crossed paths with fellow Math Prize for Girls participants. 

“Science and research is such a small world,” Rubin adds. “And to have a strong support network of other people who are like-minded and are on the feminine side of it ... is really important.”

Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed additional reporting from Los Angeles.

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