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Friday, August 11, 2017

Math isn’t just for boys | Science News for Students

"Unfortunately, too many girls have yet to get that message" says Rachel Crowell
 

More than 150 girls from around the world competed in the 2017 European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad in Zurich, Switzerland.
Photo: Evelyn Merkli/European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad/Flickr (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

In 2015 and 2016, a U.S. team won the high school Olympics of math. Yet something was missing from both six-member teams: girls.

This isn’t an unusual occurrence at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). But it is a problem.

Girls are under-represented at math competitions, generally. For instance, 108,137 middle-school students took part in the 2016 AMC 8. This American Mathematics Competition (AMC) is for eighth-grade and younger students. Girls represented fewer than half — only about 44 percent of the contestants. And that number actually is pretty high for such events. For instance, the American Invitation Mathematics Exam is another AMC program. Participation in it is by invitation only. Qualifying high-school students must have received a top score on the AMC 10 or the AMC 12. Of the 3,223 students who took part on the main event date, this year, just 443 were girls. That comes to roughly 14 in every 100 participants.

These numbers are striking because girls can be just as good at math as boys are. But somehow, many girls pick up the idea that math isn’t for them. And not only do they enter competitions less often than boys do, but they also are less likely to pursue math-related careers. In fact, just one in every four U.S. workers in math and computer-science fields is a woman.

Outdated stereotypes may be part of the problem.

Stereotypes are beliefs about entire groups of people that are based more on feelings than facts. One persistent stereotype is that girls aren’t good at math. Stereotypes can be very harmful. They can damage a person’s self-image and also limit the opportunities they receive. This may occur despite an individual’s abilities, skills and potential.

When it comes to girls and women being under-represented in math, “the trouble is a cultural one. It’s a perception thing,” says Randall Cone. He is a mathematician and computer scientist at Salisbury University in Maryland. This perception affects how many — or how few — women study advanced math and find jobs in fields that rely on math skills.


But the problem is more complex that just stereotypes. In 2009, two researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge investigated why fewer girls than boys rise to the top levels of math competitions. They looked at data from AMC events. Hoping to better understand this gender gap, they focused on high-achievers.

A gender gap in math indeed exists around the world, they found. However, they were not ready to say for sure why this might be. In fact, the problem is likely due to many things. But peer pressure may play a role. It might dissuade girls from joining math clubs or pursuing other activities that could help them become math superstars.
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Source: Science News for Students


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