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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Girls-only competitions build confidence – and the ranks of women in math | Christian Science Monitor

Photo: Gretel Kauffman
"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" insist Gretel Kauffman, Staff. Staff writer Jessica Mendoza contributed additional reporting from Los Angeles.

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

Source: Christian Science Monitor 

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