Senior Sakenah Lajkem solves a math competition problem involving geometry. In her AP Calculus BC class, Lajkem noticed there were more female student tutors than male student tutors. “Growing up I did not really notice a disparity between male and female students, at least in school academics. In fact, teachers often joke about female students being smarter or more responsible than their male peers. But, this narrative seems to switch when looking at competitive math and pursuing STEM extracurriculars,” Lajkem said.
Senior Sakenah Lajkem solves a math competition problem involving geometry. In her AP Calculus BC class, Lajkem noticed there were more female student tutors than male student tutors. “Growing up I did not really notice a disparity between male and female students, at least in school academics. In fact, teachers often joke about female students being smarter or more responsible than their male peers. But, this narrative seems to switch when looking at competitive math and pursuing STEM extracurriculars,” Lajkem said.
Esta Kamau

Competitive math: Where the ‘M’ in STEM implies male

Thirty thousand students in the United States participate annually in the American Mathematics Competition, an exam that allows students to potentially represent the U.S. in the International Math Olympiad. Yet, only 14% of those students identify as girls, and a smaller proportion make it to the top ranks.

While at first glance, this may appear to be solely a participation issue, the lack of girls pursuing competitive math, especially in school, can lead to math anxiety. This problem leads to diminishing performance and engagement in advanced and competitive math. Multiple studies have found that by third grade, many girls lose confidence in math, which leads to a gendered math gap where, in higher-income households, boys tend to score higher in math than girls, and in lower-income households, girls perform better but only by a small percentage. 

“I think it’s a deep-rooted opinion in our society that women aren’t as capable in STEM fields. This is a sad reality, even given that my grandmother was one of two women who graduated with a degree in chemistry the year she graduated,” assistant math department head and Math Contest Program leader Patrick Mooney said. 

One of the most common reasons why many girls tend to lose interest in math early on is because of the myth of the “math brain”: boys tend to be more logical and better fit for STEM fields, while women tend to be more emotional, better fit for the arts and humanities. Yet, research shows no innate cognitive biological differences between men and women in math. This makes sense evolutionarily 一 why should women, who often become mothers and have the responsibility of carrying the child, be less logical than their male counterparts? 

Freshman Alisha Yin has been involved in science competitions, like Science Bowl and math contests, like the American Math Competition (AMC) series and MCTM since the fifth grade. 

“A lot of people claim there’s ‘equal opportunity’ for women to participate in math contests or pursue STEM and that they are not doing it simply because they are not inclined. But that’s not the case at all,” Yin said. “From my experience, a lot of girls have a lot of interest in these subjects and especially in competing in STEM subjects. But, they end up not pursuing them or working as hard in them because, for young girls, there isn’t as strong of a pre-established culture around it, as young boys [have]. So, as a girl, you have to implement yourself harder to see yourself in the same dreams the boys your age have.” 

As a young girl, you have to implement yourself harder to see yourself in the same dreams the boys your age have”

— Alisha Yin

In competitive math, where competitions often require students to work in teams, young girls can feel alienated from their male peers. Not only can this lead to a future lack of participation in math competitions, but it can also discourage girls from continuing to improve their competition math skills. 

“When I was younger, math was a huge part of my life, with studying for contests like Mathcounts and MathLeague taking up large portions of my time,” Yin said. “But slowly, as less and less of my friends were doing these contests with me, I lost motivation. I had friends who were guys, but it just wasn’t the same because they would obviously be closer with their other male friends.”

In addition, due to the lack of participation, there are going to be fewer performing well enough to qualify for selective math exams like the American Invitation Math Examination or International Math Olympiad, leading to less representation, which can, in turn, demotivate younger girls from participating in the preliminary stages that can lead them to such paths. 

“In the whole middle school math team, with 14 people, I would be the only girl. And then when I’d go on stage, to receive awards for being top 10 or top five, I’d be the only girl up there, which was pretty alienating,” Yin said. “I remember in fifth or sixth grade I got first in the state in the Countdown round of the MathCounts competition. Afterwards, a lot of people were saying it was easier for me to get first because I was a girl, and the competition managers ‘went easier.’ But, that was literally not the case because all the questions are the same difficulty and randomly generated. It’s little comments like this that make a big difference in a girl’s motivation to not only participate in math contests but actually study and work for excelling in them.”

Ultimately, employees in the STEM field earn two-thirds more than those employed in other fields, according to the Pew Research Center. And, a direct pipeline to the highest-paying jobs in the STEM field, like quantitative traders and software engineers, is competitive math. So, the gender gap in competition math can actually lead to a lack of monetary independence in women, further perpetuating gender stereotypes.

“I think the more we encourage the analytical intelligence of women, it will decrease the gender gaps in the field. In other words, showing girls they can do STEM now will make it easier to keep them doing it in the future,” Mooney said. “We need to show the student population that it is fun to challenge ourselves every once in a while.”

Male-dominated competition in math environments leads to male-dominated industries in highly lucrative careers. But, it’s time to turn this gender gap into a bridge, where everyone works to incorporate diversity and meritocracy in a high-achieving academic environment. It’s not just about promoting participation to meet diversity quotas; it’s about promoting the idea that girls can succeed in a competitive, cutthroat environment and win.

Interested in STEM or just want to try something new, here are some math competitions to get started with:

  • American Math Competition: Scoring well on this multiple-choice exam allows you to qualify for the American Invitational Math Exam, and if you perform well on the AIME, you qualify for the US(J)AMO which is the national math olympiad. In addition, the Mathematical Association of America, the organization that hosts the AMC and AIME, recognizes young girls who perform well on the AMC with prizes like the Maryam Mirzakhani, Akamai and Jane Street awards. West High hosts the AMC 10 and 12, reach out to Mooney if interested.
  • INTEGIRLS Math Contest: INTEGIRLS is a nonprofit organization that has chapters in multiple states 一  including a chapter in St. Louis 一 that hosts math competitions for young girls interested in math. INTEGIRLS STL hosts biannual math contests that are completely free to sign up for, with the next one taking place online in March 2024. 
  • Atlantic Pacific Math Contest (At-Pac): This is a series of six contests given monthly from November to April, with topics ranging from geometry to combinatorics. West High hosts the At-Pac, reach out to Mooney if interested.
  • MathLeague Contests: MathLeague is an organization that hosts math competitions, both online and in person. They have multiple regional qualifying events. Students who score well enough are invited to the State, National or International Championships. Check for events near you, and sign up independently.
View Comments (6)
About the Contributors
Audrey Ghosh, Opinions Editor
Pronouns: she/her Grade: 12 Years on staff: 4 What is your favorite piece of literature? "Anna Karenina." Who is your hero? My grandma. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? Pizza (with different toppings).
Esta Kamau, Humans of West Editor
Pronouns: she/her/they/them Grade: 11 Years on staff: 3 What is your favorite piece of literature? Lately it's been "The Summer I Turned Pretty." Who is your hero? Probably my brother. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? Any type of rice because it's versatile.
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  • S

    Serena LiuJan 29, 2024 at 9:16 pm

    Great article Audrey! See you for three hours on Thursday…

    Reply
    • A

      Audrey GhoshFeb 7, 2024 at 12:19 pm

      15 questions in 3 hours is a different beast 🙁

      Reply
  • L

    Lisa RodgersJan 29, 2024 at 2:27 pm

    Great article! I’m an actuary at RGA Re in Chesterfield. Would be happy to chat with female math students.

    – Lisa Rodgers

    Reply
  • E

    Emily EarlyJan 26, 2024 at 10:40 am

    So amazing, Audrey!!!!!

    Reply
  • L

    Lauren HolcombJan 23, 2024 at 8:40 pm

    super interesting story audrey!!! as a humanities gal I always knew about the gender gap in stem but I had no idea how serious it was 🙁

    Reply
  • W

    Will GonsiorJan 23, 2024 at 12:37 pm

    Great job, thank you Audrey!!!!

    Reply