Uneasy about math competitions for girls

[This post was contributed by Lauren McGough, Girls’ Angle mentor, advisor,  and treasurer. She just graduated from MIT and will be entering Princeton’s doctoral program in physics this fall.]

Last October, I was at the annual Girls’ Angle Chocolate Soirée, the taste of dark chocolate on my tongue, the topic of mathematics education for girls on my lips. The discussion turned to mathematics competitions exclusively for girls. We weighed the merits of math competitions in general. Finally I asked Ken, Girls’ Angle’s founder and president, an intentionally loaded question.

“Ken, are you fully comfortable with the idea of a math competition for girls?”

“No,” he replied, “I’m not fully comfortable…”

I breathed a sigh of relief – neither was I. I explained the reasons for my discomfort. To me, a math competition exclusively for girls carries with it an implication – unintended by the founders of such competitions, I’m sure – that girls can’t compete with boys. It suggests that since girls seldom win in competitions against boys, they need their own competition. It’s almost as though mathematics is being treated like weightlifting – with boys and girls in different classes because they have different capacities for the task at hand.

But another attendee piped in, “Well it’s the same thing, isn’t it, a math competition for girls and a math club for girls?”

His comment highlights a harmful misconception about Girls’ Angle.

Girls’ Angle’s reason for having a math club for girls holds with it absolutely no implication that girls cannot compete with boys in mathematics. To the contrary, the mathematics pursued at Girls’ Angle is never watered down because girls are the ones who are doing it. [To verify this, see “Notes from the Club” in any issue of the Girls’ Angle Bulletin.] The reason for having a math club for girls is simply that there may be some girls who learn better in an all-girls environment. Moreover, Girls’ Angle provides a unique place where girls are exposed to female mentors who do mathematical work at the highest levels. Perhaps these girls will feel more comfortable pursuing mathematical fields because they have female role models to whom they can relate.

So the slight discomfort I feel about mathematics competitions exclusively for girls does not extend to Girls’ Angle, for Girls’ Angle never assumes, even implicitly, that girls are at all worse than boys at mathematics. I hope we can quash this misconception, because the assumption that girls are equally capable of doing mathematics lies at the core of Girls’ Angle’s mission and goals.

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