An article in Science News says “Girls are under-represented at math competitions, generally,” following up on the data point that only 44 percent of the participants at a middle school math competition were girls. “This isn’t an unusual occurrence at the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO). But it is a problem,” the story concludes.
So first of all, why are fewer than half the participants girls? It’s about 6 percent below the representation of girls in the general middle school population of the US. And second, why is this a problem? And third, what can we or should we do to increase the number of girls at math olympiads to 50 percent, a number that is much closer to their representation in the general population, if we decide that should be a goal?
Every seventh-grade girl I have ever taught had no specific problem with math. When they got to college, though, many of them decided to pursue a different course of study, while a number of them did go into a math or science field.
At the secondary school level, this is a solution in search of a problem. Encouraging girls to pursue studies in math not only puts them into a subservient role to the males in society, mainly by discouraging them from pursuing other interests to follow a course of study they may not wish to pursue, but it also reduces the diversity of participants in other fields that aren’t related to math, some of which are completely dominated by females.
Now, girls who pursue intensive math and science courses in high school also tend to excel in other areas, such as the fine arts, athletics, the social sciences, the humanities, and so on. My advice, to any student who ever asked me, was that if you intend to pursue a career, say, in music, get as much math and science in while you’re still in high school. Once you get to college, math and science fall away so you can spend those eight hours a day in the practice room.