Mathematics Competitions and Women in Mathematics

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Sarah Selkirk discusses the large gender disparity in participation of women in mathematics competitions, and how we can change or create new mathematical enrichment programs to be more gender inclusive and thus attract more women to mathematics and mathematics-based careers.

I recently received an email from a popular coding competition website with the subject “Do you feel it is less feminine to code?” It was an attempt to encourage more of the registered female coders to participate in their online competitions as opposed to just doing practice challenges in a non-competitive environment. They claim that 24% of their active users are female, but in their most advertised and hyped up competition only 4% of the participants are female. Do women tend to shy away from competition, and if so, how does this affect the number of women participating in mathematics and mathematical disciplines?

My journey to studying mathematics is largely related to my enjoyment of mathematics competitions – my first memories of really enjoying mathematics involved participating in mathematics olympiads while in primary school. I remember sitting outside the examination hall with some other girls and comparing our answers while waiting for the other students to finish. At this point my school’s top performers in these olympiads were all girls, and there were possibly even more girls than boys that took part. I didn’t participate in many mathematics olympiads in high school, but when I took part in programming and mathematics competitions during my undergraduate years, it was very apparent how few women were participating in these events.

Studies show that participation in mathematics competitions (or any extracurricular mathematics activity) increases the likelihood of high school students following careers in mathematics [5]. In [7] authors note that “adolescents become aware of their strengths and interests and specialize accordingly by choosing, for instance, major and minor subjects. … It is during this crucial time that they are increasingly given the opportunity to participate in informal and out-of-school learning programs.” Since most students participating in, and especially achieving in, mathematics olympiads are male this perpetuates the gender disparity in mathematical careers.

by Nino Mekanarishvili
Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

The annual International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) hosts teams of high school students from over one hundred different countries, where each country selects and sends six students to participate in the mathematics olympiad. In 2019’s IMO only 65 out of the 621 contestants were female [2], and looking through statistics from the past few years reveals that the number of female participants remains close to 10%. It has been shown that males and females do not differ in terms of mathematical abilities [3], so what causes participation of women in the IMO to be 10% instead of 50%?

Competition is said to have two main dimensions – rivalry for resources and the ranking of relative performance. In both types of competition, studies have shown that in comparison with a non-competitive control test, women’s performance is negatively affected in a competitive environment, while men’s performance is positively affected [6]. In one study investigating the effect of ranking of relative performance they found that given a problem set, men increased the number of problems attempted and also the number of correct solutions. However, in the same situation women decreased the number of attempted problems, thus decreasing their number of correct answers. The study concluded that increased participation in competitive environments harms women’s chances of success.

Apparently women tend to opt out of competitive situations, and attempts to encourage them to opt into competitions only have limited success [4]. So what can be done to encourage females to continue with further studies in mathematics when the mathematics olympiads are the main extracurricular activity offered to high school students? The key seems to be in initiating out-of-school mathematics programs for high school students which involve a collaborative aspect rather than a competitive aspect.

Painting by Zurab Janelidze

In July I visited the University of Klagenfurt in Austria, which overlapped with a summer internship program that they facilitate every year. Here high school learners apply for a month-long internship program in the mathematics department where they perform day-to-day mathematical research activities [8]. Given my experience of usually being one of the only females participating in extracurricular mathematical activities, I was surprised to notice that there were an equal number of male and female interns. Over the last four years 36% of applicants to the program were girls, and remarkably in 2018, there were equal numbers of male and female applicants.

Similarly, there are a number of research programs or camps for undergraduate students in America (an extensive list of these can be found on the Mathematical Association of America’s website). Although these are not for high school learners, this type of initiative again encourages participation in mathematics without a competitive aspect which is more gender inclusive. One such program, the Duluth Undergraduate Research Program [1] says “the program is loosely structured. Although each student has his or her own problem, it is quite common for participants to receive ideas from each other. Cooperation rather than competition is stressed. Each week the participants give talks on their progress during the previous week to the group.” This program has succeeded in encouraging young female mathematicians, and has produced 15 out of the 24 winners of the Alice Schafer Prize for excellence in mathematics by an undergraduate woman.

In South Africa, we have  several excellent competitive mathematics enrichment activities that are being run at high school and university level. While these competitions do good work and I know a number of people (myself included) who have benefitted from participating in them, I am not aware of any collaborative (and thus more female-friendly) mathematics initiatives. With the evidence that competitions negatively affect women’s performance and thus participation, contributing to the gender imbalance in mathematics careers, perhaps it is time to start a collaborative mathematics enrichment activity for high school learners!

Sarah Selkirk

PhD Candidate (Mathematics),

Painting by Maria Esteves
  1. J. A. Gallian. The Duluth Undergraduate Research Program. Available at: Last accessed: 11 November 2019.
  2. International Mathematical Olympiad. 60th IMO 2019. Available at: Last accessed: 11 November 2019.
  3. A. J. Kersey, K. D. Csumitta and J. F. Cantlon. Gender similarities in the brain during mathematics development. Science of Learning. 4.19. 2019.
  4. M. Niederle and L. Vesterlund. Do women shy away from competition? Do men compete too much? Quarterly Journal of Economics, 122:1067-1101. 2007.
  5. A. Sahin, O. Gulacar and C. Stuessy. High school students’ perceptions of the effects of international science Olympiad on their STEM career aspirations and twenty-first century skill development. Research in Science Education, 45(6):785-805. 2015.
  6. A. Schram, J. Brandts and K. Gërxhani. Social-status ranking: a hidden channel to gender inequality under competition. Experimental Economics 22(2):396-418. 2019.
  7. A. M. Steegh, T. N. Höffler and M. M. Keller. Gender differences in mathematics and science competitions: A systematic review. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 56:1431-1460. 2019.
  8. University of Klagenfurt. Options for Schools: Holiday Research Placement. Available at: Last accessed: 11 November 2019.

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