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Gender Gaps at the Math Olympiad: Where Are the Girls?

Earlier this month, as you may have heard, a U.S. team won the International Math Olympiad for the first time in 21 years.

The news was exciting and unexpected and pride-inducing. 

Except for one aspect that, sadly, that was neither of those last two adjectives: The fact that the six-person winning U.S. team had no girls. 

The U.S. team members were chosen through a series of competitions held by the Mathematical Association of America. Team head coach Poh-Shen Loh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, told NPR that two of the top 12 in the U.S. Math Olympiad, the precursor to the international contest, were girls. 

"One might say, 'Only two out of 12, that's terrible.'" he said. "But I should say in many years, it was, unfortunately, zero."

Leah Libresco, a writer for the data journalism website FiveThirtyEight.com, took a closer look at the gender makeup of the International Math Olympiad teams over the years. She found that the average number of girls per team has risen slowly since the 1970s, but is still dismally low.

IMO girls chart.png

Three countries—Azerbaijan, North Korea, and Tajikistan—have never had a girl on their teams. "At the IMO, even the teams who bring the most female competitors don't bring very many." Libresco wrote. "The six nations at the top of the list—Bolivia, Albania, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Croatia have averaged between 1 and 1.3 girls per IMO team."

The chart above, I have to say, is actually pretty laughable. The y-axis doesn't even reach one single full, human girl. The U.S. has averaged 0.2 girls per team since 1993, Libresco says.

It's hard to know where to place the blame. As a source pointed out to me recently, many of these U.S. competitors are trained for such contests not in the general public school systems but in special summer programs such as the Mathematical Olympiad Summer Program. But how do students decide to get there? And what makes them decide to go?

A deep dive into the most recent round of international assessment data found that generally the highest-achieving boys did better than the highest-achieving girlsAmong the top 10 percent of students in math, boys outperform girls by an average of 20 score points. 

In addition, the data from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, data showed that girls have higher math anxiety than boys and lower self-confidence, which some say may contribute to the disparities. (As always, it's important to remember that such data is correlational, not causational.)

But the data also indicated that there was no statistical difference between boys' and girls' scores in math and science in the United States. The same was not true of many other countries. At the time, Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, which administers the assessment, proclaimed, "In math and science, the United States has overcome some of the gender differences." That may be true, but the gender gap at the Math Olympiad indicates the United States still has quite a ways to go. 

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