Should There Be Separate Math Competitions for Girls?

I grew up a purist. Mathematics was about mathematics, not about gender. I personally would never have competed in a math competition exclusively for girls. I would have felt diminished somehow. Furthermore, suppose there were separate math competitions for boys, where girls were not allowed. I would have felt outraged. By symmetry, I should have been outraged by math competitions exclusively for girls.

When I first heard about math competitions for girls, I was uncomfortable. I also noticed that my Eastern European friends shared my feelings, while my other friends did not.

There was a stage in my life when I lived in Princeton for seven years and became friends with Ingrid Daubechies, who is NOT Eastern European. She didn’t share my extreme views, and we argued a lot. Every spring, there was a big conference for Women-in-Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. But I was stubborn and completely ignored it. With one exception: when Ingrid gave a lecture there, I went just to hear her talk.

In 2008, I was living in Boston, worrying about money, as I had just resigned from my industry work to return to mathematics. Out of the blue, Ingrid called to offer me a job at that very same Women-in-Mathematics conference. I admire Ingrid and got excited about working with her. More importantly, I needed the money. So I decided to put aside my prejudice and take the job.

Being part of the conference was a revelation. Although most of the two-week conference was spent on mathematics, there were some women-and-math seminars. There, women discussed bullying by advisers and colleagues, impostor syndrome, workplace bias, the two-body problem, and other issues. And guess what? I went through all of that too. I just never realized it and never talked about it.

My biggest regret was that I hadn’t attended the conference earlier. Plus, the conference didn’t feel unfair towards men: all lectures and math seminars were open to the public, and some courageous guys sat in.

What about my symmetry test? What happens if we swap genders? Should there be separate math conferences for men, open to the public? The idea makes me laugh. Women are in the minority in math, and many conferences already feel like conferences for men open to the public. My symmetry test doesn’t quite work.

But, while I saw how helpful the support was for female mathematicians and for me, something still bugs me. Where is the fine line between minority support and unfairness? Let’s look at math clubs for girls. On the surface, there are so many math clubs, so why not have the occasional math club for girls? I can imagine a girl, not me, who would prefer to attend such a club. However, girls’ clubs often have sponsors and are much cheaper to attend than regular clubs. This is unfair to boys whose parents can’t afford a regular club. It also becomes counterproductive for girls. What if some girls go to such a club, not because they need a special environment but because it is a cheaper club? They are missing out on the fun of learning math together with boys. (Trust me, I know!) So, I am not sure where that line is.

I am older and wiser now. I do not run away from events organized for women in math. I think lunches and dinners for women in math are great. They help female mathematicians find mentors, build networks, and stay in mathematics.

What about my original question: Should there be separate math competitions for girls? In a truly equal society, math competitions should be for everyone. And, though I do not actively oppose girls’ competitions anymore, I hope the need for them will die out in my lifetime.


One Comment

  1. JBL:

    Hi Tanya, this is a lovely reflection about difficult questions. When I was a senior undergraduate, I took for the first (only?) time a math class with more women students than men, and a woman professor (Elizabeth Denne). The topic was knot theory. I remember a class discussion about French braids. I guess I don’t have a thesis statement to attach to this reminiscence, but I agree with your answers to your questions.

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