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Mathematics Unites Young Women & Challenges the Gender Gap in STEM

WASHINGTON, DC (May 21, 2021) — According to the Census Bureau, women have made significant gains in the STEM workforce over the years, but men still dominate the field. In 2019, "Men made up 52% of all U.S. workers but 73% of all STEM workers."

To address this problem, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) announced the start of the Young Women in Mathematics Awards & Certificates Program in 2020. Thanks to the support of the MAA community and wonderful donors, the American Mathematics Competition (AMC) team was able to expand the program to celebrate 845 students. This program recognizes the hard work of young women that participated in the 2020-2021 AMC cycle as they placed in the top-scoring spots for the AMC 8, AMC 10A, AMC 10B, AMC 12A, and AMC 12B.

This cohort of inspiring students participated in a unique, hybrid competition setting with some students participating in-person or online as a result of the current pandemic. Despite the changes to this AMC cycle, the students persevered through virtual studying and activities to achieve impressive results during the competition.

After announcing the winners, the MAA team had the pleasure of reading student survey responses about their experience as a young woman in mathematics, how they started participating in the AMC and mathematics in general. Not only were their scores inspiring, but their determination to succeed in breaking down the gender gap is incredible. Several of the Award and Certificate winners expressed their interest in creating inclusive clubs to get more students involved in math, or they’ve already started working on their own initiatives.

“I'm [currently] a Head of inteGIRLS D.C., and we hold math competitions and puzzles hunts for girls and nonbinary students across the world. Through managing inteGIRLS, I was able to see my direct impact on girls in the community. Many girls have mentioned to me that they felt much more confident about math after participating in our competitions than they were before,” according to Lillian Sun, an award winner from the AMC 12A and 12B. “Aside from inteGIRLS, I've also started mentoring younger girls in my high school's math team to guide them both academically and socially throughout the year.”

Lillian’s experience as a leader in her community demonstrates the importance of initiatives focused on breaking down barriers in math. Despite facing adversity in the mathematics field, many of the young women recognized here have used this opportunity to feel more self-confident in their skills and help more young women around them. For some students, this is fueling their drive to change the field, for others, this is exactly the type of validation they need to feel better about their skills.

For example, Isabella Zhu, award winner for the AMC 10B, wrote, “People have told me that I'm not as smart or talented just because I'm a girl. This used to upset me, but by working hard to improve my problem-solving skills, I proved over and over again that I am just as good as other male students. Now, it doesn't matter to me if people still think I am inferior because I know that I am not and am confident in myself.”

According to the Cornell Chronicle, "Among high school senior boys, 26% planned to enter STEM or Biomed occupations, compared with 13% of girls...The results suggest that efforts to reduce gender differences in STEM outcomes need to begin much earlier in students’ educational careers." Numerous students cited a teacher, parent, or math club as the catalyst for their pursuit of mathematics in middle school. The Young Women in Mathematics Program serves as an opportunity to highlight this phenomenon and celebrate the growth students have made as they continue their STEM education.

Not only are these students defying gender biases, but many of them are taking an intersectional approach to challenge educational barriers for students across the gender, ethnic, and class spectrums. Hannah Guan, award winner for AMC 10B and 12A, has committed to breaking down these barriers stating, “At age 11, I founded San Antonio Math Include (SaMi), a nonprofit organization to teach problem-solving, collaboration, and lifelong learning to all students. In only three years, SaMi has grown to 7183 students and 206 volunteers from 429 schools in 38 states and 4 countries. The majority of our students are from underrepresented groups in STEM (50.3% girls, 78% Hispanic, 12% African American, 33% from low-income families).”

Mirroring Hannah’s concern for current obstacles to student access to quality mathematics education, Sejal Rathi, award winner for AMC 12A and B, “noticed a huge disparity in academic privileges and lack of diversity due to socioeconomic status and an imbalanced gender ratio. I want to help build a community of girls and educate and excite them in the field of math by providing them the resources and guidance they need to pursue their passions.” Sejal, along with several other young women, has taken their AMC experiences and applied their problem-solving skills to face issues in their communities.

The Young Women in Mathematics Program is more than just a chance to recognize successful students. This program will establish a tradition of honoring the innovative and driven students involved in the AMC as they continue to pursue their studies and dynamically change their communities. The MAA is so proud to honor the tenacity and strength of these young women as they face issues in education head-on; it’s this type of problem-solving and determination that will help break down barriers in STEM education.

And to think this was all thanks to one girl's dream, Meera Desai, to honor her mentor, Maryam Mirzakhani, and lift up budding mathematicians. Changing the STEM gender gap won’t be easy, but with the help of the MAA community, we can uplift more and more young women as they pursue mathematics.