Where the U.S.’s stereotypes about girls come from, however, is interesting, because they’ve changed, even in the last 60 years. In her article, “What Gender is Science?” Charles writes that more 19th-century girls took physics, astronomy, and chemistry classes than boys, because it was good training for housework and was seen as requiring less capacity for higher reasoning than the humanities.
In the early 20th century, arithmetic and coding were considered menial clerical tasks, which is why so many of the “human computers” and computer coders were often female. These fields finally became male-dominated starting in the ‘50s, when they became lucrative. This makes sense, since the Space Race and the Cold War both led to a massive tech boom. Silicon Valley’s rise in the ‘70s and ‘80s further cemented the computer tech field as a brilliant boys’ club.
But when trying to solve the math gender gap in this and other countries, it may be most useful to look at the girls who didn’t absorb the stereotypes, like Iglesias, the European Olympiad’s Team USA coach; Sherry Gong, a doctoral student at MIT who also coaches the team; and two of its competitors, Celine Liang and Demi Guo, both high-school seniors from California. All four have at least one parent who works in a STEM or medical field. And all four say they were encouraged by teachers, at different school levels, to pursue math competitions. These factors have been shown to make a difference when it comes to encouraging students to pursue STEM.
And then there’s self-confidence. “It would be a little disappointing when you can’t do a problem, but don’t be discouraged if you can’t do a problem,” Liang said, directing her advice at middle-schoolers.
But confidence can waver even in the most dedicated. Gong, who in 2007 was the second American girl in International Math Olympiad history to get the gold medal, recalled getting a pep talk during a competition from her coach, Melanie Wood (who was the first American girl to ever get on Team USA). “I thought I was doing really badly, but ... she said girls tend to underestimate how well they are doing,” Gong said.
And while current participants hope the U.S. team will continue competing in the European Girls Math Olympiad for years to come, these young mathematicians aren’t dismayed by the thought of a future where it isn’t needed.
“It’s a good thing to have a chance for more girls,” Guo said. “It’s necessary for now because there aren’t other alternatives.”