The Making of A Girl Mathlete

Meena Boppana
Sep 3, 2015 · 5 min read

“We can get twice as much funding if we’ve got a girl” — Kevin G., Mean Girls

I remember when I was 12 years old, I competed at the state level of MATHCOUNTS in Troy, New York at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). The countdown round, in which the top 10 scorers from the competition compete in jeopardy-style rapid fire problem solving in front of hundreds of spectators, was all guys. RPI had provided a prize for the top male and top female scorer. The only problem was: they had forgotten to ask us for our gender when we took the test. So, an awkward situation ensued in which the 70 year old (male) organizer went one by one down the list of scorers from 11th place onward (after determining that the top 10 were all male), read the name aloud, and asked “Are you a girl?” When it got to “Boppana, Meena, 14th place: are you a girl?” I wasn’t sure whether to feel happy or embarrassed to receive the prize for “top girl” in New York State.

Many people ask me how I became so aware of gender in math issues. The thing is, it was impossible to *not* be aware of the gender imbalance, especially when I got to higher and higher levels of competition. The USA Math Olympiad (USAMO) only had 19 out of 230 women when I took it in 2010, a meager 8.3 percent. At the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament in 2011, I was the only girl of 32 students on the four New York City teams. There was no one to share a hotel room with me, so I ended up with a suite all to myself at the ritzy Charles Hotel in Cambridge — potentially a perk, but on the whole a somewhat lonely experience.

I always faced a dilemma of what to wear to math competitions. On the one hand, I wanted to look nice, but on the other hand I wanted to fit in with everyone else and wear the men’s size math t-shirts they gave us which fit me more like a dress than a shirt. (My quest to make math t-shirts look fashionable led me to embrace t-shirts over skirts, headbands, and once even cutting the sleeves off of my t-shirt and braiding up the sides to make it a tank top.)

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Photo: The NYC A team at ARML (American Regional Math League) 2010. I was the only girl :(

I would classify the MATHCOUNTS and mens’ t-shirt experiences as microaggressions, incidents which in themselves are not a huge deal to me (I came in 2nd in state the following year in MATHCOUNTS, making the quest for “top girl” easier), but which build up over time. It’s like finding the area of a graph — the area of the vertical segment at any particular time slice is 0, but integrating over time, it’s suddenly a positive quantity.

One thing that helped me overcome these negative stereotypes was realizing I can do things my own way. For example, all the related things that I thought I was supposed to enjoy or be good at as a mathlete were not necessary to participate in. Puzzle hunts? Chess? Board games? I was never into any of those. And since last I checked being terrible at Avalon has no bearing on my mathematical ability, I’m okay with that.

So, I leave you with an open problem. The problem is solvable. Efforts like the Math Prize for Girls and, with regard to racial and socioeconomic diversity, SPMPS, show a path forward. But it’s not going to get better on its own, and the slope of the upward trend is far too low. If I had to put some ideas out there, here are some solutions that I would propose:

1. Advertise math circles, competitions, and camps more widely. Often, women, minorities, those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and other ‘nontraditional’ math candidates (e.g. children of non-mathematicians) may not be plugged into the same networks that spread the word about these things. Many math circles/competitions/camps that I participated in in high school were horribly unadvertised, even though they were amazing programs and I’m sure more people would want to know about them! By making the community more inclusive and equitable and ensuring that anyone interested knows about their resources, I believe the gender/race gap in math would lessen.

2. Create more communities for women in math to come together. Models for this include the Math Prize for Girls and the Association for Women in Math. At Harvard, I recently co-founded a student group called Gender Inclusivity in Math. Ironically, communities of women often make me feel less rather than more conscious of my gender. For once, I am not a minority in a room of math people.

Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, writes in Lean In that “you cannot be what you cannot see,” advocating for the importance of female role models. By creating these communities, young women are able to find role models and peers, and this effect cannot be underestimated. Hearing from leading female mathematicians on the stage at the Math Prize for Girls always leads me to feel that if these women can pursue math, so can I. And while this may seem irrational, it is a real subconscious effect.

3. Be thoughtful about the culture that you want to create around your math circle/competition/camp, whether you are an organizer or a participant. In particular, be welcoming to newcomers. The Recurse Center’s “social rules” shows an example of lightweight community norms that one can implement. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a conversation along the lines of “You mean you haven’t HEARD of the Chicken McNugget theorem???” This is silly because everyone has to start somewhere, and not knowing a theorem by name is not at all an indicator of intelligence or potential, it’s an indicator of experience.

4. Last but certainly not least, gather more data. Tracy Chou, an early software engineer at Pinterest, famously created a spreadsheet of the gender ratios at tech companies, leading to accountability and a flurry of conversation. Currently, the MAA does not release its numbers by gender for the USAMO, though it does for the AMC and AIME. By releasing the numbers, we can see where exactly we stand.

Particularly if you don’t believe me or want to uncover the finer points, do some digging. Look at math competition statistics over time and see if the gender gap is getting better. Do a survey like I did in the Harvard math department. If you’re inclined to code, try analyzing the forum posts on AoPS by gender. Glenn Ellison, an MIT economist, wrote a paper on AMC data by gender.

I love the math communities which I have been part of: math competitions were the hands down best experience of middle and high school, and the friends that I made doing competitions have become my network in college and beyond. (Walking down the street in downtown Palo Alto this summer, where I was doing a tech internship, I ran into not one but two former mathlete friends.) That love is why I feel so passionately about consciously including others of all backgrounds in this weird-but-wonderful world of high school math competitions.



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