Finding My Community: From Math Olympiads to Coursera

By Colleen Lee

Growing up, I didn’t feel much of my identity was rooted in being female or pursuing particularly feminine pastimes. I was a child who loved math, played sports and music, and enjoyed video games in a variety of genres. (I was also something of a Star Wars fanatic.)

It wasn’t until high school that I started to recognize the gender gap in math and its severity as I followed my passion. The International Math Olympiad (IMO) is a highly competitive challenge for which members of the US team are chosen based on a funnel of increasingly selective math competitions. Over a hundred thousand students take the American Mathematics Competition (AMC), an open contest which is the first stage of that funnel. By the time that funnel ends, with the selection of the six members of the national team, there are virtually no women left.

In 2007, the US sent its first team to the China Girls’ Math Olympiad (CGMO) and I was one of the eight women selected. That summer, I met three women who had represented the US at the International Math Olympiad (IMO), and I was stunned to learn that they were the only women to have ever qualified in the 30-plus years since the US began competing. And since 2007, no woman has qualified for the IMO team.

Why are there so few women in not only math, but also tech and other STEM fields? One study observed that all of the qualifiers to the CGMO in 2007 and 2008 had come from schools that performed very well at these math competitions, with multiple qualifiers for the USA Math Olympiad (USAMO). In contrast, more than half of the male IMO team members in those years had come from schools where they were the only student to qualify for the USAMO. This suggests that having a community with other high-achievers is more important for women than for men, but also hints at the potential for growth if more schools could be as strong as those that produced top contenders.

Increasing the number of women in STEM is not only a problem for women to solve. Thinking back to my own experience, I have been extremely privileged to be accepted as a member of talented communities of men as well as women. While I have felt the distinct shortage of female role models in STEM fields, I have never felt like I do not belong, because I have always found and joined communities where I feel accepted and welcomed by peers I respect.

This was a key motivating factor when I joined Coursera nearly four years ago, after graduating from Stanford with a B.S. in Engineering Physics and an M.S. in Electrical Engineering. At Coursera, I am among individuals with shared interests who embrace who I am, and together, we work to form a global community of learners crossing not only gender boundaries but also the boundaries of race, ethnicity, and culture. By making the highest-quality education universally accessible, I hope we can enable more individuals to realize their potential and find acceptance in communities of those sharing their talents and interests — whether in math or other STEM related fields.


Originally published at building.coursera.org on March 11, 2016.

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