What Math Camp Taught Me About Confidence and Feminism

Students and mentors work together in a team building activity to build a straw tower to see how much weight it can support as part of STEM Girls Camp, “STEM Like a Girl” activities. Forty middle school girls attended the camp held on base. (Air Force photo by Kelly White)

When I think of summer, I think about sunbathing in the rays of the hot July sun. My mind wanders off to the warm sands of the beach and afternoons spent curling up on a pool chair, reading magazines by the water. I think of homemade popsicles sticking to the roof of my mouth and scratches earned from traipsing through the woods.

I do not, however, think of sitting at a desk doing math problems.

But this summer, I did just that. I was cooped up at a math camp for two-and-a-half weeks, and for six hours a day, six days a week, I crammed graphs and theorems into my mind. My world was made up of grids, rulers, and numbers, without a single calculator in sight.

I wasn’t even originally planning on going to math camp. My parents wanted my twin brother, who excelled in math competitions, to go. Days before the deadline, they urged me to apply so I could accompany him, and a few months later, I reluctantly boarded a plane that would take me to the place I’d spend the remainder of my summer crunching numbers. However, in a span of less than three weeks, I learned more than just Heron’s Formula and induction.

I always knew that math competitions were dominated by males, but I never realized the extent to which female students were severely underrepresented. When the over one hundred campers were crammed into the tiny lobby of our dorm, I finally noticed how many boys were there. For every girl in the crowd, there were at least three boys in the room.

It felt isolating and scary to be one of the few girls at camp. In a sea of mostly male students, it was easy for us to stick out like targets. So naturally, we gravitated towards each other. During the first few days, we formed a tiny pack in the back of the classroom and mostly kept to ourselves. The teacher, who had nothing but kindness and good intentions, would often ask us if we understood the material or if we needed him to repeat a solution. He’d never ask any of the boys – just our little pack in the corner of the room. It was then that I started to see more of the differences between the boys and girls at camp.

In the movie Hidden Figures, Mary Jackson (portrayed by Janelle Monae) is the only woman in her engineering class at an all-white high school in Virginia.

The boys in my class were confident. They swapped information about their competition placements and academic achievements. They tried to find the hardest questions in the problem set to practice. They’d volunteer to go up to the board and write down solutions to the problems. Even if they were wrong or scored poorly on the last week’s test, they’d still fling their hand up in the air the next day to take a stab at demonstrating problems.

The girls, on the other hand, rarely discussed their achievements. They almost never volunteered to solve problems on the board. We usually were the ones who were asking everyone else for help. I had a friend who’d always run to different boys in her camp classes for help. Whenever she’d get stuck on a problem, she’d ask another male student for help and watch him stumble through the problem. She’d nod and listen attentively. When we got our test scores back, however, she always scored higher than the boys that she’d badger for help. I asked her why she kept turning to them for help – she shrugged and simply said, “The boys in this class are really smart.”

I was shocked to hear those words slip from her mouth. When put to the test, she could solve several of the problems on her own. She was outperforming the same boys that she put on pedestals, yet she still didn’t believe in her own abilities.

Some of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever met were girls at this math camp. But […] They were so modest about their talents and insisted that their achievements were mere “flukes.” They put themselves in lower level classes, even if they already knew most of the material.”

She wasn’t alone in underestimating her own intelligence. There was a girl in my class who had founded her own company that had thousands of customers, but she called herself “dumb” on a daily basis. Another girl in my class constantly lamented how talented her brother was and how she’d never live up to his accomplishments. It wasn’t after camp ended that I found out she was an award-winning pianist featured in the news who also took math classes far beyond her grade level.

All around me were these incredibly intelligent girls. In fact, some of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever met were girls at this math camp. They were nationally ranked math competitors from Romania, Mexico, and China; musical prodigies who had performed in enormous theaters; and computer science whizzes proficient in multiple programming languages. But I didn’t know how accomplished they were when I met them. They were so modest about their talents and insisted that their achievements were mere “flukes.” They put themselves in lower level classes, even if they already knew most of the material.

I realized that our teacher wasn’t necessarily giving extra attention to us because we were girls – he kept asking us if we understood the problems because we were allowing ourselves to seem confused. While the boys would dive into the problems and try to work the solutions out, we gave up. We thought we weren’t smart enough to find the solution, and we weren’t confident enough to rely on ourselves. Even though we were doing better than the class average on tests, we seemed like poorer students because we lacked confidence in our abilities

These patterns extend far beyond the classrooms of math camp. In schools, girls beat boys in standardized exams, but boys participate more during class and volunteer to answer questions more often. More women than men attend college, and they graduate at higher rates than their male counterparts. However, surveys have shown that men have higher career aspirations than women – only 10% of men expect to stay an entry level job while 22% of women believe they’ll work at an entry level job for their entire career.

The misconception that boys are smarter and more skilled than girls just isn’t true. Girls perform just as well, if not better, than their male counterparts – the difference is that they exude less confidence. They’re taught to be modest and keep quiet about their accomplishments. They’re told to take a backseat and avoid being “bossy” in group settings. They sacrifice their intelligence for the sake of social appearance, and as a result, they’re less successful in their later careers.

This continued pattern of girls feeling like they’re not smart enough, not accomplished enough, not skilled enough has to end. To turn smart, capable girls into successful women, we have to instill confidence in themselves and their abilities. The talent, the intelligence, the drive to succeed are all there. We just have to let them know that their dreams and aspirations are all in reach.

ALICE AO — Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Alice is a high school student still searching for her place in the world. She enjoys reading all types of literature, writing short stories, solving math problems, and watching Gilmore Girls with her mom. Above all, she hopes that her words will help mold society into a more equal, inclusive, and accepting community.

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