Mark A. Philbrick
Girls perform as well as boys in math competition, study by BYU economics professor Joe Price. Third-grade student Stella Watkins and Lincoln Hadfield.

Most everyone knows that boy who shows no mercy during a competition and the girl who will do anything to opt out of competing.

It turns out the truth of those stereotypes may only exist during the initial round of competition; after that, the gender gap disappears and girls and boys are on the same playing ground, equally able to win.

BYU professor Joe Price and co-researchers conducted a study, published by the "Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization," which showed this in action.

“I was motivated to see if there was a way we could structure competitions that girls would do just as well as boys, and we decided to use math competitions,” Price said.

Their project started out on a volunteer basis, but they moved it into local third-, fourth- and sixth-grade classrooms when a disproportionate amount of boys showed up to participate in the competitions. One boy and one girl were paired up in each match, and they were given prizes if they scored more points than the other person.

“I had a real desire to make math competitions more like sports competitions,” Price said. “I kind of like that one-on-one nature. It’s like you’re pitting your speed or your ability against another person. I think that’s a particularly motivating way to get kids to try hard.”

Despite what past studies say about girls not doing as well in competitive settings, the researchers watched the gender gap vanish after the first round. The reason for these results is yet unclear, but Price offered a few possible explanations.

“One is that girls have kind of an initial negative shock in a competitive setting when it first starts,” he said. “The other is that boys might just be trying too hard when the competition starts. They’re just so excited about the competition that they work really hard and then their effort kind of tapers off.”

Co-researcher Frank McIntyre, of Rutgers, said the girls being concerned about doing poorly and the boys being hyper-focused doesn’t last long, however.

“Those two effects dissipate very quickly, and underlying ability reasserts itself,” he wrote in an email.

Co-researcher Christopher Cotton, assistant professor of economics at the University of Miami, said girls may amplify their efforts after they realize the competition is less about racing than it is about performance.

“The results suggest that differences in attitude toward competition, rather than ability differences, are driving the observed performance differences between males and females,” he wrote in an email. “Exposing females to more competition, whether in the classroom or through sports, may help with this.”

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These math competitions have implications that reach beyond elementary math contests. The competition of life may not initially cater to women who aren’t competitive, so Price said it is important to understand the game and persist.

“The big takeaway for women is even if you feel uncomfortable at first in a competitive setting, … just stick with it and you’ll acclimate and do just fine,” he said.

The researchers are still conducting math competitions for more studies. Anyone with children interested in participating can email for more information.