Skip to main content

The City Journals

Where in the world . . . are all the girls?

May 17, 2017 04:11PM ● By Jet Burnham

Fifth-grader Morgan Edman was one of the girls who qualified to compete at the Utah State Geography Bee. (Tori La Rue/City Journals)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Anoushka Kharkar was poised to win the National Geographic Society Utah State Geography Bee. For the seven questions of her preliminary round, Anoushka earned the only perfect score in her group of 20 other fourth- through eighth-graders, guaranteeing her spot in the final round.

In 24 years, only one girl has ever won the Utah State Geography Bee. Only two have ever won the National Geography Bee.

Anoushka, an eighth-grader at ChallengerSchool of Salt Lake, has been competing in the State Bee since fifth grade. As a sixth-grader, she placed third, and as a seventh-grader, she placed second.

Anoushka placed third this year, her final year of competition. (The only other girl in the final round, Adelaide Parker, placed fourth.)

Each student attending the Utah State Geography Bee held at Thanksgiving Point on March 31 was their school’s champion, selected to compete with the top students in Utah as determined by a 70-question geography test. This year, of 102 students who qualified for the bee, only 25 percent were girls.

Morgan Edman, a fifth-grader from Falcon Ridge Elementary in West Jordan said there were more boys than girls competing in her school bee, which she won. But she was surprised there were so few girls at the State Bee.

Fourth-grader Lainey Porter won the school bee at Taylorsville Elementary, where four of the top seven students were girls, including the one who took second place.

So where were all the girls at the state level?

Explanations range from differing learning styles to confidence to interest.

Helen Jones, who has a minor in geography and has taught history and geography for Canyons District, believes that girls and boys have different strengths in learning geography.

“Boys like to keep track of where things are and who’s winning,” said Jones, who was a volunteer at the State Bee this year. “Young women have an attention to detail. So if we’re looking at map skills, the girls may be further ahead.” Jones also believes girls may have an edge with cultural geography with a tendency to pay more attention to what happens to people.

Jones said the types of questions used at the bee cover a variety of geographic knowledge, including culture, politics, place and region, human movement and interaction, and map skills. Those don’t favor one gender over the other.

State Bee Coordinator Kevin Poff has taught geography in Utah for 25 years.

“In class, I haven't noticed a difference between genders in being able to access geographic concepts or knowledge,” said Poff. He believes the age of the participants, which ranges from 10 to 14, is a factor.

“This is the age where, socially, girls are a little more hesitant to forge out on their own, especially when they are in mixed gender academic groups,” he said.

Anoushka agrees lack of confidence may inhibit some girls.

“When I go into competitions, there’s always more dudes,” she said. “Girls don’t normally go into these things because it’s dominated by dudes.”

But Anoushka said she wasn’t intimidated by the boys—or anyone else—including last year’s winner, Ankiti Garg, who took first place again this year. His sister, Gauri Garg, was the first girl to win the Utah Bee, which she did in 2014 and again in 2015.

“I tell myself that I studied a lot, and I can do well,” Anoushka said. “I’ve done well previous years, and I’ve studied so hard this year.” She also had the support of her family, including her older sister (who placed sixth in the State Bee a few years ago).

 Olivia Boase, an eighth-grader who won her school bee at Sunset Ridge Middle in West Jordan, wasn’t bothered by being in the minority.

“I don't feel intimidated by the boys, and I don't think anybody should,” she said. “They're all just the same age of us. They have the same amount of experience. Who says we can't beat them?”

Girls can beat the boys—at least they have in other academic competitions.

Edward Cohn from American Prospect Magazine reported that equal numbers of boys and girls compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, with girls wining it more often than boys do.

Olivia suggested there are more boys who are interested in geography.

“The only reason I participated in the school bee was because there were cookies, and I got to skip math class,” she said.

But there are girls who love the subject.

“The studying is arduous but it’s a lot of fun to learn about the world,” Anoushka said.

As a teacher, Lainey’s mother, Leslie Porter, has nurtured her daughter’s interest in geography.

“I have always loved going to her classroom and looking at all her maps,” Lainey said.

Poff believes an understanding of the wider global community is what makes the difference for students who qualify for the bee.

“I notice a difference when kids come to me with an attitude and viewpoint that is a little more global, and that seems to have more to do with life experiences than it does with gender,” said Poff.

So what does the National Geographic Society say about the low numbers of girls in their bee?

In a study commissioned in 1996 they concluded:

“There is a slight difference between what girls and boys know about geography,” reported Marni Merksamer on “National Geographic Today.”

Roger Downs, author of the study “Gender and Geography,” explained that starting at the school level, if boys know slightly more than the girls, the winner is more likely to be a boy. If the same thing happens again at the state level, when competitors reach the national level, what is now an extreme gap in gender actually started out as a very, very small one.

Developmental psychologist Lynn Liben, who was involved in the study, explained, "It's like if you're a runner. If you're just a little bit better, you're going to win the race,” she said.” It doesn't mean that the person who came in second is a slow slug."

Pallavi Ranade-Kharkar, Anoushka’s mother, said competition is unpredictable—you can never guarantee the outcome. But she is very proud of her daughter’s accomplishments.

“We tell her it’s the effort you put in, and she has really put in a top-notch effort all year,” she said.

Whatever the reason for the low numbers of girls winning the bee, Olivia puts the matter into perspective.

“I knew that I would just do what I could, and I knew that even if people beat me, I would still be smart,” she said.