The Guardian writes that the rarefied world of international mathematics competitions has traditionally been where brainy teenage boys show their genius for problem solving. This year however, for the first time in a quarter of a century, two girls have made it into the UK squad for the International Mathematical Olympiad, the largest, oldest and most prestigious of international maths contests.
The competition starts next week in Rio de Janeiro, when 17-year-old Rosie Cates from Cambridge will become the first girl in the six-strong UK team for almost a decade. Naomi Wei, also 17 and from London, is one of the four reserves.
Cates has been on the team selectors’ radar for some years as she puzzled her way through the junior leagues, but earlier this year a near-perfect performance in the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad signalled her arrival on the world stage.
“This year is likely to be peak UK for some time,” said the UK team leader, Geoff Smith, who has been monitoring Cates’s progress for years as part of his wider remit to improve representation of girls in the world’s toughest maths competitions. Currently they make up just 10% of competitors.
Smith is unwilling to speculate as to why there are fewer girls than boys, but one contentious theory is that teenage girls are more emotionally mature and are more likely to be engaged in social networks and friendship groups, while boys of the same age may be more introverted and more likely to find an outlet in the world of mathematical challenges.
“Rosie has made her way into the IMO team by becoming stronger very quickly,” said Smith. “She really announced herself at EGMO 2016 when she won a gold medal with 35/42, and then in 2017 she won gold again with a remarkable 41/42.” She is also the only girl ever to have represented the UK in the Romanian Master of Mathematics competition, where the problems are notoriously difficult.
“The whole idea of EGMO is that it will provide a context in which strong young female mathematicians can flourish. I wish I could say that it has been an unqualified success, and that there are lots of girls queueing up to take places in future IMO teams. So far, that is not the case, but I live in hope.” says Geoff Smith.
Congratulations girls! Why do you think there are so few girls in maths competitions? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~Tamsin
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