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A talent search has just begun to find competitors to represent the UK in the first ever European Girls' Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO). The inaugural competition will take place in Murray Edwards College, Cambridge in April 2012.
Countries around Europe, and some beyond, will send their top four school age, female mathematicians to spend six days in Cambridge. During this time the competitors will sit two exam papers each consisting of four extremely difficult problems. The competition will be similar in style to the International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO), the world championships of high school mathematics. The IMO has been held annually since 1959 and now involves about 100 countries. The standard in this competition is extremely high and many of the strongest participants go on to do very well at the top universities in the world. The UK has been sending a team annually since 1967 and over the years teams have enjoyed some successes, most noticeably in 1996 when they came 5th overall and beat China (who regularly top the leader board). This year's UK IMO team, as last year's, will be entirely male. In fact, only 5% percent of competitors representing the UK have been female. I have been involved in the training and preparation for mathematical Olympiads for the last ten years and in that time I have only seen four girls represent the UK at the IMO.
Ceri Fiddes and Alison Zhu with the UK CGMO team (Andrea Chlebikova, Ruth Franklin, Alice Ahn and Maithra Raghu) in August 2010.
There is no shortage of suggestions to explain why females lag behind males when it comes to competitive mathematics; I will list a few here, but it must be stressed that they are sweeping generalisations. Aside from the cultural and historical arguments there is also the fact that to make the IMO team you need to be not just a little obsessive, a trait more commonly found in males. Some of the problems done in preparation can take days, if not weeks to solve. Sometimes we find that strong females are interested in and good at a variety of activities and are, as a result, less likely to be so focused and single minded. It could also be the competitive aspect that is deterring some potential female competitors. Even the very able girls do not necessarily feel the need to pit themselves against others in such an overt manner. Girls who do rise up the ranks and attend the various IMO training camps can sometimes be overwhelmed by the confidence and bluster exuded by some of the male participants and therefore feel less inclined to push themselves to make the final six. As I said before, these are all generalisations and there are several definite exceptions. There are some very strong females; one of the UK's best ever IMO competitors was female. But the girls do not come through the system in the same numbers as boys and the IMO training camps are overwhelmingly dominated by boys.
China has a similar problem, their Olympiad training programme (which is taken very seriously) is mainly male. In an attempt to combat this the Chinese Girls' Mathematical Olympiad (CGMO) was started; an annual residential competition between the provinces with the winning team getting automatic entry to the final stages of their IMO training. When I first heard about this I was amused and slightly shocked — just the kind of derogatory thing that we would never do in this country. I'm not sure when I started to change my mind, but I found myself taking a UK team to the now international CGMO last August and discovered it to be a completely positive experience. It didn't feel like a lesser competition for just having girls there, it felt like any other international competition. The questions were not dumbed down for the girls; admittedly the first questions on both papers were relatively easy (although the average reader, and even the average reader with a first class maths degree, would disagree) but there was a steep gradient and the final questions on both papers were extremely tough. The competition was an excellent opportunity for our four competitors to develop their talents, meet like-minded individuals from the other side of the world and to represent their country on an international stage. The team were unanimously enthusiastic about their experience and very keen that this should be an opportunity open to others in the future. Unfortunately, we have not found the funding to send a team to China on a regular basis.
An annual competition in Europe will give us the opportunity to maintain the girls' team. There are plenty of other reasons for us to overcome our initial reticence and press ahead with the organisation of this event. Firstly any opportunity to give more school pupils the chance to represent their country needs to be seized. But also it is hoped that the competition and associated talent search will root out strong girls from all over the country and give them the support and encouragement to develop. If in a few years' time we are better represented on the IMO squad, this venture will have been successful.
Letters have recently been sent to schools to make teachers and pupils aware of this talent search, we are also hopeful that press interest will bring this to a wider audience. We have some material on our website, to give an idea about the level of the competition (although pupils new to Olympiad mathematics should not be out off by this, preparation and practice are needed for the problems to seem approachable). There will be a mentoring scheme for interested pupils and a residential training camp for those who show real promise (selected following a paper to be taken in June). Anyone interested in finding out more should visit our website.
About the author
Ceri Fiddes is Head of Maths at Millfield School in Somerset. She became involved in Olympiad mathematics ten years ago whilst completing a PhD in group theory and has since attended many camps and competitions, occasionally as Deputy Leader of the UK IMO team. Ceri is currently working with a team of others to organise the inaugural European Girls' Mathematical Olympiad.
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