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 female 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.
She dropped just one point against her Ukrainian rival (who achieved a perfect 42/42) and went on to secure a place on an IMO team that is likely to be one of the strongest the UK has fielded.
“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.
As one commentator put it: “Some of the boys who are really good are well-grounded, normal human beings with normal interests and friendships. But it’s true that some of the boys taking part are socially withdrawn and a small number are on the autistic spectrum. In order to do maths, it’s unnecessary to have any emotional maturity. You just need to be able to reason.”
Cates can certainly reason. She is also good at netball, playing for school and town clubs. She sings in the school choir, plays the cello and is in the middle of her Duke of Edinburgh gold award: her training expedition in the Brecon Beacons starts a few hours after she lands back from Brazil.
“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 IMO is yet another step up. It is the world cup of maths contests, attracting the most gifted young mathematicians from more than 100 countries. Each team sends up to six competitors – all pre-university – who sit two papers on consecutive days, each lasting four-and-a-half hours and featuring three problems, each worth seven points.
Cates, who has been offered a place to read maths at Trinity College, Cambridge, in the autumn, is nervous but excited. “I really enjoy the problem-solving aspect of Olympiad maths. Often you can solve a problem without using particularly advanced techniques, but you have to be creative about the way you use them.
“I really like it when you’ve been trying to do a problem and you get it, and it just clicks into place. That’s a really nice feeling,” said Cates, who has just taken A-levels in double maths, physics, chemistry and French at Hills Road state sixth form college.
Naomi Wei, a student at City of London girls’ school, said few girls reach the final selection stages for the IMO, let alone make it to the competition. “I think the reason for this is school culture. In school, girls good at maths or even Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] subjects are not cool: most girls like to choose to study humanity subjects, such as music, art, drama, and classics. We should encourage more girls into challenging maths.”
According to Cates, girls-only competitions like the EGMO and the UK Mathematical Olympiad for Girls are helping. “There are more girls coming through. It’s definitely improving.”
Geoff Smith is more circumspect. “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.”
Last year the UK came joint-seventh in the country rankings at the IMO, equal-top with Russia among European teams and first in the EU by some margin. On the UK team’s chances of IMO success this year, Smith said: “The only teams in the top 10 last year which were not from the far east were the US , Russia and the UK.
“Like the weather forecaster who knows that you do pretty well by predicting that the weather tomorrow will be like the weather today, my tip is that the USA and China will be competing for the top spot. The South Koreans also look very good this year. Let’s hope for another great performance by the UK team.
“At the moment we have an unusually strong UK IMO team. Much as I would like to believe otherwise, this will not always be the case. We are lucky to have an exceptionally talented generation of students.”