China Girls Math Olympiad

China Girls Math Olympiad is becoming an international math Olympiad for girls. When I first heard about this competition I felt very sad. I need to explain myself here.

For many years I felt very proud that math Olympiads do not separate the genders. Most Olympic sports, like running or swimming, have separate competitions for men and women. I felt that joint competitions for math demonstrated the spirit of equality in our math community. I felt that insofar as gender didn’t matter, mathematics was more democratic than other sports.

At the same time I do understand how people might assume for the following reasons that a math competition among only girls would be useful:

  • They promote the idea of math to girls.
  • They can help girls who are into math to feel less lonely.
  • They generate additional resources and training for girls.
  • They might be less stressful for some girls, than mixed math competitions.
  • They help promote the image of female mathematicians to society
  • They provide further opportunities for girls to earn prizes and improve their resumes.

See also the article: First US Team to Compete in the China Girls Mathematical Olympiad.

On the other hand, this development scares me. If we have a separate girls Olympiad, will that soon lead us to have two Olympiads, one for boys and one for girls? Two separate Olympiads would be a defeat for women mathematicians. Or, maybe I shouldn’t be scared. The percentage of girls at the most prestigious mathematics competition, the International Mathematical Olympiad, is so small that it can be viewed as virtually boys-only.

Mathematics is becoming similar to chess. There is a World Chess Championship where both men and women are allowed to compete, and there is a separate Women’s World Chess Championship. The interesting part is that Judith Polgar, by far the strongest female chess player in history, never competed in the Women’s World Chess Championship. I suspect that I understand Judith. She probably feels that women-only competitions diminish her, or that chess is about chess, not about gender. In any case, I hope that one day the separate girls Olympiad will not be needed.



  1. Misha:

    Why all the girls on the team are Asian? Something must be wrong! And I also hope that some day men will give birth to as many babies as women do, and suffer as much in the process. That will be true justice, true equality! Meanwhile, let’s take satisfaction in some freshly minted women GMs, like Hou Yifan. Oops! She’s also Chinese, sorry.

  2. Misha:

    Another interesting thought from Dr. Dean Edell, as he had put it on his radio show: “Give me 10 more years of life, and I’ll bear children.” See? There is a positive side to it too.

  3. Maria Roginskaya:

    I have to comment on the two comments above.
    Misha: Your attempt to bring up the biological difference in connection to mathematics brings to the mind the ideas which circulated in the end of 19’th century. It was suggested then that much academical study may cause change in the blood circulation in womens body, i.e. that the brain will get more and the reproductive organs less, so that an educated women will produce sick children or won’t be able to bear a child at all. The scientific base for this theory is not greater than the one for the phlogiston theory, hopefully in some hundred years people will find it equally ridiculous.

  4. Misha:

    Why wait 100 years? You can laugh at what I said now, I like it when people laugh at my jokes.

  5. Assaf:

    This is the first time I’ve heard of this. It’s a real shame, dividing genders like that. If there’s ANY field in which men and women can be equals it’s the brainy stuff (obviously in sport men have the physiological advantage).

    All of the reasons you gave are precisely the reasons why a separate team SHOULDN’T exist. It just serves to emphasize the distinction between men and women in the field, not do away with it. If you want to promote girls, make sure you do so before the Olympiads. Dividing the competition and claiming you’ve helped women is like shooting an arrow and drawing the target around it.

  6. Misha:

    Yet another post on another blog on the same topic.

  7. matheas:

    Hi ladies,

    i beg to disagree that by having a separate competition means some sort of degrading or whatsoever. i still remember a lady contestant in the 1995 IMO from the russian team. she is pretty gorgeious and won a Gold medal too..

    Anyway kidding aside, it actually makes more ladies aspire in mathematics. if the competition will be mixed, though there will be eventual ladies who will come on top, it doesnt promote mathematics to the mainstreams of the ladies where many might be discourage in an early age. and this will be not good.. just my 2 cents..

  8. Some high-schooler:

    Hi–I just came across this post. I was one of the girls on the US team last summer and I think the only one to feel any reservations about legitimizing this idea that we can’t be expected to compete with “the boys”. It makes me squirm when I get blatant advantages because I’m a *girl* who likes math as opposed to just some high-schooler who likes math. I’m not at all worried that this will lead to girls getting kicked out of the IMO someday, though–actually, I’m still clinging to my wild little dream of making it there myself…

  9. esmeyny:

    “Another interesting thought from Dr. Dean Edell, as he had put it on his radio show: “Give me 10 more years of life, and I’ll bear children.” See? There is a positive side to it too.”

    This is so full of shit. You insinuate that the “fact” that women are bad at math is as immutable as bearing children and different life expectancy. Studies of people living in similar circumstances (contemplative single-gender nuns/monks) shows that the life expectancy for them differs by less than a year.
    Stop using your own risk-taking behaviour as excuse to discriminate against others. Stop using the sexist culture as proof that things are natural that way.

    “(obviously in sport men have the physiological advantage).”
    This is also rather ignorant. There are kinds of sports (and physical jobs like astronauts) where women are at an advantage. Funnily enough, in the 2010 olympics, there will only be male ski jumpers allowed, although a woman holds the record for this particular venue.

    In other news, I do not want girl maths olympiads.

  10. Frank Earnest:

    “If there’s ANY field in which men and women can be equals it’s the brainy stuff (obviously in sport men have the physiological advantage).”

    I’m sorry to disappoint you but this is completely false. I know it is generally considered a taboo to hurt women’s feelings but I am going to break that taboo by giving you some scientific facts which you ought to have known about by now. Plenty of research has shown that males are predominant in the highest and lowest ranges of the IQ spectrum by almost a factor of 10 to 1. In other words, there are far more male geniuses and male idiots than there are female ones. That is why females simply don’t stand a chance in competitions like chess and mathematics; there are simply not enough of them at the highest ranges of ability. Of course you do get a few like Judith Polgar but that’s about it.

    Even on the issue of average intelligence, males have a slight lead over females by about 5 IQ points. This is the bitter truth that rarely gets talked about.

    Judging from the comments on this page, it is obvious that these facts are not widely known. Like I said earlier, most men are unwilling to hurt the feelings of females by saying such things even if they are true. In any case, feminists are always quick to cry out in fury if such things are uttered. But in the light of these facts it is clear that a math Olympiad for girls would be a useful and very positive development for girl mathematicians. Those of you deluding yourselves into thinking that male and female brains are absolutely “equals” are only doing these bright young women a disservice.

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