Odd Gender Pattern At Maths Olympiad

Cousin E pointed out something odd about the International Mathematical Olympiad. It’s an annual competition for high school students. And girls do super poorly in it. We ran some stats on the data for 2015 and 2016, and found that a national team with more than one female member gets less than half the median points per capita of an all-male team. With one female member, it’s 59-78%.

The question I want to address is not whether women are in empirical fact worse at maths than men. Nor do I, if this is the case, want to discuss whether it’s because of nature or nurture. I want to understand how the IMO works. Look at this.

1. Every country finds its six best maths students to make a team. In some countries, some of the best students are girls and beat out large numbers of boys to get on the team.
2. When these teams compete against each other internationally, suddenly teams with a female member do way worse than all-male teams.
3. Why are these girls super strong on the national level, but super weak on the international level? Is it because they are on male-dominated teams instead of working solo?

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

52 thoughts on “Odd Gender Pattern At Maths Olympiad”

  1. “Plus you’re out by an order of magnitude”

    Note the “would”. Our points are the same: only a small fraction of those who could, do.


  2. “He did have something of a point though – the higher people’s intelligence, the more difficult it is to measure differences”

    Perhaps, but what he meant was that people who are really intelligent realize that quantifying intelligence in one number is to coarse. (Of course, part of the joke is self-referential, since this real intelligence is measured via IQ, but that’s part of the joke.) People who aren’t really intelligent, in turn, are impressed by a high IQ. Like poor kids who are more impressed by conspicuous consumption than real rich people are.


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