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Why are men still getting more firsts than women?

Why are men still getting more firsts than women?

Oxford University’s Strategic Plan for 2018 to 2024 claims to prioritise the need to reduce the gender awarding gap. It aims to “set ambitious targets by April 2019 to reduce by 2024 gaps in attainment by gender, ethnic origin and socio-economic background.” But, why should this be “ambitious” anyway? With 2023 coming to an end, it is time to assess whether this has been achieved and understand the problems that both students and the University face in addressing these challenges.

While preparing for my exams last year, I looked at the 2021-22 Examiner’s Report for History. I felt uneasy when I saw that 50.7% of men were getting firsts compared to 34.9% of women in their finals. In the face of anonymous marking, I had naively thought that this was no longer a problem. However, there hasn’t been much improvement since 2019, when 55.8% of men got firsts while only 42.5% of women did. In History at least, very little headway has been made in reducing the gender awarding gap.

This is not a problem exclusive to History or humanities subjects. In the 2023 Examiner’s Report for Mathematics (Part A), 10.26% of women got firsts compared to 38.46% of men. These figures are only marginally better than the 2022 figures and significantly worse than those for 2021, where 24.39% of women got firsts compared to 36.26% of men.

Over all subjects operating a 2.1/1st system, there is still a 6.57% awarding gap between men and women as reported by the Oxford Gazette Supplement at the end of 2023, a decrease of only 4% since 2015-2018. The fact that this awarding gap is not reflected across the country makes it all the more concerning.

The gender awarding gap is a problem almost unique to Oxford. In 2023, Statista have reported that in the UK in 2022, 14.8% of female students achieved an A* in their A-levels, compared to 14.4% of male students. In 2021/22, moreover, 33% of female students achieved a first compared with 31% of male students in UK undergraduate degrees. Oxford’s problem is not reflected across other university degrees in the UK, and women who had been achieving similarly to their male peers are apparently no longer doing this once they arrive at Oxford. Something about Oxford is creating a gender attainment gap that wasn’t previously there and letting women fall behind.

What is it about Oxford that means that women are consistently underperforming in comparison to men?

One reason that has been suggested is that the structure and organisation of Oxford is not conducive to women performing their best. Unlike most other UK Universities, Oxford continues to operate an eight-week term where work is concentrated in a very short time. According to Cambridge University’s Information Hub, the “other place”, which also operates an eight-week term, has a similar gender awarding gap. 25.4% of women obtained firsts in 2021-22 compared to 34.3% of men. While Oxford’s short terms and their negative effect on students’ mental health has been hotly debated, it appears that this issue may affect women disproportionately to men.

A second-year Classics student, Li An Tan, has suggested that this may be due to the “general disadvantages of being female”. It is normal for many women to feel unwell with their period, which is likely to come twice in an eight-week term. Women are therefore more likely to be forced to take days off, or to work even though they are not feeling well in a busy term with few days to spare for rest. Many students do not habitually take weekends off and regularly work in the evenings, which may be putting women at a disadvantage. This is a particularly significant lifestyle difference from GCSEs and A Levels, and not necessarily common at other universities where the gender awarding gap is much narrower. This may then be an indicator of something that needs to change for Oxford to close the gap between genders.

Another reason that has been suggested is that those undertaking marking are implicitly biased.  With anonymised marking in place, overt discrimination is much rarer; however, handwriting is often an indicator of gender. Women do tend to perform better in typed exams compared to handwritten ones: breaking down the results for History finals from the 2021 – 2022 Examiner’s Report by paper reveals that 47.6% of women got firsts in the compulsory thesis, which was typed, compared to 37.7% of men. By contrast, in the European and World History paper, which was a handwritten exam, only 13.4% of women got firsts compared to 33.3% of men. But why is this happening?

This correlation could be because women perform better in coursework rather than timed exams. The assessment method of exams itself could be disadvantageous to women. There could be a number of reasons for this. Firstly, women are more likely to be unwell on the day or week of the exam itself with their period. Secondly, it could be that women are better at organising their work than men towards a deadline. Thirdly, it could also be that women are spending longer perfecting and editing their work, which is not as necessary a skill in a timed, written exam. With women outperforming men in GCSEs and A Levels, however, it doesn’t seem sensible to suggest that women are unable to perform in either written exams or coursework, which may be indicative of gender awarding gaps not coming from female students’ approach to exams and coursework. It could be that marking is implicitly biassed, but it seems more likely that it’s from the way women interact with Oxford.

The University has recognised that women are performing better in coursework in History. The introduction of the ‘take home’ paper in 2017, which replaced one of the five exams History students sat in their finals with a nine-day open-book exam, was introduced for the purpose of narrowing the gender awarding gap. Speaking to the Telegraph in 2017, Amanda Foreman, an honorary research senior fellow in history at the University of Liverpool, said that this was a “well-intentioned” move, but that “Women are not the weaker sex.” She argued that women are not less-able to handle the stress of exams, and that it is the risk-taking attitudes that are encouraged in men that take them into first-class territory. That the University is taking action is promising, but is this action in the right direction? Changing assessment methods is one way to do it, but it could be helpful to look into changing teaching methods and increasing understanding of the assessment criteria.

What if it is actually the tutorial-style system at the heart of the gender gap? Cambridge, which operates under a similar system, reported on the problem years ago in a Varsity article from 2013 – and still has them. The system may be more conducive to the way men have been taught to have confidence in their own opinions. A second-year History student, Eve Reynolds, has suggested that “women feel the need to cover their opinions behind tentative language, just because of how we’ve been socialised”. This may explain the gender awarding gap, therefore, in humanities subjects in particular at Oxford and Cambridge, if women feel unable to take advantage of tutorials as much as men do. A typical ‘Oxford’ essay brings to mind very broad questions with lots of interesting ways to respond. They are designed as a start to an open-ended discussion to take place in tutorials. It is naturally in such essays that risk-taking behaviour is particularly rewarding, both in the mark given to the essay itself as well as the quality of the learning in the tutorial as a result of the essay as new and interesting ideas are discussed. It may not be implicit bias that is occurring in marking, but explicit: mark schemes may be preferencing how men have been taught to think.

With the criteria for a first-class degree in many humanities subjects being “remarkable originality” (according to the current Examination Conventions for History), it certainly seems that the points women are making in their essays are holding them back – or the confidence women have in the points they do make. If, as a second-year Law student told me, men have “the confidence to make an outlandish point and back it [come what may]”, maybe self-conviction propels them into the first-class arena. Is the ‘confidence gap’ holding women back? I don’t necessarily think that confidence and originality are not criteria that should be considered, but I believe it should be recognised that this environment of relentless intellectual scrutiny may disadvantage women in comparison to their male peers. It may be helpful to research how women could be encouraged to take advantage of the tutorial system and how the system itself can be modified to better encompass women.

After all, the University’s archaic system never rebooted when women were first awarded degrees in 1920. Oxford is still operating a system that was designed to educate men. More significantly, it was designed to educate upper-class white men, and almost naturally therefore preferences the confidence of a nineteenth-century Victorian gentleman. What Oxford needs might be a reassessment of the demographic it is teaching; we are no longer catering to the ultra-rich only.

In STEM subjects the gender attainment gap is slightly better than in humanities, with 36% of women getting firsts in Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences compared to 42% of men according to the Oxford Gazette Supplement published in 2023. While this is not as easily attributed to men writing more confidently since these exams also involve calculations, the educational environment may still be disadvantageous to women. It may be that women feel less confident to ask to target tutorials towards areas they would like more help with, particularly in the still male-dominated environment of STEM degrees.

A 2013 Cherwell article suggested that the marginalisation of gender issues and feminist theory may be a further reason for the gender awarding gap. This was certainly true in 2013, but has anything changed? My experience studying History suggests that gender history is actively studied. However, gender often appears as its own ‘theme’ within modules and is not always integrated into the study of other ‘themes’. It is often only for one week of eight that I am studying women, while in the others I read mainly about elite men. The issue of the marginalisation of gender issues and feminist theory has in my opinion improved since 2013, but it is in no way solved. I have had more female tutors than male while I have been at Oxford, and have been able to study gender history as a ‘theme’ and sometimes within other ‘themes’. But studying and reading “great men ” may be holding women back; women may find the environment that they are studying as well as the environment in which they are studying unfamiliar and unwelcoming.

Moreover, the fact that the reading lists continue to be dominated by male authors shows that the academic environment is nevertheless still masculine. For example, in the general section of the faculty reading list for my Prelims European World IV paper last year, none of the six books listed are written by women. When reading lists show only the authors’ first initial, it is not always obvious that this is the case, but a closer examination of most of my reading lists shows the continued prevalence of men in history. Reading that ‘the female worker was the archetype of the unskilled’ by a male author in a book last year on nineteenth-century Europe shows the hostility of a male academic environment to women. One annotation responded: ‘I am so done with white male privilege in Oxford… You don’t even try to understand the female experience?’ Another was more succinct: ‘fuck the patriarchy’. And another: ‘sexist pig’.

As an Oxford University spokesman told Cherwell: “The University has set a target to eliminate the current attainment gap between our male and female undergraduate students by 2030.  The reasons for the gap are varied and complex. However, we are introducing a number of measures focused around flexible and inclusive teaching, mixed assessment methods, and study skills support that we hope over time will contribute towards a level playing field for all students and move us closer to achieving our target.”

This suggests that the University believes that the problem of the gender awarding gap lies firstly in teaching, secondly in assessment methods, and lastly in how female students are studying. While it is unclear exactly what these measures are from this statement, which is worrying in itself, what is clear is that the problems pertaining to the gender awarding gap penetrate virtually all areas of the university’s provision. “Inclusive teaching” remains undefined, and indeed what comes across most strongly from looking into Oxford’s gender attainment gap is a lack of evidence of specific action taken.

The spokesman, however, identified the improvement in the gender awarding gap over the pandemic, which is interesting. Was it the opportunity to learn on your own terms and escape tutorials that resulted in improved results for women? Will moving more exams online recreate the closing gap of COVID-19? That the university is considering the cause of this is encouraging.

In the 2020-21 Equality Report, published in 2022, objective 6 (a) was “To reduce the first-class attainment gap between women and men from 8.5% to 4.4% by 2025”. The latest exam results to be released show a reduction in the gender awarding gap, but not yet to 4.4%.  Recent data as well as data on what strategies Oxford are undertaking to achieve these “ambitious” targets is difficult to find. This is not only worrying for the experience of women at Oxford, but for their experience in Britain more generally, with Oxford graduates historically playing a large role in public life, as Dr Micheal O’Neill, a Departmental Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry, explains. There has been some response from the University, which is promising, but more needs to be done. The reasons behind the gender awarding gap are certainly “varied and complex”, but understanding why there is a gender awarding gap is vital to solving the problem. There needs to be an awareness of why women are underachieving in comparison to their male counterparts of both the students themselves as well as the University. Understanding that, for example, it is confidence costing you a first is the easy step towards improving your own grade.

I believe that educating women on the gender awarding gap is a vital step in closing it – a step that needs to come from both the University and the students themselves. Large parts of the problem come from Oxford mark schemes awarding behaviours that are typically encouraged in men, but discouraged in women. We need to encourage these behaviours in women and be transparent about what behaviours are being awarded. But there are also problems that are very specific to the structure of Oxford, and it is perhaps these structural changes that need to be implemented the most. A longer term or a reading week may give women the space they need to perform better – and this could benefit more than just women. Modernising Oxford may be the way to reflect modern values in our attainment.

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