Appliance to science, but women still miss out on first degree

While Oxford asks why female graduates get fewer top marks, a trio of a cademics say it is to do with the way men show off

The mystery of women's failure to achieve as many first class degrees as men has taken a new turn. Research from Oxford University suggests that women who want to maximise their chances of a first should head for science rather than arts subjects.

Or should they? As thousands of women prepare to sit their finals, the research shows no easy explanation as to why do not get their fair share of top degrees.

According to the study of degree results at Oxford, a higher percentage of women than men achieve firsts in engineering, economics and management (one subject) and in biochemistry they almost match them. But in history they are trailing, with just 9.5 per cent of women achieving firsts compared with 18.6 per cent of men. In philosophy, politics and economics the percentage of men obtaining firsts is more than twice that of women.

The study by Dr Margaret Spear of the university's education department has compiled a league table with the subjects in which women do best in terms of firsts. This shows that 53 per cent of the subjects in the top half of the table are scientific compared with 35 per cent of subjects in the bottom half.

Her work, which is funded by the university, looks at the percentage of firsts achieved by men and women for all subjects between 1992 and 1996.

Dr Spear said the results were encouraging for women. "There are subjects where women are doing as well as men."

In 1995, 20.8 per cent of men obtained firsts at Oxford compared with only 13.5 per cent of women. Nationally, the figures are 9 per cent for men and 6.9 per cent for women.

Dr Spear says that, though the difference is greater at Oxford, the same factors are almost certainly at work in other universities at a time when girls have forged ahead at GCSE and drawn level with boys at A-level.

But how do you explain, for instance, why women match men's performance in biochemistry but not in chemistry? And why is there a bigger gender gap in biological sciences than physiological sciences? Why has the gap in history been declining steadily over the last four years?

Dr Spear has applied for a three-year research grant to examine some of the hypotheses on the gender gap in degree performance.

A study carried out by Cambridge University's history faculty suggests the tutorial system in which two or three students discuss a topic with a don may be to blame. Tutorials, the Cambridge study suggests, are adversarial rituals in which aggressive males bluff their way to dominance while cautious women fade into the background.

Since courses have different teaching styles - science students have more practicals and lectures while arts students have more tutorials - that may provide part of the explanation for the variations in the gender gap between subjects.

Alternatively, the proportion of extremely bright women may be higher in science than in arts.

Any study, says Dr Spear, would also need to look at how students are assessed and examined. A more structured type of exam such as that often used in science may suit women better than open-ended essay questions.

Fiona Campbell, the university's equal opportunities officer, says the issue encourages academics to consider what they mean by a first-class degree: "It may be that both male and female academics have a similar perception of what constitutes a first class undergraduate."

Dr Spear is convinced that there is no single reason for women's degree results. She also wants to investigate theories that they are held back by anxiety and a lack of self-confidence and that they are victims of a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The university has just asked Dr Spear to carry out another short-term project reviewing all the research on the gender gap in degree performance and comparing men and women's final degree results with their qualifications on arrival.

Ms. Campbell says it is unusual for a university to commission research into itself.

"But if Dr Spear produces results which provide explanations then the university will want to act."

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