Education: Academic battle of the sexes

If many girls are outperforming boys at school, why do they miss out on the top degrees? Lucy Hodges investigates
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Despite the amazing advance of girls in exam league tables, young men still do better than women when it comes to first-class degrees at university. Women achieve more upper and lower seconds than men, but men walk away with the most glittering prizes of all. Why is this?

New research from Sussex University last week aimed to shed light on this controversial issue by suggesting that women's agreeableness and openness - so often cited as contributing to female success in the workplace - may work against them when it comes to academic performance at the very highest levels. Men may excel at constructing bold and original arguments on paper because they are prepared to stick their necks out and take risks in a way women aren't, says Dr Ruth Woodfield, dean of social sciences at Sussex and co-author of the Sussex project.

"Academics often say things like, `She did everything right, but there just wasn't this extra element of flair'," she explains. "Women may be perceived as missing the maverick element needed for the very best marks. I certainly don't think it's to do with IQ.

"If there were a biological difference between men and women," she adds, "you would expect a relatively stable showing of the effects over time."

Although there is a pattern of men achieving more firsts and thirds, and women more second-class degrees, there are differences between subjects, and the relative performance of the sexes can change. National figures show that women do better than men (get more firsts and seconds) in professional subjects such as medicine and law, as well as in chemistry and biological sciences. But men do better than women in arts and humanities - English, languages and history - as well as in mathematics and the physical sciences. The sexes perform about the same in social sciences.

Much attention has focused on history. It's a subject which women study in large numbers, but men achieve more firsts. In general, figures show the gap between the proportion of men and women getting firsts is more pronounced at the old universities, and most acute at Oxbridge. At Cambridge, 12.5 per cent of women achieved firsts between 1990 and 1996, compared to 20 per cent of men. At Oxford last summer, 15.5 per cent of women got firsts compared with 24.1 per cent of men.

Theories about this gap abound. The Sussex thesis (above) is widely held and presupposes that a certain academic style is being rewarded. Some people believe the answer lies in biology: women simply aren't as clever. Ernest Rudd, formerly of Essex University, pointed, in a letter to The Independent last week, to research on IQ that shows disproportionately large numbers of men at the genius or near-genius level. Others suggest the reason may lie in the institutions themselves - in tutors' attitudes, teaching styles or examining systems (some people believe the three-hour exam favours men). Yet others think the answer is cultural - to do with the way women behave.

Whatever the cause, the figures are worrying. Oxford is conducting a research project into what is happening and why. Cambridge has been engaged in a study for some time.

Chris Mann and Patrick Leman, Cambridge researchers, are looking behind the theory that men's writing style is characterised as having "flair", or merely "bullshitting", and that women, by contrast, are more cautious and conscientious. As part of their work they are tracking 200 Cambridge students who will graduate in the year 2000 to find out how they approach their studies.

One of their findings so far is that some subjects are seen as inherently male or female. Mathematics, for example, is seen as a boys' subject at universities in this country. That is not the case in the US, South America or Italy, where men and women perform equally well at mathematics.

Cambridge has looked hard at its examining practice to ensure that it doesn't discriminate against women. Melissa Lane, the fellow for women at King's Cambridge, and a member of the university's history faculty, believes the problem lies not in the exam process itself but in the run- up to exams, and whether men and women are prepared to go for a first.

"It may not be that women are underperforming, but that men are overperforming," she says. "In most universities you'll get a 2.1 if you're a reasonably good student, so why put all that extra effort, which means giving up other things in your life, and risk disappointment, if you might not achieve it? It seems, for various reasons to do with social pressures, it's harder for women to say publicly, `I'll go for the first'. They say, `I'll get a 2.1 and do other interesting things'."

It's not that women at Cambridge lack confidence, she believes. Women are running student societies and debating clubs. "It's a social issue, of saying to your peers: `I am going to go for a first.' That can be a very intimidating thing to do. It risks social embarrassment and it sets you apart from your friends. I think women are more sensitive to social pressures."

Not many academics are prepared to argue that women have different abilities for biological reasons, but Colin Blakemore, Wayneflete Professor of Physiology at Oxford, is. Arguing that it's "silly" to conceal these differences, he says female students are more diligent, cautious and reliable, because that's the way women have evolved. Since our hunter-gatherer days, those qualities were needed to produce and nurture children. Male students are not as good at handing in work on time, turning up to tutorials and being reliable because they haven't needed those characteristics as much for survival. But when men do concentrate on work, they do so with an intensity of commitment and style that produces the firsts.

The important question, he adds, is whether we accept the situation or try to change it. He favours the latter. Meanwhile, Professor Lisa Jardine, dean of humanities at Queen Mary and Westfield College, London, says she's bored with research of this kind. She claims that everyone knows women students match men in any subject in the classroom.

"If the exams continue to show a preponderance of men in the top niche, why are we not saying the exams are wrong? Why are we letting a set of contrived, 19th-century exercises be our yardstick?"

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