Education: `Men happily admitted they hoped for a first'

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The Independent Online
One female student tells her story:

I GRADUATED from Oxford University with a 2.1 in modern history. If I'm honest, I did feel a bit disappointed when I heard my result, though I didn't like to admit it then. I knew I didn't have the mind of a genius, but I hoped that I might just pull it off.

Even in my disappointment, I didn't attribute this to the fact that I am a woman. The old argument that girls are too shy and retiring, too lacking in faith in their own abilities to put their views forward in tutorials won't wash any more.

At the entrance interview, my tutors were looking to see whether I could hold my own in a tough argument. Indeed, in my final year seminars, the men had difficulty in getting a word in edgeways and there was never any need for tutors to try to coax the girls out of our shells. If there is a difference in exam performance, it's to do with more subtle forces - about attitudes to success and approaches to work, and about the way we were taught before university.

At A-level, I was taught from a mixture of textbooks and crib sheets. When I arrived in Oxford, I was rather daunted by the prospect of gutting academic tomes for the information I needed. This was second nature to many of the male students. I remember envying their instinct to tell which chapters were relevant and which ones weren't. My male friends tended to be less afraid of articulating their desire for success, and it was easier for them to be seen in playful competition with one another. A number were happy to admit they were hoping for a first, in a way that I would have felt was presumptuous from a female friend.

It may be that frankness brings added motivation. Performance in finals depends on how much work you do, but is also a test of stamina. I was amazed how physically exhausting they were. In papers which were, by anyone's standards, impossible, I was too easily thrown off balance. Looking round the exam room, I saw it was the men who were comically rolling their eyes at each other and laughing it all off. At the time, I thought them dangerously cavalier. On reflection, they were probably showing a healthy sense of proportion. They seemed to be better at taking bad papers in their stride and at reminding themselves that there was everything to play for until that last "put your pens down" after the final paper.

All this talk about not getting firsts can mean that people like me, who came close but not close enough, end up feeling they have somehow failed.