Secret of mens' success at Oxford is bluffing their way through exams

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The Independent Online

Women at Oxford University may be at a disadvantage in the race for first-class degrees because of the way men "bullshit" their way through exams, according to the author of a study out today.

Women at Oxford University may be at a disadvantage in the race for first-class degrees because of the way men "bullshit" their way through exams, according to the author of a study out today.

Men have traditionally obtained a higher proportion of firsts than women at Oxford. Last year, 22 per cent of men got firsts compared with 17 per cent of the women. Nationally, the figures are 9 per cent for men and 7 per cent for women but the gap is wider at most of the leading universities.

The study by Jane Mellanby of more than 230 Oxford finals students in 1997 found that men's success could not be explained by superior ability or intelligence. Nor was it due to hard work. Women revised for longer hours and had a stronger "work ethic".

Dr Mellanby, of the university's department of experimental psychology, said: "One explanation may be the way in which exams are set and marked. Men may benefit from the bullshit factor, or a more confident style which produces answers which are deemed worthier of a first than the slightly more tentative, balanced answers produced by many women. It is certainly the case that men are more prepared to stick their necks out in tutorials."

The gender gap varied between subjects, suggesting that the exam system may hold one of the clues to the disparity in performance. Men get more firsts than women in biology, engineering, maths, English, history and law but women obtain a higher proportion of firsts in biochemistry, chemistry and physics.

"Sticking your neck out may be more valuable in some subjects than others," Dr Mellanby suggested. Another explanation for the gap might be that women became demotivated at the university.

She and her fellow-researchers, Maryanne Martin and John O'Doherty, tested the students' intelligence two or three months before their final exams and compared the results with their exam marks. The sexes performed equally well on the verbal tests which proved to be the best predictor of final results.

The researchers also found that men were happier and had higher self-esteem, but suffered more from loneliness. They were prepared to take more risks over the amount of revision they did. The only difference between the sexes which was related to the final exam mark was a student's expectations: more men expected to get firsts and did so.

Now, the university is funding further research into both the exam system and anxiety levels. Dr Mellanby said: "The depression and anxiety scores are 25 per cent higher for women than men. The fact that women are less happy here than men is worrying and we need to look into it."

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