Women outperform men at university, say academics

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Women work harder than men at university and get better degrees as a result, according to a study carried out at Brunel University.

The research, which tracked 200 students over four-years, found that women consistently outperformed men in further education even though they had started their courses with almost identical A-level results.

The study was launched after academics in Brunel's geography and earth science department became concerned that male students were under-performing.

Its findings could have far-reaching consequences as Brunel's vice-chancellor, Steven Schwartz, heads a government task force into university admissions, which is investigating how more disadvantaged students can be encouraged to go into higher education.

An analysis of the department's results revealed that while 65 per cent of female graduates were awarded a 2:1 or a first, only 35 per cent of males did that well.

Girls are known to outperform boys at school, but this research shows the trend continues at university.

Fiona Smith, the senior lecturer at Brunel who led the study, said: "The survey debunks a previously held opinion that the academic gender gap is purely a school phenomenon.

"It also makes the inequality for working women in terms of pay and promotion all the more poignant. Women work harder at school, harder at university and do better in both, yet still receive less pay.

The survey found that female students were more conscientious, less likely to miss lectures and more likely to believe their marks were reflected their ability than their male peers. Female students were also more likely to seek and receive support from staff.

Women were also more likely to have selected their university because they liked the particular course on offer.

By contrast, men were more likely than women to miss lectures due to "other commitments" and "laziness" and to believe that playing sport was an important part of university life.

Contrary to the popular argument that women's success is due to the increased emphasis on coursework, female geographers at Brunel did better in exams than in coursework, the research found.

The study, based on 180 questionnaires and interviews with more than 70 students, concluded that males underachieved because they felt working hard was not "macho".

Dr Smith said: "Most women feel that getting good grades is the most important part of university life. They believe they need to work harder in order to be able to compete in the male-dominated environment they will encounter at work: good grades are viewed as an 'insurance policy' for success. Men, on the other hand, feel that it's not 'macho' to work hard. They tend to put going out and playing sport higher among their priorities than academic work."

The study recommended that other university departments carry out the same gender analysis. Those that discovered gender inequality should work with small groups of students to discuss their concepts of masculinity and femininity and to "challenge these were appropriate".

Professor Schwartz said the research, though inconclusive, raised interesting questions. "The government has a focus on widening participation to reach its target of 50 per cent of school leavers moving into higher education," he said. "However, it may be that the vast majority of graduates will be women, while men risk losing out in the qualifications stakes.

"This survey shows how vital it is that we engage all young people and teach them the value of higher education."