Last week saw the release of the class of 2013’s A-level results, and with them the shock revelation of a growing gender gap in results.
"Boy, you’ve done well!” the headlines ran; to take the media coverage at face value is to believe that the coveted top grade was an achievement reserved solely for the boys, while their female peers were left blinking in the dust in the so-called “race for A*s”.
In the following days all sorts of explanations came to light, with everything from subject choice to risk-taking put forth as possible factors behind the apparent male domination of A-levels. Mike Nicholson, the director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, told the press last week that boys do better than girls in exams because they 'tend to be much more prepared to take risks' that set them apart from fellow candidates. So far, so damning. What hope is there, then, for us girls?
Well, let’s take a moment to look at the statistics. If we look beyond the headlines, it becomes immediately apparent that the 'gap' in question is more pavement crack than Grand Canyon. In 2013, 7.9 per cent of papers taken by boys were awarded the top grade, compared to 7.4 per cent for girls, meaning that the gap in question is a mere half per cent.
So what’s all the fuss about? Half of a percentage point is not enough to suggest that girls are getting stupider, nor does it tell us anything meaningful about the state of our education system. Indeed, when taken in conjunction with further reports about gender divide in subject choices, the statistics seem even more meaningless.
Arguably, it is more difficult to achieve an A* in an apparently 'girly' subject such as history, where the marking is necessarily subjective, than in a science paper where the answer is either right or wrong. This is reflected in the fact that 9.2 per cent of all physics papers sat were awarded an A*, compared to 6.5 per cent of English papers, suggesting that A*s are statistically more likely in the subjects favoured by boys. In fact, breaking these results down further shows that girls are 1.7 per cent more likely to get an A* in Physics than their male classmates, despite the male-dominated environment. This, however, does not get a headline, but why should it? Success is success, regardless of gender.
If you’re bored already, I don’t blame you. I am merely pointing out that statistics, phrased correctly, can be used as evidence for anything. Unless we feel the need to deduce from this 0.5 per cent that the male brain is evolving at a rate exceeding that of the female, I don’t think girls have anything to worry about. Come next year the story will be the same, but maybe the genders will be reversed? We’ll have to wait and see – but we can be sure that the number-crunching will be as sensationalist and superfluous as before.