Why are female students doing so much worse than men at Oxford?

When teaching is almost entirely done by men, it's academia as a whole that is failing female undergraduates

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The Independent Online

Last year’s exam results for Oxford University have been released, and yet again show a worrying gender disparity. Around a third of male students were awarded a First in their Final exams, compared with around a quarter of female students. The figures show significantly greater imbalance than most universities, raising the issue of what it is about Oxford that apparently causes women to under-perform in exams.

There is a persistent national narrative that regards Oxford as a bastion of wealth and privilege, and within that is a further assumption of masculine dominance. There’s no doubt that the “Eton boys” image has a strong basis: only 57% of Oxford undergraduates went to state schools, accepting a vastly disproportionate number of applicants from the 7% nationally who attend private schools.

Privilege is undeniable at Oxford, but to leap from that to the assumption that women are downtrodden is too easy. There is an argument that independent schools foster a self-confidence that leads to dominance in the classroom, and that theses elite institutions can instil values that inherently oppress women, but privilege applies to female students as well. In my experience as a female Oxford undergraduate, the confidence of male private school applicants may be equalled by those from independent girls’ schools. I would also resist the idea that Oxford has a more extreme 'lad culture' than any other university, and attributing academic disparity to 'lad culture' is simplistic. 

It’s also easy to say that women don’t speak up in seminars, but this assumes an idea of female passivity. In reality, the teaching system is not gladiatorial but discursive, and to suggest that women are disadvantaged by that situation only reinforces the notion that women should be wary of open debate. Moreover, Oxford tutors are highly conscious of the potential for female students to be excluded from discussion and I’m not alone in having witnessed many attempts by tutors to encourage female voices. One student relates how she’s been told to by a tutor to “stand up for herself”, against her male tutorial partner. Another reports being told that if she is “timid” in classes her results will suffer, but points out that this timidity is due to broad cultural attitudes that condemn female outspokenness.

Considering the universality of social pressures that disadvantage women, and the efforts taken by tutors to address them, it is hard to find any clear explanations for why Oxford would have such a marked disparity in results compared with other universities.

It is worth looking to the university institution for answers. As with most job sectors, academia disproportionately favours men, especially at the higher levels.  At Oxford only 20% of professors are women, and just 7 out of 50 department heads. While this disparity is reflected across Russell Group universities, the Oxford tutorial system, which involves weekly one- or two-person meetings with tutors, means that the proportional dominance of male tutors has a powerful impact on student experience. For many students their teaching is almost entirely by male academics. This fosters an atmosphere where female perspectives and voices are seen as marginal.

Feminist discourse is prevalent at Oxford, and feminist studies are a central feature of humanities courses; as an English student every one of my topic areas has involved a “gender” essay. Nonetheless, most students’ weekly experience of academic discussion is with a male tutor, the majority of whom are not feminist scholars. Moreover, the bulk of the student population has much less space to address gender disparity than is the case for those studying humanities.

If Oxford wants to address issues of gender imbalance, then the university needs to indicate to female students that academia is not just inclusive of women, but that female perspectives are integral to academic discussion. Gender disparity is legitimised if it is allowed to prevail at an institutional level. It’s just one element of a vast network of social and cultural pressures that negatively affect women’s performance, academically and more broadly, but it’s an area that offers the potential for pragmatic progress and greater equality.