Women should mind the Finals gap

Every year reports emerge about the difference in results between male and female Finalists. However, a survey has uncovered worrying ambivalence among students at Oxford towards the notorious ‘Finals Gap’.

Research has revealed that a significant gender gap exists in Finals results in six out of the twelve main subjects at Oxford. These subjects are English, History, Classics, Philosophy, Maths and Physics. Women have not once outperformed men in English, History or PPE between 1996 and 2008.

There are only three British universities with a larger and more persistent gender gap: Bristol, Imperial and Warwick.

Yet in a survey completed by over 250 students, only 50% considered that the gender gap was a problem that should be addressed by the examining board. Many students seemed to be completely unaware that there even was a gender gap in Finals results.

The University pledged to initiate research into the issue over twenty years ago and take action as appropriate, but the reasons behind the gender gap have proved difficult to ascertain.

Oxford’s future Pro-Vice Chancellor for Equality, Dr Sally Mapstone, is currently chairing an investigation into the gender gap in English Finals results, one of the several subjects to have been examined.

When asked to comment on project’s progress, Dr Mapstone said that she could not comment on reasons for the Finals Gap, as her research was still in progress.
Psychologist Dr Jane Mellanby has been carrying out extensive research on the gender gap for over a decade. She was commissioned by the English faculty in 2004 to conduct a comprehensive annual analysis of examiner attitudes and marking profiles.

She stressed that the gender gap is specific to certain subjects and is “not a general phenomenon”. In 1997 she conducted intelligence tests on more than 230 students about to sit their Finals, and demonstrated that there was no intrinsic difference between the sexes’ abilities.

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Disparities in Finals results between the sexes have greatly decreased over the last twenty years in some subject areas such as the Biological Sciences, Engineering, Geography, Law and Modern Languages.

“There wouldn’t be such a great change [in results] if the cause was genetic”, said Dr Ann Dowker, a fellow researcher in the Psychology Department.

Cultivating the idea that the problem was genetic might in fact adversely affect women’s performance in exams, and unconsciously prejudice the examiners. Only 26% of students taking part in the survey dismissed the possibility that there might be examiner bias.

According to Mellanby, the most likely explanation for the gender gap is “Stereotype Threat”, a disruptive concern, when facing a negative stereotype, that an individual will be evaluated on that stereotype.

For instance, if a group of women are told that men have greater mathematical abilities, men are likely to outperform those women in subsequent tests. Women’s performance also has been shown to decline, according to research at Brown University in 2000, as the proportion of men in the exam room increases. Men’s maths performance, on the other hand, remained stable in every combination of proportions of men to women.

61.1% of students taking the survey believed that men do better in Finals because they are better at risk-taking. Dr Diane Purkiss, English tutor at Keble College, said, “Nobody on the working party likes to admit it, but girls who like to do confident and slightly careless arguments are truly unusual. But that is what the 50-minute essay is all about. It’s all about being bolshie. Fight ‘em. Bite ‘em.”

Many other theories have been disproved by research, among them that men are more intelligent because they have bigger brains, and that pre-menstrual syndrome might cause a woman to drop one point on the Norrington score.

When asked to comment in the survey, students often attributed the gender gap to men’s greater “variability”, pointing out correctly that men are more likely to get Firsts, but that they are also more likely to get 2.2s and Thirds.

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However, in the period 2005 to 2008, only 9.4% of Finals results were 2.2s or Thirds, with a difference of 2.75% between men and women, compared with the 30% of men and 22.5% of women to achieve Firsts. The proportion of Thirds (2.2% in 2005-2008) and 2.2s handed out is too small to draw a reliable conclusion.

Several students suggested that women’s tendency to be more anxious might be detrimental to their results, but Dr Mellanby’s research shows that the more anxious women are, the more likely they are to achieve better grades. With men, there is absolutely no correlation between anxiety and exam performance.

Men are far more accurate in the estimation of their own abilities. Of the men who expected to get a First at the end of their course, 70% were proved correct. Only 55% of the women were similarly successful.

Dr Mellanby also emphasized how important it is that students are properly instructed how to cope with revision strategies and “organize their work”.