You do the maths: why aren’t female mathematicians getting firsts?

Despite the department’s best efforts, the gender discrepancy in results for BA Maths increased this year

The University’s Mathematics Department has held firm in spite of an examiners’ report suggesting that changes implemented with the intention of closing the gender disparity in finals results have failed.

Just seven female Maths finalists achieved firsts in 2017, compared to 45 men. This means that only 21.2% of women graduated with first-class degrees – a decrease of 4.4% from 2016 – while that figure was 45.5% for men.

Furthermore, 15.2% of women achieved a 2.2 or below, compared to only 9.1% of male students.

The widening of the gender gap in results comes despite an increase in time allowance from 90 minutes to 105 minutes, introduced under the belief that female candidates were “more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure.”

In their report, the examiners described themselves as “concerned” by the statistics, saying: “We would like to bring this year’s very significant gender discrepancy to the attention of the department, which we know is already well aware of this issue.”

However, in a statement to Cherwell, the Mathematics Department claimed that the change had worked well: “Whilst there is clearly more progress to be made, the departments guardedly feel that this change was a positive one.

“We will continue with the longer papers for the foreseeable future, monitoring the exam data carefully.”

The Department highlighted the fact that the gender gap for the 2017 cohort had closed slightly from their second-year papers.

“Some improvement in performance might be expected as students choose options suited to their strengths, but the improvements for female students outdid the marginal improvement for male students… particularly in the reduction of 2.2s,” they said.

The disparity regarding results is much more marked in the three year BA Maths degree than in the four-year MMath course. In the 2017 MMath results, a slightly higher percentage of female students were awarded firsts than male students – although there were only 18 female candidates compared to 66 male.

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A University spokesperson told Cherwell: “The University is fully committed to gender equality, including both the representation of women and the advancement of women’s careers in STEM subjects.

“This commitment includes our participation in the Athena SWAN Charter, with an institutional award and 30 departmental awards across the University. The University has committed to the revised Athena Swan Charter, which includes developing this work into humanities and social sciences departments.”

However, Oxford’s efforts to increase the number of female Maths undergraduates appear to be working better than Cambridge’s: while 37% of the Oxford offer-holders for Maths in 2017 were female, this figure was just 17% at Cambridge.

Professor Helen Byrne, the Director of Equality and Diversity within the Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division suggested that Oxford’s intake reflects the gender split of secondary education.

“Students are required to have double-Maths [Maths and Further Maths] at A-level for entry… therefore we have a smaller pool of female students to draw upon,” she told Cherwell.

“Indeed, the gender balance of Maths undergraduates reflects the gender balance of students taking double-Maths at A-level.”

In 2015, only 29.1% of the 14,363 entrants for Further Maths ALevel were female. In the 2015/16 academic year, a slightly smaller percentage of Oxford Maths undergraduates were women, with 24.6% of that year’s intake identifying as female.

Professor Byrne also highlighted the Department’s outreach work, suggesting that positive steps were being taken to address the problem at its source.

“In recent years, [the Maths Department] has been running an increasing number of outreach events targeted specifically at women; they now annually reach thousands of women, including hundreds who are pre-A-level.

“We are also developing online material in order reach an even bigger audience and to enthuse more students in general to take Further Maths A-level.”

She also drew positives from recent data. “It indicates that, on average, the exam performance of female Maths undergraduates [at] Oxford improves during their studies,” she told Cherwell.

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If this is indeed the case, then this year’s Prelims results should be reason for optimism in the Department’s attempts to close the gender gap.

While the percentage of men achieving firsts fell slightly, from 36.1% to 33.6%, 23.1% of women were awarded firsts, up from 14.9% in 2016.

A member of the University’s Mirzakhani Society, which represents Maths students identifying as female or gender non-binary, suggested that female students are more likely to experience problemsolving difficulties when around male students.

Helen Zha told Cherwell: “One thing I’ve heard and felt is that where there are more males in the room, women will experience stereotype threat more strongly and perform worse than they would otherwise.”

“Being aware of this and talking about [it] as a widespread phenomenon as opposed to it feeling exclusively like a personal problem could be helpful.”

Another member, Jess Woods, claimed that the problem was one that needed to be addressed not by Oxford, but by the UK’s education system in general.

“We need a cultural shift. When I said I wanted to do Maths at uni, I was questioned and doubted. My male friends doing Maths were just encouraged. How can women perform as well when they spend their lives being told they shouldn’t?”

Clearly, the blame does not lie solely with the University in this instance: while Oxford could be doing more, the low number of female Further Maths A-Level students is the real cause for concern.

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