Minding the gender gap

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There is something quite paradoxical about a place which is one of the leading research centres in the world, where academics are constantly pushing the boundaries of what we know, helping to shape the way we will live in the future and what we think of the past, but which nevertheless seems quite happy to stay just as it is.Many of Oxford’s relics of the past, such as matriculation, sub fusc, May Day morning on Magdalen Bridge, and Oxford terminology are endearing little anachronisms that serve to remind us of what a unique place this is. But Oxford is also home to some other antiquities that we could probably do without. One is the enduring gender gap that we see each summer when the examination results come out and when we look over at High Table in Hall. Men continue to get more first class degrees than their female counterparts, and they continue to heavily dominate the high positions in academia. Still, you cannot have a ‘gender gap’ at an institution that members of only one sex can be a part of, and it is quite perverse to think that great advances have already been made in order to bring about a gender gap at all. Not until 1920 were women admitted to membership of the university and it took almost thirty years for a woman, Agnes Headlam-Morley, to be elected to a full professorship. A quarter of a century then passed before the first of the traditionally all-male colleges, Balliol, elected a woman as a Fellow and Tutor. Twenty years later in 1993, Professor Marilyn Butler, former Rector of Exeter, became the first female head of a former all-male college at either Oxford or Cambridge. Progress, one might say, though painfully slow.In 2001, the percentage of female Oxford professors was 8.5% and, after several years of highly public initiatives to improve this gender imbalance, a few months ago it stood at 8.6%. In the mathematics faculty, only three out of over twenty professorships are held by women; in the faculty of modern history the ratio is two to fifteen and in the department of chemistry only one professor is female. Five years ago 22% of men achieved firsts in finals compared to 17% of women. Feminists would be appalled, but could it be that men are simply more intelligent than women? Recent research carried out by Paul Irwing and Richard Lynn at Manchester University, claims that men are on average five IQ points ahead, and the gap widens as the higher levels are considered. At IQ scores of 125 – the level that they think seems to correspond with people getting first-class degrees – there were twice as many men as women. At scores of 155 and above – levels associated with genius – there were 5.5 men for every woman. But how are we defining ‘intelligence’ here?What we can definitely say is that men do better in tests designed by men attempting to measure one aspect of human intelligence – namely, spatial and verbal ability. This, however, is not what any Finals examination is designed to assess, and so we cannot use research on IQ scores to explain away the discrepancies between something like the number of firsts achieved by men and women at Oxford or Cambridge.Recent studies have shown that there are real gender differences which may be interpreted as putting women at a disadvantage: for example, the difference in the way that men and women approach certain challenges or the difference in their behavior, which in turn reflects their different goals. “Women who seek deep understanding will ask more questions than men, may advance more tentatively and are initially more receptive to the authority of teaching staff,” suggests Dr. Chris Mann, who carried out a three-year study at Cambridge looking into the issue. Men, in contrast, are more likely to make suggestions in tutorials, advance their own theories on subjects and challenge the opinions of tutors and other students. This “intellectual muscle-flexing,” the study argues, is typically seen as an indicator of excellence by a predominantly male teaching staff, rather than the “softly softly” approach adopted by many women. Men, perhaps as a consequence, generally have higher expectations of what they will achieve than women. This was the only factor that was predicative, albeit weakly, of finals marks in a study carried out in Oxford in 2000 by Mellanby et al. It found factors such as intelligence, differences in work ethic, anxiety, depression, happiness, academic motivation, competitiveness, exam strategy and risk-taking in revision unable to explain the gender gap in Firsts. “We therefore thought,” said Dr Mellanby, “that the gender gap must result from factors outside individual differences between sexes and was more likely to be related to a ‘male’ style of answers being deemed more worthy of First Class marks.”  Interestingly, the gender gap is also highly subject specific. For example, it’s big in PPE, English, History and Maths and non-existent in Engineering, E&M, Biochemistry and Geography. Surprisingly, there seems to be no evidence to support the popular notion that extended essays favour women more than ‘sudden death’ exam papers – subjects for which there is no coursework and the degree class depends solely on exams sat in the final year. They are part of the assessment in English and History here and in History at Cambridge, yet all three still have big gender gaps in favour of men  and so women have fared no better since the introduction of this system.What is it that gives men in general the confidence to aim for the very top? There is a danger of making sweeping statements that ignore men who advance tentatively and women who expect to do well and succeed, yet the research seems to agree that men and women appear to have different experiences of academia at Oxford. Perhaps the fact that most Oxford tutors are men is significant when considering that women achieve fewer of the degrees the higher class they are. Female undergraduates at Oxford, it seems, have fewer female academics to look up to and use as role models. Dr Mellanby suggests that “the whole Oxford experience might be more conductive to males than females excelling academically.” He continues, “People have talked of the confrontational tutorial being more likely to ‘put down’ females.”The gender gap in Finals is something that OUSU’s women-only Finals Forums each Hilary Term try to address. However, the effort seems like a drop in the ocean. Acknowledging this, Ellie Cumbo, OUSU VP (Women), said, “This year, Women’s Campaign is going to put the pressure on. We have compiled and formatted the most up-to-date results and plan to submit a paper asking the University to thoroughly investigate the Finals gap.” OUSU see the gender imbalance among the academic staff as the biggest problem and Cumbo went on to say, “As previous generations catch up with ours, the gender discrepancy among tutors is already evening out; it’s crucial that those in charge do all they can to speed this process up, however.” This situation is by no means particular to Oxford. The Times Higher Education Supplement published survey results in 2004, which reveal that female academics are paid less than male academics at every British university. The pay gap stretches to almost 25% at some institutions and 18% is average. Women were also found to be more likely to take on pastoral and teaching-based roles than the more lucrative research-led positions, which often lead to promotions. The roots of the problem, however, probably lie much deeper than just simple pay discrimination. Most importantly, commitment to academia is not conducive to a busy family life. Women who want to have children are forced to make compromises between the two, meaning they have less time to devote to research and networking – especially networking that is usually done over dinner. It is hard to resist the conclusion that in Oxford it is still largely a man’s world, and a woman’s success is to some degree dependent upon her ability to adapt. There seems to be something amiss at a university where research concludes that men get more first class degrees than women, but not because they are more able or work harder.The solution to this problem in the long run seems to be a better gender balance within the senior academic positions so that the University can move on from being so male-dominated. In the meanwhile, however, the current female undergraduates may just have to figure out for themselves what it is that men are doing proportionally more than women, the thing that the assessment system manifestly deems more deserving of the top degree.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005

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