For the first time the the ‘finals gap’ between male and female students in English has closed, but dons are little closer to discovering why men overall do better than women in their final degree class.
Dr. Jane Mellanby, retired professor at the Department of Experimental Psychology who co-authored a study in August 2000 that exposed the discrepancy, said that in Trinity 2007, “for the first time, there was no gender gap in this subject. This occurred because the men did less well than usual and not because the women did better.”
The study in 2000 found that the ‘gap’ appeared despite women having a greater ‘work ethic’, but wasn’t present in engineering, economics and management, biochemistry, physiological science and geography.
“At Oxford, overall, men obtain a higher proportion of firsts than women,” Dr. Mellanby continued. “Part of this difference is due to the fact that there are more men reading subjects that award a higher percentage of firsts (e.g. Chemistry).
“We do not have an answer as to why the gap exists in some subjects and not in others. It is frequently proposed that the reason that the gender gap is seen in subjects where presenting an argument is important is that men are more likely to produce a confident, ‘punchy’ style of argument and that this appeals to examiners,” she said.
“There is however no real evidence (from examination scripts) that this is true. One thing we have shown is that there is no difference in the attitude of male and female examiners to the criteria for awarding first class marks.”
The ‘finals gap’ is currently being scrutinised by the University’s Educational Policy and Standards Committee, but they have yet to reach any conclusions.
Sally Mapstone, Chair of the English Faculty says the Faculty has been undertaking research into the issue. “That work is ongoing and not completed, so it’s not possible, or indeed sensible, presently to offer comment as to what might be the reasons for possible underperformance by female candidates,” she said.
When asked, examiners said they could not usually tell the sex of a student from their exam scripts.
Simon Saunders, Fellow of Linacre and Lecturer in Philosophy of Science, said “it is not possible to tell… I haven’t the faintest idea why women do worse than men.”
Diane Purkiss, Fellow of English at Keble, also said that the performance gap was difficult to explain. “There is a known issue with levels of performance for many different groups, and we are working on it.
“My view as an examiner is that it rarely occurs to me to think about the sex of the student, or their name, college, race, or ethnicity.
I think it would be unfortunate if people felt there was a specifically feminine kind of writing – the notion seems very outdated,” she continued.
“All students who want to do well in English need to do a lot of work, and need to argue and take some intellectual risks,” Purkiss concluded.
English finalists have disputed Dr. Mellanby’s view, stating that the criteria for first class marks involved having a more “masculine” writing style.
“What our tutors said was, you basically have to be really cocky, and guys are better at that,” said Rose Wilkinson, a finalist at St Catherine’s. “They have told us, ‘You have to be willing to bullshit’ and girls are perhaps less willing to throw it to the winds than guys are.”
Wilkinson said an ideal first degree candidate will be a hybrid of the so-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ work styles. “You would have the work ethic for coursework, what girls have, and then have that risk-taking, bullshitting attitude that guys have.
A mixture of both masculine and feminine – where you can be hard-working in coursework but at the same time be imaginative in exams.”
Another St Catherine’s student, Katherine Rundell, added that, “If you’re going to get a first, you have to get that ‘Wow, look at me!’ effect. Examiners are looking for that spark when they’re marking for firsts and you have to be able to bullshit and take more risks to do that.”
English finalist Hannah Knight said there have been special revision lectures organised by the English Faculty, targeted for female English students, on “pretty much how to write in a masculine way.”
Male English finalists have said that girls are more conscientious in their coursework but lack the “risk-taking attitude” that men have.
“It seems girls revise badly; girls tend to look at every single book and laboriously go over their books of notes,” said Daniel Morgan. “But guys, they tend to select key essay questions and revise certain points rather than everything.”