Cherwell’s coverage of Mike Nicholson’s recent comments about gender has rightly called him out – his words were unfair and sexist. He suggested that men do better at exams because they take more risks than women. However, the focus on gender inequality in admissions tests obscures a frustrating reality of sexism in the academic world once students get to Oxford.
Whilst, even with problematic tests like the TSA being used, there are no differences in intelligence level at admissions, Oxford ends up having a massive gender gap at finals. 32% of men get firsts in their undergraduate degrees, but only 25% of women do, a discrepancy replicated for students on one-year masters courses. OUSU’s work with the university has shown (unsurprisingly) that this does not reflect any difference in academic ability. Men and women are not any more able than each other, but something about the Oxford system results in women underperforming in their exams.
Some try to explain this by ‘common sense’ approaches to gender, for example:
Myth 1: women tend to be more restrained in their opinions and try to show the benefit of each side of the argument whereas men write stronger conclusions. This is false. Studies of Oxford undergraduates show that this is simply an expectation that women are more passive and balanced which is not reflected in real life.
Myth 2: women, by virtue of menstruation, are more likely to be uncomfortable in exams and thus will underperform at finals. This is bullshit. Beyond being a mindset that erases the experiences of trans* people, whose biological ability to menstruate has no relation at all to their gender identity, PMS is totally disproven as something that affects a significant number of women, and totally has no indication of finals results. (Do email me at email@example.com for a full list of disproven myths or any other information.)
What is interesting about the finals gap is that it is a problem specific to Oxford and Cambridge. Other universities in the UK do not have this problem. So what is it about these traditional, prestigious institutions that prevents women from reaching the highest levels of success?
What does merit further investigation is the fact that women’s academic self-confidence drops markedly in their first year, and that this lack of academic confidence correlates with lower exam scores. So what causes this? The finals gap is a phenomenon that started in the 80s, after the mixing of the colleges. There is something about the traditional environment of Oxford which causes women to feel less comfortable than men. The performances necessary to fit in here are not ones which include the ways that women have been socialised to act.
The finals gap is more pronounced in humanities, but other divisions have their own problems. Largely, this is very high levels of academic attrition. At each level, within academia, there are fewer and fewer women. This is a difference aspect of academic inequality, but once again, women are losing out.
Sexism, both within and beyond Oxford, makes being a graduate woman in the sciences really difficult. For example, there are particularly high levels of harassment, which becomes more problematic because of the really high amounts of lab hours people require for academic research. This is why it disproportionately affects graduate women in sciences. The structure is hierarchical, so problems with Principal Investigators (the head of each lab) are rarely brought up, because upsetting seniors in this structure can ruin a graduate’s career options. Graduates also work at a level of specialism where there is no-one else that could supervise their thesis, so harassment levels can get really intense. Lack of government support for graduates means that they are also really tied to their sources of funding. Most won’t let students take a more than a year out of academia or move university. This can really limit the options for women being harassed – they aren’t in a position to go elsewhere, so they either have to put up with the situation of just leave.
The underrepresentation of women in sciences results in an absence of role models for young women in science. Locally and globally, we celebrate very few women scientists. Part of this is caused by women’s complete lack of access to science in the past, but it is also partially caused by conscious choices on the part of teachers, tutors and the media to ignore and erase women’s contributions to science now. This lack of role models means that it is more difficult for women to see themselves as successful scientists at Oxford, and will have fewer examples of women who have navigated a sexist system (for example, where women are still criticised for having both children and a career in ways where men are not) and yet still been able to rise to the top.
Whilst this is a depressing situation, I believe that there are ways forward. We need more female role models, symbolic inclusion in places like the exam schools, awareness of implicit bias of tutors, and initiatives like Athena SWAN that promote women in science. More than that, staff and academics at Oxford, including Mike Nicholson, need to take women’s exclusion seriously, or risk falling behind the rest of the academic world for one half of their students.