Suggesting solutions: addressing the gender gap at finals

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In 2012, 32 per cent of men got firsts at finals, whilst only 26 per cent of women did. 31 per cent of white students achieved firsts at finals, but that figure was only 25 per cent for students who identified as Black or of a minority ethnicity (BME). If we want to address the difference in examination results between men and women, and between white students and BME students, we need change in our courses. At present, the dominance of white Western men in our curricula, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, combined with a lack of female teaching staff, conveys the implicit message that unless you are a white, Western man, academia is not your place. This needs to change.  

By fundamentally changing curricula, the values of the University would be readdressed. If it is made clear to students that the voices of women of people of colour are worth listening to, worthy of the attention granted by study, then University examinations would become an entirely different scene. At present, students who are not white Western men spend the three hours of an examination paper being subliminally, if not explicitly, reminded of the structural inequalities which constantly leave them in a less privileged position, deemed unworthy of scholarly focus.

Following research showing that women perform worse in tests when outnumbered in examination rooms by men, some institutions have taken action to ensure better positive representation of women. Hertford have celebrated forty years of women at the college by replacing all of the portraits in their hall with those of women, and there has been talk of doing something similar in Examination Schools. We need to take this further, and change the very substance of our courses, so that people are learning and thinking about men and women from all backgrounds every day of their course.

We are often led to believe that change at Oxford is not possible.  This is a convenient get-out clause which enables those comfortable within the present system to preserve the perpetuation of their privilege. It is also untrue. Alongside the campaign for Cultural and Racial Awareness and Equality (CRAE), I have been meeting with various academics and the University in my role as Undergraduate Rep for the Humanities Division to discuss diversity within curricula. These meeting have been met with a positive reception. A paper is currently being written to present to the heads of undergraduate study in all Humanities divisions, whilst pilot programmes to implement some of the suggested changes are in the pipeline. Yet, the battle has not yet been won: this positive beginning now needs to be turned into real change in terms of the content of both our courses and reading lists.

Alongside CRAE, I am part of a committee working with the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Education, Prof. Sally Mapstone, to put on a symposium on improving diversity in curricula, which will take place in 2015. Senior members of the University are behind this project, but because historically grassroots change has been more effective than instructions given from an administrative level, we need the right student representatives to make sure that this will not just be a token gesture, and that change will go forward.

Curricular reform will mean different things in different subjects. In some areas, there may be more obvious female and non-white subjects of study, whilst in others, initial approaches might involve actively encouraging feminist and post-colonial critiques of certain issues, or even having under-represented scholars on reading lists, thus showing that their perspectives are valued. Women and people of colour do not only write about issues specifically relating to them, but, contrary to what our reading lists may suggest, have contributed to scholarship in many diverse fields. If you want to explore these underrepresented works further, I would advise having a look at the Alternative Reading Project for some concrete examples.

To enable diversity in higher education in the future, with lecturers and tutors from a range of backgrounds, we need to lobby the University to start providing specific support for the least represented groups. Women studying STEM subjects are now being supported by the Athena SWAN project, but this is not enough.  Because men, and white men in particular, are achieving more firsts at finals, they are currently in a better position to receive the funding which will enable postgraduate study. To counter that, we must encourage the University to provide support for women and students of colour applying for further study, and make specific funding opportunities available. The University have recently agreed to fill certain quotas of associate and full professorships with women, as part of their renewed commitment to gender equality. Now is the perfect time for students to present solutions, and show that they are passionate about this kind of change. We need the right student representatives to harness this opportunity.

This may seem like a tall order, but we have a big problem on our hands, and very little else has been suggested to actually change the situation. I’m running to be OUSU’s Vice President for Access and Academic Affairs because we can’t afford to avoid this problem any longer.

To read the rest of Eden’s manifesto go to http://ousu.org/elections/manifesto/59/.

In the interests of fairness, all of the candidates for VP Access and Academic Affairs were offered the chance to write for Cherwell. 

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