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Gendering Oxford: Through the female gaze

A couple of years before I arrived at Oxford, I came across a French film on Netflix: Je suis pas un homme facile (I am not an easy man). It was advertised as a rom-com set in a sort of alternative universe, and I put it on without much thought. In actuality, the film depicted the life of a man who wakes up one day in a matriarchal society where the gender roles have been inverted, and he had to try and navigate his life alongside various oppressive struggles he had not even noticed before. From suddenly getting catcalled on the street despite wearing joggers and a hoodie, to being pressured into removing his body hair in order to not seem ‘weird’ to the women he was trying to attract, the protagonist was forced to navigate the world in an entirely new way.

My time at uni has revealed to me that Oxford has its own arsenal of gendered differences that manifest in the peculiarities of our traditions, and the ‘Oxford experience’.

As a timid fresher (all that time ago…) I was petrified of being noticed. I didn’t dare join a society unless I thought I would be at least as good as the best people there, meaning I didn’t really try anything new. Moreover, it felt to me that if I spoke too much in a tutorial they’d realise I had nothing interesting to say and ask me to pack my bags and go back to Liverpool. But I took a certain comfort in knowing that everyone around me felt the same way.

That is, until I realised this sentiment was disproportionately echoed by my female friends than anyone else. Since then, I’ve continued to notice the ease with which my male tute partners challenged our (primarily male) tutors, voicing half-baked theories with the confidence of someone who had spent their life studying that one topic. Contrast that with me, waiting until I’m sure my point is fully developed and worth mentioning before putting it to my tutor. I believe this is a gendered difference in approach to tutorials. I have had to learn over the last couple of years how to be confident in my intelligence and in my writing in a way that appears almost innate in my male friends. Of course, this is not a result of overt, systematic oppression denying me education opportunities growing up, but a subtle gendered difference in our upbringings that over time led to this variation in academic confidence.

Outside of tutorials, Oxford’s traditions have remained exclusionary to women in a multiplicity of ways. One of the first things an Oxford student does when they arrive here is matriculate. Until incredibly recently however, the Latin read at the matriculation ceremony was male gendered, reinforcing the university’s restrictive history.

Whilst Oxford has made major strides to eradicate this discrimination, certain groups within the university have been slightly slower on the uptake than others. Vinnie’s, the infamous sports club, only allowed women to join in 2016, after a failed attempt the year before. Not to mention that  Oxford University was exclusively male for 900 years, so overturning these gendered structures is not something to be achieved overnight. But we shouldn’t passively wait for change to come. Rather, we are the agents of change.

I briefly entertained the idea of joining my friends on the Oxford-Cambridge sports exchange this year, before realising that the football team that I play for wouldn’t be going with my college, and that there would be much fewer women’s only teams going overall. Rather than paying to go and support the men’s football team, I decided not to go at all. I do not believe that this discrepancy is solely the result of there existing less opportunities for women to get into sport, but an internalised reluctance for us to try something without knowing whether or not we will be good at it. Consider baby fresher me, too scared to join a new sport for fear of messing up. En masse, that attitude results in fewer women in new sports.

I have not written this to get your sympathy; woe is not me. The point is more to draw your attention to the different ways gender affects the attitudes with which people approach life, both generally and in Oxford. There is an element of caution implicit in everything women do.

I challenge all non-men to defy this cautious voice. Push yourself in 2024 to find something new that you would like to do, in full knowledge that you might be shit at it.

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