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Why do boys outperform girls at university?

28 April 2014

9:02 AM

28 April 2014

9:02 AM

According to the university’s own statistics, Oxford is one of the worst places in the country to be a female student if you’re hoping for a First Class degree.

In all three of Oxford’s academic divisions, men were more likely to get a First in 2013 than women: there was a gender gap of 5% in the humanities, 10% in mathematical, physical and life sciences and 8% in medical sciences. As a Historian, I’m 10% less likely to get a First than one of my male counterparts.

Nationally, there’s virtually no discrepancy at all – in 2013, 18.3% of women got Firsts compared to 18.5% of men. But it’s odd that there’s any male bias at all, since girls have long been getting more top grades at A-Level.

What it is about university that suits boys better? At school you get an A grade by diligently slogging through the text books and regurgitating the contents. I can’t speak for the scientists, but the best humanities degrees are won through flair. It’s not that girls can’t muster any, but we’re often scared to risk letting it show – at least if you stick to established ideas and facts, you’re guaranteed a pass. We girls are more inclined to deliberate than judge, but boys let their affinity for risk-taking lead them to the brash theories examiners love.

If this poses a problem for female students at all universities, it’s far more pronounced at Oxford. Our Student Union women’s representative, Sarah Pine, is right in saying that: ‘The structure of an Oxford education is thoroughly masculine: combative, rather than co-operative behaviours are valued in tutorials.’ You get so much more out of a tutorial if you disagree with your tutor, and do so much better in exams if you dare to be interesting.

When your exam essay is going to be marked by the people who wrote the books you’re quoting, the female tendency to be cautious often wins out. It’s a tendency, after all, that’s been positively encouraged in many girls’ previous educational experiences: at my all-girls school, we had lots of feminist assemblies and absolutely no debating competitions.

An Oxford education is dynamic, rather than nurturing. To do well here, you can’t just be clever – you have to be plucky too. The tutorial system is fantastic, but it can take young women a little getting used to.

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