Oxford University extends maths exams to improve women’s grades

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The University of Oxford has extended the length of Maths and Computer Science Exams from 90 to 105 minutes in part of an effort to help women achieve better grades, though the exam has stayed the same length and difficulty.

Students who took Maths and Computer Science in 2017 were given 15 minutes more to complete their papers than in the previous year, based on a decision by dons that the time pressure had a greater adverse effect on female candidates than it did on their male counterparts.

This comes after twice as many men as women received firsts in 2016, leading to the board of examiners suggesting that the department change its systems to improve women’s grades.

According to a document acquired by The Times, the university believed that the changes would serve to “mitigate the… gender gap that has arisen in recent years, and in any case the exam should be a demonstration of mathematical understandings and not a time trial”.

Some critics of the measure have argued that such efforts are “sexist” and presupposes that women are worse at maths than men, but Sarah Hart (a Professor at Birkbeck, University of London, has argued that women were more likely to double-check answers in exams than men, and thus would do better with more time, whilst male colleagues were faster to answer but more likely to make a mistake.

Magdalen Maths and Philosophy student Kaspar Senft questioned whether this would “specifically have an impact on women’s grades… I don’t see why women would benefit any more than anyone else from having a longer time”.

The Telegraph has reported that the main effect of these measures has not necessarily been to lessen the disparity between men and women, but to lower the number of 2:2s awarded, with the number of 2:1s increasing rather than the number of firsts.

Both subjects awarded more first class degrees to men in 2017, but the university has announced that it fully intends to “monitor exam data carefully”, noting that third year female students of these subjects did see an improvement on their second year marks, suggesting the measure has worked at least in part.

39% of female maths students achieved first class degrees compared to 47% of males in 2017 which was a significant reduction of the gender disparity.