Almost a third of male undergraduates at Oxford were awarded firsts last year compared to just a quarter of female candidates, according to statistics released by the university.
Fifty-two percent of male Chemists gained firsts, compared with just thirty percent of female Chemists.
In English Literature and Language, forty-two percent of men were awarded firsts, compared with twenty-nine percent of women.
These statistics make Oxford stand out from the rest of the country. Nationally there is almost no difference between the number of firsts being awarded to male and female students.
Students suggest that a perceived “masculine environment” at Oxford and the unwillingness of some tutors to explore gender issues are to blame for the gender gap.
Professor Laura Rodrigues of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has worked on similar issues for national publications, said: “There is no reason for the proportion of first class degrees to be consistently higher in one sex than the other in any institution: women and men have similar grades at A level and perform very similarly in university at national level.”
In 2013, male Oxford graduates received proportionally more first class degrees in twenty-six out of the thirty-eight schools in which both genders were examined.
In History, twenty-nine percent of male candidates gained firsts, compared with nineteen percent of female candidates.
One anonymous second-year Historian explained how, following a personal crisis, her tutor insisted on giving her one-to-one tutorials.
Instead of teaching her about the Magna Carta, her tutor told her: “‘I thought we’d do something I little different with you. I don’t think you’d like all that manly battles and politics sort of stuff, so why don’t you write an essay about queens instead?’
“[My tutor] often made jokes about my feminist attitudes in essays, but then would always make me feel uncomfortable by saying things like ‘I like it when you’re passionate’ and ‘let’s do some role-play. I’ll be a baron and you be a maiden I’m attempting to seduce’.”
The second-year reported that she has excellent relationships with other members of academic and college staff, who helped to resolve the situation. However, the male tutor in question is still employed by her college.
In response to this, the University said: “We cannot comment on individual instances. However, the University does not tolerate any behaviour that might constitute harassment. Strong support systems are in place for any student wishing to make a complaint.”
Humanities students at Oxford University have suggested that a marginalisation of gender issues and feminist theory could contribute to the discrepancy in finals results.
A female English student who graduated from Oxford in 2013 said: “There’s a certain type of confidence that seems to come from being at a certain type of all-male, public school: when you come to Oxford and it feels familiar, you may have a sense of belonging that isn’t accessible to everyone.”
Sarah Pine, OUSU VP for Women, commented that: “The structure of an Oxford education is also thoroughly masculine: combative, rather than co-operative behaviours are valued in tutorials, for example.”
The spokesperson for the University went on to say that it “works continuously to ensure that its examinations are fair”.
“The University’s Undergraduate Panel of Education Committee closely monitors examination results every year, including attainment by gender.
The Committee also asks each academic division to consider its own results by gender. Where a subject does show a gap in performance, that division is asked to conduct further analysis into the particular reasons and to identify ways of addressing them.”
He asserted that the University has focused extensively on researching the topic. “Since 2007, the University has itself conducted extensive research into gender attainment, focussing on a number of possible hypotheses.
The results showed that the issue is complex, with no one significant factor influencing results across the board.
Instead a range of factors are involved, which vary from subject to subject, from student to student and from year to year.
“Focusing on one year’s results can be misleading as cohorts are often small and the advantage between male and female frequently fluctuates in some subjects.”