Sub fusc: a feminist perspective

The campaign encouraging students to vote in this week’s OUSU referenda to get rid of compulsory sub fusc and gowns for University exams, rightfully, emphasizes choice and access.  The main messages are that we should let all students choose what they would like to wear to exams so that they are as comfortable as possible, and so that we are not reemphasizing a part of Oxford that many find alienating and intimidating for the sake of ‘tradition’.  I find these arguments generally compelling, but they’re not the reason that I’m voting to get rid of compulsory sub fusc.

The reason that I’m voting ‘no’ is simple: women students do unusually poorly at Oxford, and I believe that part of the reason for this is that sub fusc disadvantages women students.  The gender gap in Oxford exams – the disparity in the proportion of first class degrees obtained by men and women – exists in every division, though not in every subject, and it fluctuates from year to year.  The headline statistic is that on average, across the University, 23% of women get firsts, compared to 32% of men.

There are two main ways that I think sub fusc contributes to the gender gap: through odd clothes and discomfort; and through something called stereotype threat.  The first of these is easier to see, and is something that lots of women students have spoken to me about over my time as a student and a women’s officer.  It’s also definitely something that I experienced myself: the “feminine” sub fusc options are weird and uncomfortable.  They were clearly devised to complement the traditional masculine outfit, and are a very long way from standard formal clothing options for women.  The women’s option is not only much more reminiscent of a school uniform than formal dress, but also comes with that weird, fiddly black ribbon.  Feeling like you have been tacked on to a long history that hasn’t really made way for you is hard enough, but it’s particularly bad when the thing reminding you of that is something that is causing you physical discomfort while you are trying to write an exam.

The second way that sub fusc disadvantages women is through something called ‘stereotype threat’.  The term was first used in 1995, to describe what was happening in experiments that showed that Black students perform worse in standardized tests than White students, when their race is emphasized.  These results have been replicated with all sorts of groups of people doing all sorts of different tasks, and the evidence is pretty solid: if you remind someone that they part of a group that is “supposed” to be bad at a particular task, then they do badly at that task.  More recent work has shown that women who are made to think about their gender identity perform significantly worse at tests that measure whether there has been any obstruction to memory mechanisms, and this obstruction continues into subsequent tests.

The important thing to note about stereotype threat is that it all it requires to have an affect on women taking Oxford exams is that women are aware of the stereotype that women do worse at exams, and that women are made to think about their gender before an exam.  The first of these is pretty much a given (thanks, patriarchy).  The second is facilitated by sub fusc.

Sub fusc is a strange set of clothes, and all of it is gendered.  The victory of the OUSU LGBTQ Campaign in getting the University to remove the rules about who can wear which items of sub fusc is a big improvement, obviously, but it doesn’t solve the problem.  Because the clothing options are strange for most people (well, for everyone who isn’t used to wearing a suit and bow tie), they require you to think about them and how they relate to your gender.  The clearest part of this is the white bow tie vs. black ribbon choice.  For virtually everyone at Oxford, these are both strange items of clothing.  Literally the only thing that we have to differentiate them is the genders that they are associated with.  By forcing women students to think about whether they are going to wear a ribbon or a tie, sub fusc forces women students to think about their gender.  This triggers stereotype threat, and makes women do worse.

Changing the rules so that sub fusc is optional would mean that choosing to wear any particular items of it would be a choice made in the context of all sorts of other clothing that the student might wear.  This not only would help many women students to be more comfortable, but also takes out the strict gendered associations that come with sub fusc, removing the stereotype threat trigger for at least some women.

All of these problems that I have with compulsory sub fusc because of gender link to lots of different kinds of problems with exams, and the experience of lots of different groups of people.  Making sub fusc optional needs to be seen as part of a larger campaign to diversify curricula and exam questions, to encourage women in academia, and to combat the severe knock to confidence that many women experience during their time at Oxford.  And thinking about women’s experience of stereotype threat needs to be thought about in the context of also thinking about how it affects students of colour, international students, LGBTQ students, disabled students and students who come from a lower socio-economic background.  Far from being the meritocratic equalizer that it was conceived as, sub fusc disadvantages all students who don’t match up with the particular picture of a man that is still Oxford’s default image of a student.