Statistics from 2015-2018 have shown that female students at the University of Oxford have been 10.7% less likely to receive first-class honours than their male counterparts. The data, which was pulled from the university’s public record, shows an attainment disparity between genders across a wide range of disciplines. Physics saw the highest discrepancy, with an attainment disparity average of 17.7% over the past four years. Other typically male-dominated subjects such as Mathematics (integrated masters) and PPE saw an average of 12.3% and 7.1% more firsts received by male students respectively.
This alarming tendency can be found even in courses that see higher enrolment by female students. Of the 430 female students and 352 male students who have graduated from the Law faculty since 2015, only 76 of those female students attained firsts, in comparison with 97 firsts received by male students, with a total gender attainment gap of 9.9%. Despite also having more female students enrolled in the faculty, Oriental Studies similarly saw more male students achieve firsts and has a gender attainment gap of 11.4%.
These figures defy a growing international trend that sees females throughout all levels of education consistently outperform their male peers. In GCSE’s this year, 5.4% of all grades offered to female students were the coveted grade 9, compared to 3.9% for males. For A levels overall, female students in most subjects continued to score more A*/A than males, notably in geography, psychology, art, and design subjects. And data from HESA (Higher Education Statistics Agency) shows that in the graduating year 2018, 28% of females achieved first-class honours, compared to 27% males.
As for why it may be harder for female students to attain firsts, Professor Jo-Anne Baird, director of the Department of Education told The Oxford Student “The format of tests is known to have effects, with multiple choice favouring males, in general. Content of the examinations can be gendered, which has implications for engagement and outcomes and the way in which the marking schemes are constructed and implemented can have effects. Gender bias in marking has also been demonstrated in many studies, leading to anonymised marking. However, the handwriting can be a very good clue to gender, as my research last century showed.
“Outside of the examination hall, there is the wider messaging that is given to women about their place in society and how valuable their achievements are, which can undermine their confidence and risk-taking. We know that assertive women are viewed differently from men. In summary, there are a plethora of social reasons why women may perform differently and their performances might be valued differently. The gender gap needs careful attention on a subject by subject basis to make sure that the outcomes reflect women’s achievements fairly.”
The Oxford University Student Union’s VP for Women, Amber Sparks also commented “We need to look hard at our systems and think about how departments and subjects with the highest gaps can better support women students. Myself and Ray Williams, VP for Access and Academic Affairs, have been campaigning on this issue and we want the University to set a gender attainment gap target soon. We will be meeting with them in the coming term and pushing this view.”
In response to this article, the University commented, “The University is interested in exploring and understanding all aspects of differences in attainment to ensure that all students have the chance to reach their full potential. The existence of an attainment gap in 1st class degrees between men and women is acknowledged by the University and a commitment was made in the Strategic Plan to set a target to reduce the gap.”
Image Credit: University of Oxford