Cambridge Firsts: Why the girls aren’t making the grade

Catherine Maguire 12 May 2014

An Investigation by The Cambridge Student has revealed the dramatic extent to which male students consistently outperform their female counterparts when it comes to achieving the top grade in Tripos examinations.

In data obtained by TCS detailing the results of final-year students from the past three years, an average of 59% of all Firsts were awarded to male students. 

A divide in Arts and Sciences

Across scientific disciplines, discrepancies were marked: throughout the past three years, an average of 30% of male students achieved a First in Natural Sciences, whilst only 21% of females were awarded the same grade. In Mathematics, whilst an average of 25% of females achieved a First, for males, this figure stood at 41%. Similarly, 20% of female Engineers obtained firsts during this three year period, compared to 31% of Engineering’s male contingent.

Throughout this three year period, the humanities have also been affected by this disparity. An average of 37% of male Historians received a First, with 25% of the subject’s female cohort awarded the top mark. In Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, the gap was striking: 51% of males obtained a First, compared with just 16% of women.

More specifically, in 2013, 41% of male student achieved a Class I in the Philosophy Tripos, compared with just 15% of females. In Natural Sciences, 28% of males received a First, whilst only 19% of females achieved the same grade.

The figures obtained by TCS have shown that during the past three years, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNAC) and Education were the only subjects which saw a consistent female outperformance.

"Guys take risks…they end up with more original ideas and successful exam scripts"

Eleanor, a second-year English student, told TCS that a female supervisor had pointed out that girls are more likely to write “this could potentially be interpreted as”, while men prefer bolder, original arguments prefaced by “this shows that”. Eleanor admitted that she felt a lack of self-confidence manifests itself in her writing and often weakened the argument of her essays.

A second year student at Murray Edwards expressed her frustration at studying at all-female college, explaining that a relative lack of academic exposure to male students in the form of supervisions means that debating with men can be “intimidating”.  Having previously had most of her classes and supervisions with female students – of which she describes herself as “by some margin, the most outspoken”, she confesses that her mixed faculty classes pose some challenges. She told TCS that she finds it “extremely difficult to muster up the courage to get a word in edgeways and to contradict the guys because they seem far more confident than me”.  She continued: “Guys have their wits about them and improvise, so they’re more likely to take risks, meaning they end up with more original ideas and successful exam scripts”.

Hannah, a Selwyn Philosophy student, highlighted her positive experiences within an all-female environment, but also spoke of the challenges of mixed-gender teaching as a result, noting that “in discussion group settings, female students tend to be quieter and less eager to defend their view or challenge the guys”. She apportions the responsibility for addressing this imbalance to group leaders, the absence of which leads to male voices being heard far more than female ones.

 “[My] male supervisor assigned female students comparatively easier questions than the male students”

One MML student, who wished to remain anonymous, described how her class was told to “'write like a boy'”. She told TCS, “I think it was a particularly frustrating comment as it was addressed to a group of girls, implying that we all would suffer from the same writing problems, I know from experience that we all write very differently and that not all boys are superior writers”. Abigail, a Selwyn Natural Scientist, agreed pointing out that her male supervisor assigned female students comparatively easier questions than the male students, who were “challenged and criticised” to a much greater extent.

Human, Social and Political Sciences supervisor Dr Tom Hopkins was unsurprised by the results of the investigation, commenting that Tripos marking “tends to favour strongly assertive candidates, who lay out a strong argument in a short space of time, and then hammer it home relentlessly.  The assumption is that this then disproportionately favours male candidates.  A second, perhaps related, suggestion is that female candidates tend to be more risk averse, seeking to cover all bases rather than produce highly focused essays for which the rewards can be high, but the possibility of failure is correspondingly high.”

Hopkins added that “female students tend to produce broad survey essays, rather than essays closely tailored to the set question”, but that since most supervisors are aware of the kind of style expected in the exam, “one would have expected this kind of gap to narrow over the course of the year. My own suspicion would be that the key would lie in the way in which essays are assessed at the threshold of 2.1 and 1st, where it may well be that stylistic difference and assertiveness are being used to differentiate candidates who may have otherwise little to distinguish them.”

A wider cultural problem?

Dr Alastair Fraser, lecturer in African politics, agrees that broader cultural issues and Cambridge’s masculine culture are responsible for the variation between male and female performance. He argues that “an explanation for any variation lies in broader cultural issues rather than in our methods of teaching or examining”. Referring to Professor Mary Beard’s recent London Review of Books Lecture, he adds that “we live in a culture in which women’s voices are not heard in the public sphere, and in the processes by which they are silenced lie very deep. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether these problems in wider society are challenged or reinforced by our own practices and institutions.” He also pointed out that: “Laddish aspects of college culture may well have an influence on relative levels of confidence, and gender balance in the senior staffing of the University, which some people think has an effect because of the relative shortage of ‘role-models’.”

Some supervisors, however, have remarked that they are not aware of any such gender disparity. Dr Andrew Murray, admissions tutor for the Sciences at Trinity Hall, and fellow in Natural Sciences, struggled to remark on any difference between male and female supervisees, adding that “if anything, female students tend to have better organised essays, but that would be a real generalisation”.

With regard to the underperformance of females in scientific Tripos, Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron Cohen warns against drawing too many definitive conclusions from a relatively small data set of three years. Nonetheless, he commented that male outperformance is an issue which extends beyond Cambridge, remarking that males score significantly higher on SAT Maths tests in the USA. He also added that “males and females don’t differ in their aptitude to do science. [The evidence] suggests that the two sexes are choosing to use their scientific aptitude in very different ways: more males apply to study science as applied to the physical world (e.g., Computer Science or Engineering), or to the world of abstract systems (e.g., Maths), and more females apply to study science as applied to people (e.g., Psychology and Medicine) or animals (Veterinary Science).”

"Men also have a significantly higher chance of being awarded a Third than women"

When contacted by The Cambridge Student, a spokesperson for the University stated:

“A Working Group on gender attainment in Tripos examinations was established in December 2010 to consider this issue.

It found that overall, female and male Cambridge students are equally likely to obtain a ‘good degree’, but men have a significantly higher chance of being awarded a First than women in some academic disciplines. However, men also have a significantly higher chance of being awarded a Third than women in some academic disciplines.

The Working Group noted that research findings are divided on whether there are benefits in increasing the proportion of alternative methods of assessment to three-hour examinations, and also noted that the hypothesis that women might benefit from alternative forms of assessment has not been proven in the Cambridge context.

A number of recommendations were made by the Working Group which are in the process of being implemented."