This Is The Year to Take Another Look at the Tripos Gender Attainment Gap

Rebecca Heath 16 January 2018

2018 has been declared the year of the woman. The year started off with the Golden Globes stars wearing black in solidarity with Time’s Up – a campaign to stop sexual harassment and discrimination. Then, Carrie Gracie, ex-China editor for the BBC, bravely stood down over pay discrimination. Soon, on the 19th January, Cambridge will join the cause, with students wearing black in support with Time’s Up.

As the world’s eyes are increasingly looking at gender inequality, how is Cambridge University doing? If that it measured in terms of producing women with First Class honours degrees, the answer appears to be not too well. For many years, there has been a persistent gender attainment gap in the Tripos examinations, which shows no sign of being substantially reduced. As achieving a First is seen as a passport to a lucrative and successful career, this gap could harm Cambridge women’s future.

In every year since 2000, a significantly higher percentage of men than women have received a First in Tripos examinations. In 2017, the gender attainment gap stood at 9.2 percentage points across all subjects, not far behind the largest gender gap since 2000, which was in 2009 (10.3 percentage points). In 2017, the gender gap was over two percentage points ahead of where it was back in 2004 (7.1 percentage points).

This overall gender gap may have been explained if more men studied subjects where more Firsts were given, but the detailed data does not support this. In the majority of individual subjects, a significant gender gap exists, as illustrated by the break-down of Part II examination results.

In Maths Part II, where 84.1% of students were men, the gender performance gap in favour of men was 26.4 percentage points. In English Part II, where 73.2% of students were women, the gender performance gap in favour of men was not far behind, at 23.5 percentage points.

While the overall picture highlights significant inequality in favour of men, women actually outperformed men in a small number of individual subjects in Part II (Education, Geography, Philosophy and Classics). The gender attainment gap (in favour of women) in Education was 18 percentage points.

So, what do all these numbers mean? That the university really needs to understand the reasons for these differences, so that anything holding back women, or men, can be successfully addressed.

Research by CUSU suggests that more can be done to help women improve attainment. The CUSU women campaign’s 2015 report Mind the Gap found that one in five women felt that their gender negatively impacted their learning experience, compared with only one in 25 men. CUSU concluded that a lack of female role models, a preference for argumentative essay styles and a masculine social and academic focus all contributed to women’s poorer learning experience. For example, while CUSU found that only 14% of men felt that their supervision partners spoke over the top of them, this stood at nearly double (27%) for women.

The year of the woman provides an opportunity for the university to redouble efforts to investigate this issue and identify solutions. While we understand that certain faculties (including Maths and History) are looking at gender inequality seriously, the push for answers cannot only come from a select few. We all should play our part, whether that involves sparing the time to fill out surveys on our student experiences or standing with those who have experienced harassment and discrimination. If you notice that you are overlooked or get preference in supervisions, tell someone! 2018 can be the year of the woman, but only if we make it so.