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Wednesday, 12 February, 2003, 16:41 GMT
Students question degree gender gap
university graduation scene
Success rates vary by subject and by college
Students in Cambridge University are looking for changes in its assessment system, following a report on why men tend to get more top degrees than women.

It's not a case of saying to women, 'If you did this you would do very well in your exams - so change'

Researcher Chris Mann

A lengthy study - published in summary form on Wednesday - found that women tend to want to understand their subjects while men focus more on exam performance.

The 98,000 research project, led by Dr Chris Mann, tracked some 200 undergraduates who began courses in 1997.

The university embarked on it because of the gap between the percentage of men and women achieving the top-ranking degrees.

Equal numbers

The gap has narrowed over the past decade, the study found. In last year's results, 26.2% of men got the best degrees and 16.6% of women.

More or less equal numbers of well-qualified students begin the courses - with this year, women very slightly outnumbering the men accepted.

Performance varied by subject.

In chemistry women were awarded more firsts than men whereas in mathematics a "significantly higher" percentage of men got firsts.

Following up the statistical analysis with e-mail interviews, Dr Mann concluded that women tended to prepare for exams by working hard, their aim being "to show the extent of their understanding".


Men tended to combine work with examination techniques - their aim being "to produce an excellent performance".

Women could suffer from "trying too hard to do well, on the one hand, and fear of failure on the other".

Men had more confidence in both their innate ability and their skill in using examination techniques.

"Some independent school men, in all subject areas, have developed sophisticated examination strategies while at school and seem to use these as second nature within the Cambridge system."


Her report says a critical issue is the way students perceive themselves at the start of their Cambridge career and perform in their first year exams.

Departments and colleges which made efforts to make them feel welcome therefore reaped benefits later on.

The academics who supervised students' work had a key role.

"Women thrive in teaching situations where they are given constructive feedback," says the report.

So a "useful way forward" would be to make some training for supervisors mandatory.

School preparation

Dr Mann said on Wednesday that she was not pointing to innate differences between men and women.

An important factor was the sort of preparation for learning and for exams that students had experienced while at school.

It might be necessary to compensate for that - which some university subject areas were doing already, notably the natural sciences.

"What I'm hoping is that my hypotheses will provoke debate both at staff level and involving the students," she said.

"The important thing is that the teaching responds to the possibility of differences in learning patterns.

"It's not a case of saying to women, 'If you did this you would do very well in your exams - so change'."

Instead, their teachers had to adapt.

And she believes the findings have a significance across higher education.

"I would be very interested to get feedback from people elsewhere."


The Cambridge students' union says the report is a milestone.

Its women's officer, Chris Holly, called it "an incredibly important piece of research" whose recommendations could indeed be applied to other universities.

"Now Cambridge can finally dispel the myths about women's academic underachievement and students and academics can work together to eliminate the problems.

"Women and men obviously have different learning styles and the exams at the end of the degree should reflect this.

"We must ensure that a woman's degree result reflects their true academic ability and not their gender."

Ethnic minority concern

Ethnicity also emerged as an issue in the statistical part of the study - again with variations by subject.

Ethnic minority students performed less well than white students in engineering and history but better in mathematics.

"Although the numbers in non-white ethnic groups are small, and particularly so for black students, the difference between black students and other students is marked enough to give cause for concern," the report says.

"A significant minority of these students clearly do not thrive in the Cambridge context."

See also:

23 Dec 02 | Education
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