Boys Are Better at Exams, Says Oxford Director, and Also Many, Many Others

It’s kind of sweet that The Telegraph thinks girls will be “outraged” by an Oxford University official saying that men are more academically successful because they are more comfortable taking risks. Because as a woman who just graduated from Oxford, I can’t imagine many of my women classmates being outraged — or even surprised. This is an attitude we have come to expect and even accept.

“We have generally seen male students tend to be much more prepared to take risks, which is why they do well in exams,” Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions at Oxford, told The Telegraph on Sunday. “Generally, female students are risk-averse, and will tend to take longer to think about an answer.”

Nicholson was talking about A-levels (the British equivalent of the SATs), but his remarks could just as easily have come out of a discussion of the “finals gap” — the persistent disparity between male and female students’ performance in Oxford’s final exams. Despite a lot of ink and hand-wringing, women continue to earn fewer top marks: In 2012, men received over 65 percent of all first-class degrees, despite making up just over half of the student body. Even in female-dominated subjects like English, a significant gender gap exists: Last year, men accounted for only 30 percent of English students, but 43 percent of the firsts.

Discussions of the finals gap are dominated by assumptions — whether explicit or implicit— that men are more confident and more likely to pen the kind of assertive answers that will be rewarded by the examiners, whereas women are thought to write well-balanced but tentative essays that receive middling marks. Women are often said to work more consistently throughout their undergraduate years, but to ultimately lose out in a system that relies heavily on one intense period of exams in the final year. (My course, Archaeology and Anthropology, was fairly typical in its structure: a dissertation counted for 12.5 percent of my final grade, while the remaining 87.5 percent was determined by seven three-hour exams taken over the course of a week.)

Women are often told to “write like a man” if they want to achieve top marks.

Former student Hannah Knight told Oxford’s student newspaper that she had attended special lectures organized by the English Faculty for female students, advising them on “pretty much how to write in a masculine way.”

Dr. Diane Purkiss, an English tutor, told Oxford’s Cherwell newspaper: "Nobody on the working party likes to admit it, but girls who like to do confident and slightly careless arguments are truly unusual. But that is what the 50-minute essay is all about. It's all about being bolshie. Fight ‘em. Bite ‘em.”

Purkiss' explanation might seem controversial, but her comments reflect an attitude that is often taken for granted in private settings — from formal review sessions with tutors to casual conversations among students.

“What our tutors said was, you basically have to be really cocky, and guys are better at that,” said Rose Wilkinson, another Oxford student. “They have told us, ‘You have to be willing to bullshit’ and girls are perhaps less willing to throw it to the winds than guys are.”

I can’t recall any of my tutors ever explicitly advising my cohort to “write like a man”, but I certainly went into my exams aware that I was statistically less likely to gain top marks. Lest anyone forget about the gender gap, every exam season brings a new spate of articles in both national and student press perpetuating the same tired explanations for women's underachievement: “Secrets of men’s success at Oxford is bluffing their way through exams”; “Women should mind the Finals gap”; “Thinking like a man is good for girls.”

In high-pressure situations, mindset matters — and "stereotype threat" — the phenomenon in which people conform to negative stereotypes — can have real implications.

I can't explain the finals gap, but I can offer anecdotal evidence supporting the "stereotype threat" hypothesis. To celebrate new rules eliminating gender-specific regulations from our exam uniform, a male friend and I decided to cross-dress for our last exam. I swapped my black skirt for tuxedo pants, and instead of tying a black ribbon around my neck, I borrowed a bow tie. I jokingly swaggered into the exam.

That was the day I got my highest marks.