Why do boys outperform girls at university?

28 April 2014

According to the university’s own statistics, Oxford is one of the worst places in the country to be a female student if you’re hoping for a First Class degree.

In all three of Oxford’s academic divisions, men were more likely to get a First in 2013 than women: there was a gender gap of 5% in the humanities, 10% in mathematical, physical and life sciences and 8% in medical sciences. As a Historian, I’m 10% less likely to get a First than one of my male counterparts.

Nationally, there’s virtually no discrepancy at all – in 2013, 18.3% of women got Firsts compared to 18.5% of men. But it’s odd that there’s any male bias at all, since girls have long been getting more top grades at A-Level.


What it is about university that suits boys better? At school you get an A grade by diligently slogging through the text books and regurgitating the contents. I can’t speak for the scientists, but the best humanities degrees are won through flair. It’s not that girls can’t muster any, but we’re often scared to risk letting it show – at least if you stick to established ideas and facts, you’re guaranteed a pass. We girls are more inclined to deliberate than judge, but boys let their affinity for risk-taking lead them to the brash theories examiners love.

If this poses a problem for female students at all universities, it’s far more pronounced at Oxford. Our Student Union women’s representative, Sarah Pine, is right in saying that: ‘The structure of an Oxford education is thoroughly masculine: combative, rather than co-operative behaviours are valued in tutorials.’ You get so much more out of a tutorial if you disagree with your tutor, and do so much better in exams if you dare to be interesting.

When your exam essay is going to be marked by the people who wrote the books you’re quoting, the female tendency to be cautious often wins out. It’s a tendency, after all, that’s been positively encouraged in many girls’ previous educational experiences: at my all-girls school, we had lots of feminist assemblies and absolutely no debating competitions.

An Oxford education is dynamic, rather than nurturing. To do well here, you can’t just be clever – you have to be plucky too. The tutorial system is fantastic, but it can take young women a little getting used to.

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  • Liz

    “An Oxford education is dynamic, rather than nurturing. To do well here, you can’t just be clever – you have to be plucky too. The tutorial system is fantastic, but it can take young women a little getting used to.”

    In other words it’s biased and disadvantages women’s style of learning, while expecting the same fees from them.

    • į âm KìÑG hęrê

      I bet you don’t complain about the feminized primary, junior and secondary schools.

    • MD108

      If you can’t take the heat stay out of the kitchen. Humans invent and produce things when they question. Its not a matter of boys vs girls its a matter of what is best for society. Doing what you are told does not lead to innovation or great success. Oxford is in the position of asking you to question, to think and to innovate. If girls can’t do that and just want to listen to what the lecturer says and regurgitate it then maybe they shouldn’t be at Oxford.

  • Damon

    Since you’re presumably interested in examining a centre of excellence, why on earth choose Oxford? Cambridge is a very short train ride from London.

    As for the main thrust of your article, it’s long been known that we men are often clustered at both ends of the intellectual spectrum. So, both a world-beating genius and the local village idiot are more likely to be male. Of course, I’m not saying that all geniuses are male – look at Hilary Mantel, fr’instance.

    • Kitty MLB

      Excellent. You have inadvertently stared a debate in regards to intelligence
      and genius ( the latter can only be born that way- you cannot create genius)
      This will upset the politically correct mob, but there are more male geniuses
      then female, which has nothing to do with intelligence. Einstein was a genius
      and also an idiot, there are more male idiots the female ( so they say)
      You need IQ of 145 to be considered a Genius and females have not quite reached
      that level. Yet male and female on average start off with the same IQs
      Girls start off better and primary and comprehensive schools and boys catch
      up at the time of A Levels.
      It may be a cliché but generally males do far better at science and maths
      ( yes there are exceptions to the rule) and females Languages and the arts.
      There are less then 10% female science professors in this country, I am sure
      some bright spark will pop up and say its because universities are still dominated by male professors making that judgement and they are all somewhat crusty.

      • whiteafrican13

        “the latter can only be born that way- you cannot create genius”

        I am genuinely curious about what you mean by “born that way”. Almost every study into innateness since Konrad Lorenz in the ’50s has concluded that it is almost impossible to conclusively demonstrate that a given characteristic is purely innate, since all characteristics arise as the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. I can see how you could say that genes might be a limiting factor on genius, but I do not see how you can rule out the influence of an individual’s environment – surely you need both?

        • Des Demona

          (1) the set of individuals who possess the requisite genetic predispositions;

          QED genius is ”born” that way.
          Otherwise that means anyone given ”(2) the set of individuals whose intellectual development takes place in a suitably conducive environment.” – would become a genius. And that is not the case.

          • whiteafrican13

            I think you’ve missed the point. It’s only the cross-section of (1) and (2) that produces genius. If genius was simply “born that way” then everyone in (1) would be a genius, which is clearly not the case.

            • Des Demona

              How do you know it is not the case? It depends how you objectify genius. Was Einstein tutored from an early age in theoretical physics or did his genius lead him there?
              Was Mozart just another piano playing prodigy or was it his genius that led him to be able to compose at 5 years old|?
              If they require a certain genetic disposition to be a genius then clearly they are born that way. How that genius manifests itself objectively depends on the subjective eye of the beholder.
              Expertise can be acquired but genius cannot.

              • whiteafrican13

                If a person with Einstein’s genetic predisposition to genius was born as an average person in sub-Saharan Africa (where I am from), his daily life would primarily involve the struggle to survive, with little time for anything else. His genius would almost certainly never be discovered because the conditions for set (2) would be missing. If someone with Mozart’s genetic predisposition to genius was born in Saudi Arabia (a place where I have spent some time and where many consider almost all forms of music to be “haram” and therefore forbid it) the chance to become a musical genius would almost certainly never arise because, once again, the conditions for set (2) would be missing.

                Genius must be both: (1) born (in the sense that one must possess the capacity for it); and (2) taught (in that one must live in an environment conducive to developing one’s talents).

                As to your comment that “Expertise can be acquired but genius cannot.”, that is, of course, true. But it merely reflects the fact that it is possible to fall within set (2) without falling within set (1).

                • Des Demona

                  But that is what I meant by the objectivity of genius. Whether or not his genius was recognised, nevertheless he was born with it. Genius is objective, its recognition is subjective, if you see what I mean. Einstein may have grown up in sub -Saharan Africa, but being a genius, with the intelligence and creativity that entails, may have worked out the laws of thermodynamics and created a rudimentary refrigerator?
                  Would that have made him a genius in the eyes of the world? Probably not. In his own village – absolutely.

                • whiteafrican13

                  Fair enough.

      • Liz

        Men who get firsts from Oxford are not geniuses.

    • Liz

      Which doesn’t explain why the discrepancy is only found in Oxford and not other top universities.

      • sarahsmith232

        Wouldn’t have the first clue about Oxford or any other of the top tier uni’s but I don’t recognise her description of female behaviour in the seminar room. Working-class females are far more combative and aggressive, espec’ from the North, disagreeing in the seminar room is par for the course for a WC female student. Ditto black girls. I wonder whether the discrepancy isn’t gender based but class based.
        Saw Rose McGowan on Sky the other day, (completely unrelated, she was promoting her movie) but she touched on the way that females can be ‘bred to be pleasant’ and the fall out from that. Loved her turn of phrase, we tend to be but then there’s also a cultural and class based element to that. Some have been bred to be more quietly accommodating than others. I’m going to guess that the type of females that are products of the private school system may have been bred to have been the most sweetly and quietly complaint of us all.
        Class, surely, if a factor.

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