Why women aren’t on top in Cambridge


Gender Agenda

Gender Agenda

Issue 1 Lent 2003

The magazine of

Women's Union

Why women aren’t on top in Cambridge

Katie Childs

Last Easter term’s exams are by now a dim, and hopefully not too painful
memory. Those of us who set up temporary home in our library of choice
are now either tackling the challenges of this academic year, or have
left to make their way in the big wide world. It is with nothing more
than idle curiosity or a final bout of inter-collegiate rivalry, that
most will glance at the college “league table”, aka the infamous Tompkins
Table. Observers (or readers of “Varsity”) will see that Pembroke stormed
to the top, whilst New Hall were left to pick up the wooden
spoon. Arguably, almost as predictable as New Hall’s position in the
bottom half of the table, were calls for both it and Newnham to open
their doors to men on the spurious grounds they are poor educational
institutions. However, to really get to grips with the thorny issue of
women’s academic achievement in Cambridge, there is the need to take more
than a passing glance at the college league table, and to delve into the
murky waters of all examination results statistics.

Is there a problem with women underachieving in Cambridge? Well, in
short, yes, and the stark fact in support is that while 26.2% of men
gained firsts last year, just 16.6% of women did. It is however, a much
more complex picture than that and does depend on your definition of
achievement. For some, emerging with any sort of degree after 3 or 4
years at this unique institution is an achievement. For others a 2:1 or
2:2 combined with a sparkling CV is a job well done. However, in
University terms and academic terms, achievement is gaining a 1st, and to
excel academically is essentially why we are all here. Factors
influencing the likelihood of a person gaining a first include your
subject, your transition between school and university and your
individual teachers and supervisors. Therefore, although college plays a
role, just being at Pembroke doesn’t guarantee an invitation to the
Scholars Dinner.

A dissection of the college league table makes interesting
reading. Whilst ordinarily I would dismiss the table, bearing in mind the
performances of single individuals can affect placing, it is surely a
cause for some investigation by the Senior Tutors as to why there is such
a large difference between top and bottom. Students at both Pembroke and
Trinity were 3 times more likely to get a first than students at New
Hall. There surely has to be reasons why this happens. Is it quality of
supervisors used? Is it the number of students taken from the pool? Is
the previous education of the majority of students? Is it the college
facilities? Or, is it the manifestation of a greater institution-wide
problem of women’s academic underachievement?

Helpfully, the Student Records and Statistics Office at the University
have broken down the 2001-2 exam results by gender. At Fitzwilliam,
St. Catherine’s, Robinson, Girton, Pembroke and Trinity Hall both sexes
gained similar proportions of firsts. Now, spot your college in the
following list… Christs, Churchill, Downing, Emmanuel, Cauis,
Peterhouse, Queens’, Selwyn, St. Johns’, Trinity and Wolfson. At every
single one of these colleges last year, men were at least 10% more likely
to gain firsts than women were. Add to this that almost all mixed
Cambridge colleges have a predominance of men anyway (exceptions being
Homerton and Girton), then that means that all adds up to not a lot of
women getting firsts.

However, the waters get yet murkier. In preparation for the publication
of this years’ exam results, I put my A’Level Maths to use and worked out
that since 1996 women had statistically significantly underachieved in
Maths, History, Engineering, MML and Computer Science. If I had had any
sense, I would have put money on it happening again this year… and
believe me, I would have been able to spend this Saturday afternoon laden
down with shopping bags in the Grafton Centre if I had. Whilst Faculty
officials may mutter about “lies, lies and damn statistics” and
repeatedly remind me of the malleability of numbers, I certainly cannot
find anything ambiguous about the following vital statistics…

28.5% of men gained 1st in Computer Science whilst just 12.2% of
women did (that’s 5 women by the way)

20.9% of men got firsts in Economics, yet just 10.7% of women did.

Of the 579 men who did Engineering, 27.8% got firsts whereas 19.4%
of the 159 women did.

21.1% of men doing History gained a 1st, whereas 12.6% of women did
(my own subject – not that I’m bitter).

25.3% of men doing Music were given firsts, whereas the 5 women who
did accounted for just 5.5%.

Despite there being over twice as many women learning Medieval and
Modern Languages as men, 29.4% of men got 1sts, yet 14.7% of women did.

And I thought I’d save the best till last. Mathematics: one the
oldest and most prestigious of Cambridge’s faculties which has produced
many a famous mathematician over several centuries. However, I’m sticking
my neck out here and suggesting that very few of them were women. Even
before exam results are considered, let me let you digest this fact. Of
the 822 people who sat exams in Maths last year, 18.6% were women. So,
Mathematics has a brand new building, a new library, one of the best
coffee rooms in Cambridge, a stunning international reputation, world
famous teaching staff… and very few women. High profile access
initiatives to encourage women to apply to do Maths at Cambridge are
surely needed to make the faculty more representative of society as a

However, do the women do well? Well, they don’t get as many firsts as
men. In fact women are half as likely to get a first than their male
counterparts. The existence of two different Part 2 courses accentuates
this yet further.

Therefore, the problem of women’s academic underachievement is not
confined to the overall performance of Newnham and New Hall, but is
apparent and ingrained in different, although not all, institutions
across Cambridge. What I will campaign for is that where these problems
arise so starkly, they are quickly, yet thoroughly, investigated and an
immediate plan of action is put in place. Every one of these institutions
is likely to have very different contributing factors to the statistics
I’ve mentioned. However, my experience as a seasoned CUSU Education
campaigner is that there are a number of measures that have to be put in
place institutionally. One is compulsory supervisor training, so that all
supervisors know exactly what is expected of them and their students, and
also so they know how to cope with different groups of students. It is
surely ludicrous that we go all the way through school and college being
taught by well-trained teachers, only to arrive at a University with such
an amazing teaching and learning reputation, and be taught by academics
who are experts in their field, but haven’t been given even the most
basic of teacher training. An acknowledged standard of supervisor would
rule out any allegations that certain subjects in certain colleges get
poorer supervisors than others.

There also has to be, and I have campaigned for this already this term,
a review of school to university transition, particularly with the changes
in A’Levels. The new University feedback policy has to be strongly
adhered to and turnaround time with complaints has to be quicker. The
University has a new complaints procedure and this has to be publicised
so students know what to do if they are unhappy with aspects of their
teaching and learning.

However, each faculty, department and college has to engage in some
naval gazing with regards to this issue. They have to review their
teaching and examining practices, look at intake figures, ask questions
about previous education, provide effective and sympathetic pastoral
support, copy good practice, admit when mistakes are made, and, most
importantly, constantly review their exam results from year-to-year.

A few answers to the questions surrounding academic achievement will be
answered in a forthcoming University report, “Indicators of Academic
Performance”. This is a long-term research exercise, concentrating on a
few selected faculties and funded by the University’s Joint Committee on
Academic Performance. Both Chris Holly (CUSU Women’s Officer) and myself
have and will continue to urge the University to act on any findings as
quickly as possible, and to use it as a platform from which to tackle
women’s academic underachievement throughout Cambridge University. At
Cambridge, one of the world’s leading academic institutions, gender
should not, and cannot, be a contributing factor in your exam grades.



Email us at gender-agenda@cusu.cam.ac.uk