Ladies’ First?

REANNE MACKENZIE thinks the Cambridge system is biased against girls. What do you think?

They say you’re meant to leave Cambridge with either a first, a blue, or a husband. My lack of sporting prowess immediately rules out the blue and I can’t even find a boyfriend let alone someone who’s marriage material. So I was really banking on the first, if anything. But now it seems that this sliver of a dream is also doomed to fail.

Statistics from Cambridge have shown that males are more likely to graduate with a first class degree compared to females. This is especially true of arts subjects, where girls make up a greater number of course students, yet boys are still more likely to reach the elusive top grades. In 2007 they introduced gender-based analysis on examination reports to try and figure out why such an irregularity exists. Unfortunately they’ve been unable to solve the mystery. I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but the answer, to me at least, seems to lie in the basic differences in the way the different sexes approach work.

Girls are much more likely to plan, to organise, to colour code, and to revise along the straight and narrow: we’ll play it safe, we’ll learn enough topics, we’ll make revision timetables (with scheduled fun). This is not true for all girls, but all I’m saying is that it’s not boys who get excited about a brand new pack of Crayola felt-tips. Boys, in contrast, are more often than not confident enough to chance it, to hope for the best: to do the least amount of work with maximum return. I don’t know many girls who would have the (metaphorical) balls to adopt this strategy.

Essentially, the Cambridge tripos system is still geared towards examining boys: your final degree classification, unlike in other universities, is not based on credits, but mainly on a few hours of exams in the Easter Term of third year. It’s a reminder that whilst Cambridge may be 800 years old, women have only been fully fledged students, on equal terms with men, since 1947: just 65 years ago.

Arguably, the exam system has not had time to catch up. This system does not favour the year-round worker, but rather the crammer; in the most general of senses girls tend to fall into the former category, and boys into the latter. First class weekly supervision essays are rendered almost meaningless when the bulk of your degree is decided in the exam room. To get a First, as far as I can tell, you have to come up with something original, unique and maybe even slightly weird. Whilst both girls and boys are equally capable of doing this, it appears that boys are more willing to succeed and adopt this bolder and more risky approach. Girls tend to be better at playing it safe.

And so what should be done? Should Cambridge totally re-orientate itself to focus on the female sex? No – there is no point merely reversing the bias. It would be easier if our degrees were based on a credit system, but the way exams work is part and parcel of why a Cambridge degree is so rigorous. Regardless of sex, everyone has to work hard. Girls are also working against the odds.


  • Oh dear.

    "someone whose marriage material"

    Ruled out the First right there, love.

    • true pedant

      I love you.

  • Honest truth

    Girls are just not as naturally intelligent. Get over it

  • Atlas

    I'd marry you!

    • lol

      for a Coke Zero

  • Public School Boy

    So bored of these gender stereotypes. Boys are chancers, girls work hard. What bollocks. Some PEOPLE are lazy, some PEOPLE work hard, some PEOPLE are good at exams. Some PEOPLE get firsts, some don't. Stop devaluing the effort of someone who works within a system (the same system for everyone). The fact that you got into Cambridge suggests that you are clever enough, if you can adapt the way you work – as everyone has to.

    • Yeah but

      point is the majority of the PEOPLE getting firsts are MALE. Are you not even interested in finding out why this might be the case?

      • john

        clearly blokes are better than girls. doesnt take a rocket scientist

        • By your logic

          does if you're a girl

      • Not really…

        There are better things to be doing…

  • Oh dear

    "Girls tend to be better at, playing it safe."
    Rogue comma. 2.ii.

  • Yes but…

    Surely more men should also get thirds if they are more prone to risk-taking behaviour? In the current job market, I'd prefer to get a safe 2:1 that have a 50-50 chance of either a first or a 2:2.

    • Yep

      More men do get thirds. The article just doesn't mention it.

  • Well

    A lot of sweeping and unsupported statements that really need references:

    "Girls are much more likely to plan, to organise, to colour code"

    "does not favour the year-round worker, but rather the crammer; in the most general of senses girls tend to fall into the former category, and boys into the latter."

    Perhaps more interesting than arts subjects would be to look at subjects that are based largely on coursework (i.e the continuous assessment you're looking for) or based more on ability rather than cramming knowledge (like maths)

    • Mathmo

      Maths at Cambridge involves significant cramming; most of the proofs done in exams are learnt by rote.

      • failing mathmo


        • Girl

          Girls do colour code – I've never seen Murray Edwards' library more colourful than exam term.

    • Charlotte

      Interestingly, Maths has the highest proportion of boys- 82% (according to CU site prospective students) where most other subjects are almost even or have more girls. No other subject had more than 60% boys. This is a fun fact, not meant to suggest anything about maths, but perhaps relevant to the argument.

      • CompSci

        I wish my subject had 18% girls…

  • Well

    If you've identified the shortfall in your revision strategy, why not re orientate it to fit the challenge rather than complaining about the challenge itself?

    Also this article is completely devoid of statistics, such as how big the differential is, so ends up just sounding like moaning about the injustice of it all.

  • Grammar Nazi

    "but all I’m saying is that its not boys who get excited about a brand new pack of Crayola felt-tips"

    Severe lack of apostrophe…

  • Got a 2.1

    …blamed it on my period

  • Lady

    You missed out the bit where our brains overheat, resulting in fainting fits, making us unable to complete our exams. Luckily I always carry my smelling salts with me, so I'll at least get a high 2:1.

  • Part II physics

    Would like to know the statistics within subjects, I had always assumed this was down to my lectures being an absolute sausagefest where everyone gets firsts.

    • 2002 study

      Interestingly in 2002 physics was the only subject with no significant gender difference. I can't find the stats online but I'm quoting from intelligence lectures (Part II psychology).

      Men scored much higher in maths, MML, chemistry, english and engineering, while women were better in chem eng, electrical eng and classics. I think they're the subjects with the greatest attainment gaps. Pretty strange!

      • shut up billy

        shutttttt uppppp

    • mmm sausages

      i wish i did physics

  • boyz come third

    Alternatively, you could have written about how boys are much more likely to get a 2.2, third or fail. But y'know…

  • Clarification

    Hmm, what you don't mention in this article is that boys get more firsts but also more thirds. Girls are more likely to get 2.1s or 2.2s. This would support your hypothesis that boys are "chancers" (not sure I agree, but whatever) but NOT that tripos exams are biased towards boys. I think the average grade is the same, it's just that girls cluster round the average while boys do really well or really badly.

  • Extrapolating

    So … would making the degree coursework based disadvantage boys because (stereotypically) they are lazy and don't work hard enough throughout the year?

  • Grrl

    Well. I worked hard, produced first quality work throughout my degree, then choked in finals. I'm now doing a coursework based M.Phil and feel like I'm earning my grades; but, it's exactly the same for some guys on my course. Stop perpetuating (possibly self-fulfilling) stereotypes. Maybe the Cambridge degree is unfair in placing so much weight on finals, but PLEASE don't cite US POOR GIRLS as the reason for changing it.

  • Everyone

    Less badly thought out sexism in future please.

  • nodders

    Went to Oxford. Got all 3. Double first, blue and bagged a rower (American). Couldn't be happier. Maybe you just aren't as great as me.

    • Yeah but

      you did go to Oxford, so you're already not as great as us.

    • umm

      nobody gives a shit

  • lol

    They say you’re meant to leave Cambridge with either a first, a blue, a husband, or a Coke Zero

    • just so you know

      your comment isn't very funny at all. In degree terms, you took that masculine risk and ended up with a third.

  • Did it occur to you

    that firsts/thirds are awarded more for science subjects (due to their more objective right/wrong nature), which happen to be male dominated?

    • probs not

      probably not that much to do with it because even within individual subjects a far higher percentage of men get firsts than women. Last year in my (arts) course the 8 people that got firsts were all men. Out of a roughly 50/50 split year. I don't think it has anything to do with gender weighting of different subjects

      • but…

        You cannot draw a conclusion from extrapolating from a sample size of 8 in one particular cohort. The smaller the population, the less reliable the data. If it had been 100% men getting a first every single year for the last 20 years, maybe statistical significance could be inferred, but I think that pretty unlikely.

        • Only a biologist but

          If it were a 50/50 split in attainment we're talking odds of 0.5^8 of an all male result, that's pretty significant in my books.

      • Enthusiasm?

        Perhaps only the most enthusiastic men opt for arts subjects, which explains their scarcity in the area whereas the girls take it with less enthusiasm as they have other reasons (social pressure) that make doing an arts subject appealing to them. I wonder if women are more likely to get firsts in Engineering as only very enthusiastic women opt for that.

  • Procrastinating…

    For years girls have been outperforming boys in GCSE and A-levels, which are predominantly exam based qualifications. Clearly, we couldn't have lost all ability to to prepare for exams over one summer.

    The real issue is that the neat and methodical approach that has helped us succeed at school can't be directly transferred to the Tripos system since the sheer volume is MUCH bigger than ever before. Sadly, we need to wave goodbye to Paperchase colour co-ordinated stationery and (regretfully) say hello to the messy havoc that is revision.

  • Economist

    You are assuming that girls would do relatively better in a credit system because they work harder throughout the year. Classic case of treating this as a static model. What about the boys changing their work ethic to fit the new incentives from the credit system?

    • reputation

      and you wonder why economists are considered to be boring…

      • Econ101

        What shit degree do you do?

  • Maybe…

    …instead of wasting time writing one-sided articles that my 11 year old brother could grammatically improve, you should get on with your colour coding?

  • Mexican

    I'm incredibly lazy, could you please adjust the exam system so that I have the same chance of a first as someone who works much harder?

  • Chizzit

    If your claims are true, surely it's up to women to CHANGE THE WAY THEY WORK? The ability to take risks isn't somehow innate. It's a choice you can make. Step away from the highlighters, love – it's for your own good.

  • mathm

    Article neglects to include the figures. Pointless.

  • Cesca

    From an academic standards point of view, I'm surprised Cambridge doesn't involve more coursework: like many other people, I finished Part I without the option to do any. A more modular system might mean that students work more consistently throughout the year, and that fewer arts lectures are given to mostly empty lecture halls.
    The system should be changed not because it favours boys, but because it favours those with the very specific skill set needed to do well in 3 hour exams. Life post-Cambridge is as much about sustained hard work as the ability to work well in a short specific time frame.

    • Crammer

      yeah but you suck

  • umm

    "Essentially, the Cambridge tripos system is still geared towards examining boys"

    what a load of shit

  • So in conclusion…

    [citation needed]

  • Rubbish article

    What a boring attempt at addressing a potentially interesting fact. You might have a nugget of truth there somewhere, but you don't develop your points further than painful and unsatisfactory generalisations.

    You also leave the causal reasons for the proposed gender differences untouched. Where do these differences of approach to work come from? Biology? Culture?

    You don't mention the obvious statistic that males tend to get more 3rds as well as 1sts.

    I think the year-round worker is definitely advantaged when it comes to revision.

    I'm a boy. I colour code. I like new felt tips. I didn't come up with anything original or 'weird'. I got a first. The only starred firsts in my year were from girls.


    • GAYDAR

      "I'm a boy. I colour code. I like new felt tips."


      • Rubbish Article

        yeah, so what if I am gay? fucking homophobe…………

  • dude

    On a minor point, there is no such thing in Cambridge as a final degree classification. You are awarded a B.A. (Hons). Period. It's your individual Tripos exams taken, that carry a class with them. Most people find out about this once they've graduated.

    • voice of reason

      …very true. thank you for pointing this out. Taking the final-year class is purely informal usage, and there is nothing stopping you from taking another part of the Tripos.

      But remember, "if you hold a Cambridge BA, you may proceed to the MA not less than six years from the end of your first term of residence, providing that you have held your BA degree for at least two years."

      In other words, your "B.A. (Hons)" becomes "M.A." (no mention of honours; I would be curious to know whether those who fail to attain honours get nominates for the M.A.).

      Postscript: I am male, work reasonably hard (I flatter myself to think) through the year, but get comparatively lazy come revision time. And I got a 2.i last year.

      • voice of reason

        apologies for the spelling mistake:

        (no mention of honours; I would be curious to know whether those who fail to attain honours get *nominated* for the M.A.)

  • PPSer

    "Essentially, the Cambridge tripos system is still geared towards examining boys" – no, it's not, it's geared towards examining tenacious, assertive writers with a good grip on their material. There's nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is that these individuals are at the moment more likely to be male than female. I take issue with the idea that the system needs to change so that girls (who you claim, somewhat patronisingly, tend to 'play it safe') can get a proper shot. Instead, both supervisors and their students themselves need to think about what examiners want and figure out how to get there.

    • Engling

      Digressing from the citation-less sexism of the article: I think there is something wrong with examining " tenacious, assertive writers with a good grip on their material," in English at least. It's much easier to distinguish between those who have a good writing style, strong argument and in-depth knowledge of their subject in a large piece of coursework than in a three-essay-three-hour exam. You can easily conceal ignorance with flair.

  • NatSci girl

    The NatSci courses I do have about 20% coursework but it is easily the most unfair part of the course. Perhaps for arts subjects more coursework would be good for all to really get into the details of a topic for which there is not time in an exam – but certainly not for many science subjects!

    Marks are awarded essentially randomly (some of those taking the class have openly admitted to that!) and there is a very high degree of 'collusion', with very little emphasis on any degree of original thought. As any answers can be obtained from just asking the demonstators the only differentiating factor between assessments is the presentation. This only leads to large amounts of time spent re-writting the same points in an attempt to impress, but without learning anything. The only chance of getting good marks with write-ups that are supposed to be done on the fly as a lab book is to type them up after – who has gained from that? The way that it is possible to get full marks for practicals that people don't even bother turning up to is also testament to it's pointlessness!

    • Older natsci

      Yes, current lab reports are a waste of time, but that doesn't mean to say assessed course work would take the same form. You probably write 2-3 supervision essays a week. Would you not prefer these to count for something?

  • who needs a first

    when you have fake wabs

  • anon.

    There is a gender bias in exam results, but perpetuating these sorts of stereotypes isn't going to help. Particularly as that seems to be Cambridge's best answer as well – "oh, girls are timid, panic in exams, revise in the wrong way and don't take risks" is the general feeling, and thus you get lots of *really helpful supervisors* constantly telling their female students to "write more like a man". What they mean when they say this is "be more assertive, take more risks, and don't be afraid of showing off" – the trouble is, they assume a gendered shorthand for this which relies yet again on tired old gender binary beliefs, meaning that women feel disheartened going into their exams because they feel like they're already doomed. It's not a great way to start out.


      I psyched myself up and decided to write like a man and got a first. I did it by using excessive personal pronouns in my essay. This was manly either because men are arrogant, or because I's are phallic. I never could tell which though.

      • anon.

        I think it's the phallicism. Everyone loves a phallus.

        (I'm an English student, studying Freud. Can you tell?)

      • teeee

        This says more to me about the farcical nature of arts degree examinations.

      • grocer's apostrophe

        "because I's are"?

        why the apostrophe? there are no missing letters between "I" and "s", and it is not a possessive. Sort out your grammar. How about?

        "because "I"s are"

        "because the letter I is"

        "because the first-person singular nominative pronoun is"

        • Nope

          That isn't a grocer's apostrophe. Apostrophes for plurals of letters are fine. Correcting grammar is pretty lame, but getting it wrong when you try is just tragic. "How about?" is not a sentence, and none of your suggestions is an improvement.

          • grocer's apostrophe

            You are wrong. Sometimes when individual letters are substituted for proper nouns (e.g. Mr X), the utilisation of an apostrophe thereafter denotes possession (e.g. Mr X's dog). The apostrophe has two functions:

            1. to denote possession

            2. to denote a contraction, substituting for one or more letters (e.g. can't = cannot)

            On no account does an apostrophe denote a plural, although where the plural is similar to the singular genetive case, the *position* of the apostrophe differentiates between singular and plural (e.g. boy's, boys').

        • SAD BUT TRUE

          Thankfully the sheer phallicity of the first-person singular nominative pronoun distracts examiners from pedantism, and possibly even destroys the concepts of grammar with its raw sexuality.

  • Girl

    I didn't get a 2i because I'm a girl and therefore stupid at exams, I got a 2i because I am lazy, which is nothing to do with my gender. Also, a third of my final year was coursework. Please don't make excuses on behalf of females, it's not helpful.

  • Geographer

    I get very excited over a new pack of felt-tips.

  • Smug…

    A first? A blue? A husband? I got all three.

  • why 'boys and girls'

    and not 'men and women'?

    bizarrely patronising all round

  • Lola's Bouncer

    Not in Lola's you won't.

    • Not lola'a

      *lola lo

  • personally

    I would like this article a lot better if the author had some more public photos on Facebook, particularly with reference to bikini pics

  • Jamie

    Males have more variance in intelligence than females.
    We have more geniuses and more retards; we're over-represent amongst the best and worst of humanity.
    You need only look at IMO results to see this.
    (Yes, I'm aware that the single best contestant ever is Lisa Sauermann. Anyone with some understanding of statistics realises this does not disprove what I'm saying)

    • Stats understanding

      Maths ability does not necessarily extrapolate to intelligence.

  • ####X

    For the overwhelming majority of papers, the scripts are anonymised. Thus, the examiners have no idea of the gender of the person whom they are marking. Stop blaming the system just because, like the majority of Cambridge students of all genders (myself included), you have never attained a First.

    • confused

      did you actually read the article? It wasn't a criticism of the marking, it was a comment about the system of exams over coursework suiting guys…

      • ####X

        yes I did read the article.

        I pointed out the anonymity because it is pertinent in assessing the general assertion this article makes.

        • hmmm… no

          Not really, since her argument didn't require or assume that markers know the sex of the writer.

  • true pedant

    a shame. I thought I'd met the woman of my dreams when I saw the headline.

  • Jokers

    hhahahhahaha you guys are all amazingly funny – seriously though I think that some of you have been pretty rude and frankly unnecessarily personal – I don't know this girl but I don't really get what it is about anonymous commenting which makes people think they can be total dickeheads – library whispers take two?!?

    • Realist

      I don't see anything overly harsh. Also, if you write a contentious article on an explicitly TABLOID online student news paper, you cannot expect balanced and friendly responses. Its not 'personal' to criticise someone's rubbish arguments.

  • Aragorn

    'But now it seems that this sliver of a dream is also doomed to fail.'

    Is this an appropriate time for my morale raising Return of the King speech?

  • TPJ

    for what its worth, i don't think i'll get a first.

    too much time at 21s training and all that

  • Mr. Cultured

    Men are better than women, and that is why they will always do better. That's why every college which decides admissions on a gender-blind basis admits substantially more men than women (except Homerton, who always stink up the bottom of the Tompkins table anyway).

    • Oh dear

      Hmm, or do you think it might be because there are two all-female colleges? Roughly equal numbers of men and women go to Cambridge, but because of Newnham and Murray Edwards, all the other colleges have a male bias.

      Mr. (un) Cultured is really starting to irritate me.

      • Mr. Cultured

        Are you thick? Colleges admit on a gender-blind basis. The existence of Newnham or Murray Edwards has no impact on whether Jesus or Corpus admit men or women. The colleges admit more men than women because men, on average, are better applicants. The only reason Cambridge has roughly the same number of men and women is because Newnham and Murray Edwards exist to absorb all of the female rejects who couldn't make it into their college of choice.

        • Actually

          During the Winter Pool, however, Newnham/Murray Edwards/Lucy Cavendish will reduce the number of worthwhile female applicants available to the other Colleges, not least because they get two picks per round (as opposed to one) for subjects in which less than half of the applicants are female (or is it pooled applicants, or applicants who have not yet been rejected? There is a document codifying all this somewhere…).

          So, yes such Colleges *do* have an impact on the gender of students admitted to Jesus/Corpus/&c., insofar as the latter will have a male bias from the Winter Pool acceptances.

          • Mr. Cultured

            'Worthwhile female' is an oxymoron.

  • Interested

    Where do gay folk figure on the rankings (with the underlying presumption that they can colour-coordinate the fuck out of your average lecture)?

  • Alumna

    Got a 2.i. Don't blame my vagina

  • TPJ

    I'd rather get laid, than get a first… 2.2's nah… #leave it fam


    • TPNay

      This is no TPJ.

  • Quality not Equality

    The exam system probably does need revision, not for gender equality but for quality purposes.

  • dalek1099dw

    The fact more boys get firsts than girls doesn’t make the exam sexist, that implies that everything should be 50% boys and 50% girls which is ludicrous boys and girls are better at different things and in different ways(you have shown no justification of why this should be the case).From a lot of exams like degrees and GCSEs we can generally see a pattern that girls are actually on average cleverer than boys due to girls getting higher average grades at both GCSE and A-Level and more getting into University but girls still get the higher average grades but less get a first on average across all universities even those who do split up modules and at A Level more boys now get A*s.What we can see from this that whilst girls are cleverer than boys on average, boys show much greater variation in their results with lots of really clever and really stupid boys so no wonder at the highest level of academic achievement getting a First at Cambridge their is such a large gap in the number of boys who get a First and girls who get a First.You want to make the exams less based on exams and more spread across the year, I think that most people would agree this would make the whole degree much easier so girls can do better.If the all the exams are at the end of the year then girls should adapt their revision strategies to match what they will be examined for.

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