Is Cambridge Sexist?

Deputy Editor ELLIE PITHERS investigates why girls at Cambridge should try to “write like a boy”.

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The peaceful ritual of breakfast was shattered on Wednesday morning with a screaming headline on the front page of The Times: “Is Oxford the most sexist university in Britain?” My bagel popped out of the toaster in alarm. Turning to the article, the quotations trundled out to make their argument, with Alan Ryan, recently retired Warden of New College, claiming that Oxford “still feels like a boys’ club.” The statistics piled up, proclaiming that only 9.5% of the top academic professors are women, and that the Arts in particular (long-since regarded a ‘girly’ field of study) only have a female contingent of professors numbering 14.8%.

I wrinkled my nose in smug pleasure at seeing God Damn Bloody Oxford getting a battering of Nadal-like proportions by the national press, and consoled myself with the thought that at least at Cambridge, within the safe grey-bricked prison cells of New Hall and the red-bricked hospital ward corridors of Newnham, there was not a hint of sexism to be found. Indeed, Cambridge is a veritable beacon of feminism, being the only university in the United Kingdom with colleges that refuse to admit men, and, moreover, make them so hideously unattractive that no man would deign to study in a place that so uniquely manages to look like a cross between a swimming pool, a prison and a power plant.

But then the milk in my cereal bowl swam like the pensieve in Harry Potter, and I recalled a memory from exam term, when a friend had returned to ‘The Boob’ (the concrete breast of a New Hall dining facility) looking very cross, clutching a timed essay that had prompted her SPS supervisor to advise she “write more like a boy.” Cambridge females may feel emancipated, but what is the use of accepting female students if they cannot triumph over the prejudices of a Cambridge examination system?  Is Cambridge sexist, too?


Initially I was appalled by the notion that girls should channel their subconscious penis envy and write testosterone-fuelled tracts to guarantee them the top results, but upon casually perusing some statistics, I discovered that a strap-on could be as necessary as a biro at my next exam – in 2009, 27% of male students achieved a First in their Finals, compared to only 16.9% of girls. All the girls I know at Cambridge are opinionated, bright, hard-working and zesty, and the proportion of boys to girls in 2009 was roughly equal (53% testosterone versus 47% oestrogen). How the hell could these feisty females be lucking out in their Finals when they seemed to have everything going for them during term time supervisions?

Boys are prepared to take risks in essay writing, whereas girls are less self-confident and therefore less keen to tackle that Shakespeare question on the credit crunch. Boys are prepared to tell everyone that they’re ‘gunning for a First’, whereas girls will never admit that they are on a quest for that elusive upgrade, for fear of failure. And finally, girls expend more time on emotional support for friends and boyfriends, to the detriment of their own results.

These are just a handful of the mildly insulting reasons listed on the Cambridge University website to explain why boys achieve more Firsts than girls. The ‘risk factor’ is backed up by the statistic that more boys achieve Thirds than girls; boys, it seems, are willing to gamble, whilst girls want to play it safe. I can perhaps swallow that one, but the one that really gets my goat and carries it away onto a fucking Swiss meadow is that “girls expend more time on emotional support for friends and boyfriends.” They might just as well come out and say that a girl’s main priority is leaving Cambridge with a husband – fuck the First and the Blue.

Virginia Woolf, a zesty woman if ever there was one, wrote that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” But what must she have if she wants to achieve a First, Virginia? Apparently, if the conclusion that The Times came to regarding Oxford is anything to go by, it’s “the ability to bullshit”. Having the confidence to stick your neck out, being prepared to argue your way into and out of a seemingly bizarre question, being self-confident enough to expect that a First is what you deserve – all supposedly masculine traits – will bring you that magic number come June.


Virginia Woolf thinking like a girl, but writing like a boy?

But if this “bullshit” factor is a supposedly masculine trait – and if 10% more boys than girls are achieving Firsts – then doesn’t that make Cambridge exams inherently sexist? If exam questions and mark schemes are geared towards a masculine way of thinking, as one female History of Art professor has intimated to her students in preparation for this year’s exams, doesn’t that put girls at a severe disadvantage?

According to Professor Gillian Evans, only 6% of professors at Cambridge are women. “I think there is a lot of unconscious discrimination at universities, by which I mean negative feeling towards people who don’t fit a certain brief.” The brief until 1948 was that you had to be male to receive a degree.

But I don’t buy these theories that state that women are humbly void of the traits of self-confidence and “bullshitting” that lead to a First. I frequently hear girls making statements that reek of academic bullshit. This gem from last term comes courtesy of yours truly: “Well, I’m just so into ekphrasis.” Can anyone really be ‘into’ ekphrasis?

Go to Cindies on a Wednesday night and you will see girls bullshitting all over the place – bullshitting that they’re single to get boys to buy them VKs, bullshitting that it’s their birthday to get a free bottle of ‘champagne’ (more bullshit) off the Cindies DJ, hell, even bullshitting that they’re about to vomit everywhere to head straight to the front of the endless queue for the toilet.

I find it truly baffling that 10% more boys than girls achieve a First, but don’t patronise female Cantabrigians by suggesting that they haven’t got the bottle to stick their necks out in an exam question. They’ve got the bottle, even if it requires them to ‘write like a boy’ for a few hours of their lives. The real problem is that after 800 years the examination system in Cambridge still seems to favour those who were here in the first place, and not the female new-comers. So unless testosterone supplements begin to accompany exam schedules in pigeon holes, something needs to change.