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.


University of Cambridge