Oxford University slammed for sexism by leading academic Amanda Foreman – and here’s why

This comes after the university introduced a new measure intended to close to close the gender gap in final results.

Confined only to the History Faculty, the new measure entails that one of the five final exams will be sat at home, rather than in the exam schools. This comes as a response to the Higher Education Statistics Agency findings in 2016 that male students at Oxford were more likely to be awarded a first in their finals than female students.

The move has been slated by leading biographer and feminist historian Amanda Foreman, honorary research senior fellow in History at the University of Liverpool, currently writing ‘The World Made by Women’. She does not see the move as intentionally provocative, but nevertheless demeaning.

Foreman holds that the modification is motivated by a patriarchal belief in womens’ inherent weakness: "You are saying that the girls can’t take the stress of sitting in the exam room, which does raise one’s anxiety levels. I don’t think girls are inherently weaker than boys and can’t take it. Women are not the weaker sex.”

The University’s argument is that being able to take home the exam will ‘challenge [students] to research and construct considered historical essays.’ This is evidently insulting enough in its implication that the poor female nerves can’t handle exam week.

Obviously, the exam process is a horrible experience with far more pomp and flapping than necessary. Full sub fusc, complete with gown and jacket in 33 degree heat? Maybe global warming means it was colder in 1300 A.D. or whenever these rules were formulated, but that’s a distinctly medieval form of torture. The stress and ensuing depression and sense of inadequacy that your parents or children don’t care enough to get you a carnation. Clearly, none of these agonies are anything to do with gender.

However, I take issue with Foreman’s assumption that inequalities lie in women being incapable of taking risks. She argues that in school, boys are taught to take risks from a young age, whilst girls are wheedled into conformism. I’m sure this assessment was well-intentioned, taking the problem as part of a wider debate on the gender gap in opportunities in education. But this explanation diverts culpability from the University and is the kind of long term psychological analysis which is wishy-washy at best.

If she is attempting to disprove womens’ inherent weakness, she is arguing that it begins from a very young age which surely amounts to the same thing. I am no analyst from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, but I find this expectation that women are less capable of taking risks, whichever institution cultivates this quality, to be highly insulting.

Feminism is one of the most powerful ideological movements of our time and I’d say the Pankhursts certainly took a few risks. European politics now sees more of female leadership than it ever has done, even if you don’t agree with the respective politics of Nicola Sturgeon, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel, you don’t get elected leader of a political party without taking a few risks.

And that opens up another debate, are risks entirely desirable? The big risks in the U.K. by politicians *cough Brexit cough* DUP *cough* have been a resounding failure. Of course politics is separate from academia, and the exciting thing about the humanities is that they exist on a plane where the risks and failures don’t matter.

Cambridge is still looking into its exam system to see where the gender gap in final results comes from. Problems in academia cannot be entirely merged into wider socio-political debates. Yes, gender inequality exists in academia, but it is certainly situationally specific. The gender gap in final results at Cambridge puts male students at a 9% advantage. The gender gap in results cannot be explained by a) ‘anxiety’ or b) nationwide inequality in primary education.

Yes, the History Faculty’s new measure is insulting, but not for the reason that Foreman posits. It’s insulting because it is a blanket measure which evades the necessity for closer inspection of what makes these statistics recur.

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