IWD: Females can do ‘quick maths’

1 March 2018

Last summer, Oxford University gave its Mathematics undergraduate students extra time to complete their exams (105 minutes instead of the usual 90 minutes). It was hoped this would address an inconsistency in results across the genders: at the time, 21.2% of women on the course graduated with first-class degrees, compared to 45.5% of men. The goal was to reduce “the undue effects of time pressure”, which are thought to have more of an impact on female students than male students.

Extra time was given to all students. The Telegraph, however, chose to run an article with the following headline: "Oxford gives women more time to pass exams" [1]

Oxford University was rightly concerned about the variation in academic results between its female and male mathematicians. This is part of a wider problem facing the STEM industries (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics): in the UK, only 25% of STEM undergraduates are female and 21% of its workforce is female.

It is widely accepted there are no inherent gender differences in mathematical ability or intelligence (or in any other STEM subjects). Professors had therefore decided to look at factors that could be the cause of the discrepancy in results. While one way of looking at the increase in exam time is that it was hoped this would benefit female students, conversely it can be argued that the previous exam conditions were perceived as giving an unfair advantage to male candidates. As one maths don pointed out, exams were not supposed to be “a time trial”.

Increasing the exam time was a well-intentioned attempt to address gender inequality in exam results. At best, The Telegraph’s article and subsequent reporting of the changes is misleading. In the comments section to the online article, numerous readers discussed that on their original reading of the article they thought that only women were being given extra time (which would be a very obvious and inadvisable example of gender discrimination!)

At worst, The Telegraph headline and article is detrimental to efforts to improve access for women into areas of academia and industry where they have been disproportionately under-represented. It seeks to encourage an emotional reaction from the reader to the injustice of one sex being given preferential treatment over the other: here, women over men.

A popular gripe to any attempt to address imbalance in society is an accusation of “Political Correctness gone mad” - usually uttered by those who have benefited most from the previous status quo. By distorting the truth, inaccurate reporting such as this falsely justifies these views. It legitimises the absurd ‘anti-feminist’ movement and threatens to undermine recent attempts to improve gender equality and the work still needed in the future.

To illustrate with a couple of user comments:

Uh Oh 2 Feb 2018 8:59PM

@Dirk Dougherty you didn't understand the clarification: all students were given the extra 15 minutes. The Telegraph has misled you.

Dirk Dougherty 3 Feb 2018 12:49AM

@Uh Oh @Dirk Dougherty  Hehe, you're right. I must read more carefully. Today with political correctness it wouldnt be a stretch that they'd give women extra time in exams.

And my favourite comment from Joe Bloggs:

Joe Bloggs 6 Feb 2018 12:12PM

Oxford should be ashamed of themselves. How dare they oppress men the sexist bigots. Those who made this decision should be forced to apologise then resign and should be allowed to work in the sector ever again [Sic: I assume Joe is not proposing a perpetual cycle of resignation and re-employment in the education sector]. National disgrace

Of course, attention grabbing headlines such as this are nothing new. The recent rise of ‘fake news’ as a means to almost any political end illustrates the power of a sensationalist story. This kind of misleading reporting is prevalent throughout the tabloid press and is insidious to many issues we face today. In this particular instance, it is dismissive of a serious instance of gender inequality and the honourable attempts to address it. To #PressforProgress, such misleading and unhelpful reporting should be stopped.

Since the original publication on 22 January 2018, The Telegraph has amended the article to clarify that “all students will benefit from the extra time allowed.” So what was the headline changed to? “Oxford University extends exam times for women's benefit”. Brilliant.

IWD is an opportunity to build on the progress that has been made towards gender parity and to celebrate the achievements of women on a global scale. This year, #PressforProgress.

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