Does University Challenge prove we still need women’s colleges?

Monday’s episode of University Challenge once again saw the programme subject to scrutiny for its lack of gender diversity. St Hugh’s, Oxford, a former all-female college, fielded an-male team – something that has drawn criticism from viewers and the media alike. Presenter Jeremy Paxman joked of the college: “On the basis of tonight’s team, we could be forgiven for thinking they’d (men) taken it over.” But does this reveal a deeper truth about gender inequality in universities, and the continuing need to encourage women in higher education through all-female institutions?

St Hugh’s was founded in 1886, at a time when the first women’s colleges were being established in Oxbridge by the pioneers of first-wave feminist movements. Female students were not granted the same rights as men, as “full members” of their universities, and were not allowed to claim the degrees they had earned until 1920. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that traditionally all-male colleges began to accept women into their ranks. During this time, many women’s colleges also voted to become co-educational – often under the rationale that the brightest students of the day were attracted to co-ed institutions, and would thus boost their college’s performance in the league tables.

Cambridge remains the only university to have retained single-sex colleges, with Newnham, Lucy Cavendish, and Murray Edwards colleges continuing to admit women only (the last all-male Cambridge college, Magdalene, admitted women in 1988). The last remaining women’s college at Oxford, St Hilda’s, began admitting men in 2008, arguing that they needed “a new focus for the 21st century”. Opinion was deeply divided in the college at the time; with some worrying that it would change the college’s ethos as a place of encouragement for young women, within a university at which gender inequalities and prejudices were still ingrained.

The gender gap in higher education suggests that there is an ongoing need for dedicated support for women at university. Whilst women are now more likely than men to attend university, at Oxford they are far less likely to receive first class degrees, with the gender disparity being at its widest in traditionally male-dominated STEM subjects. Women are less likely to continue higher education to postgraduate level, and face lower salaries than men once they graduate. Moreover, women are almost twice as likely to experience mental health problems whilst studying at university, and report lower levels of confidence in their own abilities.

This “confidence gap” is likely at the heart of the gender imbalance among University Challenge contestants. In my experience, far fewer women than men put themselves forward to audition for the programme at university level. Last year, Jeremy Paxman suggested that it was simply the case that “– like football or darts – more males than females care about quizzing”. But there is nothing “natural” about the way these things are socialised. If you are a girl growing up in a culture that tells you that sports are simply something that boys do, and all the role models and famous faces you see around you are men, then you are probably going to grow up thinking that sports aren’t there for you to have a go at in the first place.

Quizzing is no different. Terms like “genius”,  “polymath”, or “Renaissance Man”, which are associated with a broad range of general knowledge, also have gender associations. Studies show that girls as young as six grow up believing that brilliance is a male trait. Girls are often socialised from a young age to be perfectionists, to be people-pleasers rather than competitive go-getters, whilst boys are more likely to be instilled with the confidence that they can succeed at anything they turn their attention to – and not to shy away from the embarrassment that comes with getting things wrong.

Do we still need women-only educational institutions, in light of these gender disparities? As someone who studied at an all-girls secondary school, one of the wonderful things about my education was learning in an environment in which I was taught that I could excel at anything – there was no sense that subjects like maths or physics were something at which boys were inherently better. It was only when I left school that I realised just how pervasive gender stereotypes still are in our society, and how they can hold women back from realising their potential.

But all-female institutions aren’t the only answer. We need to recognise that gender inequalities are instilled early on in life, and to put support structures in place at every level of education to give young women the confidence to succeed in areas where the odds are stacked against them. It is hugely important, too, that we do more to address gender imbalances in all areas of public life, so that girls are able to grow up with recognisable role models. And we need to do more to show young women that they can not just succeed, but excel in their fields. 

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