Mathematics and computer science students at the University of Oxford were given extra time to complete their final exams last summer in a bid to close a gender grade gap, it has been revealed.
Internal university documents seen by The Daily Telegraph reveal that officials opted to extend the exam time from 90 to 105 minutes because of evidence suggesting “female candidates might be more likely to be adversely affected by time pressure”.
The decision came in response to a persistent gender gap in the number of students getting top marks in the university’s final exams.
The gender grade gap is particularly pronounced in mathematics and computer science. Last year, 21.2% of female maths students graduated with first-class degrees, compared to 45.5% of male students.
University officials stressed that the exams were never intended to be a “time trial” and that there was “no change in length or difficulty of questions” on the paper.
However, “critics have slammed the changes as ‘sexist’,” the Daily Mail reports, on the grounds that they reinforce notions of women as the “weaker sex”.
Despite the backlash, the university said it intends to continue with the extra-length maths and computer science finals “for the foreseeable future” to measure the impact on results.
“The departments are not drawing any firm conclusions from the first year’s data,” the institution said in a statement. “However, third-year female students did show an improvement on their second-year marks.”
Studies have shown that a phenomenon known as “Stereotype Threat” can lead to women underperforming at traditionally male-dominated subjects.
Fear of conforming to stereotypes, for instance that women are worse at maths, can become self-fulfilling due to “the adverse effect of anxiety and excessive self-consciousness on performance”, says the British Psychological Society.
The university has previously explored other measures to close the gender grade gap by making testing methods more “female-friendly”.
Last year, the history department announced plans to allow all students to complete one of their five final exam papers at home, in response to evidence that the gender grade gap for submitted work was narrower than tests taken in a traditional exam hall setting.
However, “faculty members were reportedly sceptical of the policy”, The Independent reports, warning that it “increased the risk of plagiarism and acted as a ‘sticking plaster’ rather than a long-term solution to gender attainment gaps”.