The news that Oxford University is extending the time allowed for Maths exams in a bid to help women achieve better grades is anything but progressive. It is, effectively, saying they’re the weaker sex and they need a hand up. Look at it this way: how would we react if extra time was given to people on the basis of their race, sexuality or their parents’ income? Or if a leading bank or accountancy firm said we prefer to employ men as they’re more efficient, taking less time to get results and reacting better under pressure? That would be wrong. It would be illegal.
I appreciate that Oxford isn’t saying women aren’t as good as men at Maths (and it is known that there are no differences in mathematical ability or intelligence) but that they need more time to solve problems. Sarah Hart, Maths professor at Birkbeck, University of London, told the Sunday Times: “You never have to prove theorems against the clock in real life so more speed is not what we want to assess.” But that’s the nature of exams. They aren’t reflective of real life just like the Great British Bake Off isn’t a reflection of how you cook in the kitchen every day. It’s simply a way of measuring ability – in a pressured environment – and comparing it with others.
If you’re going to do this you might as well produce two exam papers, one for men and one for women (hey, let’s make them blue and pink) to be completed in the same amount of time, but with fewer questions on the pink paper.
Oxford isn’t giving women longer than men as that would be unfair. Everyone gets 105 minutes instead of the standard 90. But I wonder if women actually want the extra time, or – and I imagine this is the case – if they believe they are perfectly capable of doing the same test in the normal time. Would they want more time in job interviews as they need an extra 10 minutes to think about a question? I know the reaction I would get if I suggested my girlfriend needed more time to read a document, park a car or, frankly, anything at all. Antonia Sui, undergraduate representative of Oxford women in computer science tells the Daily Telegraph: “I am uneasy about schemes to favour one gender over another.” Me too.
Maybe the plan is to go down the route employed by some of America’s top colleges. In 2017, it was noted that the majority (50.8%) of admissions to Harvard were non-white (down slightly from 2016 when it was 51.4%). Fellow Ivy League colleges Princeton and Cornell were the same. Now, for institutions that have long been seen as catering to the pale, male and privileged few, this is a step forward. Is Oxford simply following suit in leaning towards female undergraduates?
You can argue that this policy is opening more doors to women but to me, it’s far from enlightened and could actually be damaging to women’s fight for equality. I wonder if this is simply a back-alley for the university to improve its course statistics, increase its grades and attract more women. At Oxford, Maths has the biggest gender gap. Last year just seven women achieved firsts compared to 45 men. Has the time extension been introduced in order to skew results and make Oxford buck the trend? After all, it has also introduced the ‘take home’ paper in History, in order to boost grades for women and, with gender issues being such a hot topic, I don’t think it would do Oxford any harm to be known as the world’s most female-friendly university. If this is the ulterior motive, why not be open about it rather than undermining women’s intelligence in this way? I’ll give them a little more time to think about it and maybe they will.
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