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To reduce ‘undue pressure’ on women during math exams, Oxford gives students more time to finish

Girls can’t concentrate with boys around

Women aren’t exactly a marginalized minority in higher education, but accommodations continue to be made for them that reinforce sexist notions of their weakness and intellectual feebleness.

Oxford University has extended the time allotted for math and computer science exams to 105 minutes from 90 minutes “in response to a growing gender gap, especially in final year exams,” the Sunday Times reports:

Of all subjects at Oxford, maths has one of the biggest gender variations in results. Just seven female maths finalists achieved firsts last year compared with 45 men. This means that 21.2% of women on the course graduated with first-class degrees against 45.5% of men.

What could account for this variation? Girls can’t concentrate when boys are around:

Helen Zha, a member of Oxford’s Mirzakhani Society for women studying maths, said female undergraduates were more likely to experience problem-solving difficulties when male students were in the same room.

She said: “One thing I’ve heard and felt is that where there are more males in the room, women will . . . perform worse than they would otherwise.”

The Times obtained internal documents through a public-records request, and they explicitly cited female students as the targeted beneficiaries of a change that reduces “the undue effects of time pressure.”

MORE: Oxford ditches history final because women are worse at it

They are “most sensitive to time pressure and stress,” and lengthening the times “might mitigate” the observed gender gap: “[I]n any case the exam should be a demonstration of mathematical understanding and not a time trial.”

The university insists it hasn’t changed the length, content or the difficulty of the exams.

One professor all but blames male confidence for women’s poorer performance:

Sarah Hart, a maths professor at Birkbeck, University of London and an Oxford graduate, said she had noticed a tendency for female students to double-check their answers in their heads before suggesting them to class.

Male students were quicker to answer questions, she said, but were more likely to get the answer wrong.

She added: “I am a big fan of giving people as much time as they want to do exams.”

According to the Telegraph, the change hasn’t accomplished what it set out to do:

[T]he main effect of the time increase appears to have been an increase in the number of 2:1s overall, with 2:2 figures falling. Men continued to be awarded more first class degrees than women in the two subjects.

A university spokesman defended the changes as “academically demanding and fair”, and noted that while 39 per cent of female mathematicians achieved first class degrees compared to 47 per cent of men, women’s scores had improved year on year.

Unsurprisingly, a female student leader justified the unequal treatment of men and women by saying “they should not reasonably have such [gender] gaps” on math and computer science exams.

It’s not the first time Oxford has reduced the rigor in a class to benefit female students.

Last year it ditched a history final exam and replaced it with a take-home essay, with the explicit intention of reducing the five-percentage-point lead that male students had on females.

Read the Times article and Telegraph report.

MORE: Oxford apologizes for saying it’s racist to avoid eye contact

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