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Is Oxford the most sexist university in Britain?

The Times, June 30th 2010

A war of the sexes recently erupted at the university over poetry. Is it indicative of a more deep-rooted problem?

Is Oxford sexist? Paula Claire hoots with laughter. “Is the Pope a Catholic?” she retorts. The only woman in the running for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry withdrew from the race after the university referred to her only as “performer and artist”, while the other ten contenders were all described as “poet”.

“How on earth can this be when the material I put in for my candidacy said I’d been a poet since the 1960s?” she protests. “I just find Oxford curiouser and curiouser and curiouser.” In response, she is going to start an initiative called Dreaming Spires Online and appoint herself a professor of poetry on the web.

In the end, the establishment candidate, Geoffrey Hill, won. Given that the last successful candidate was Ruth Padel in May last year, it’s hard to conclude that women routinely suffer discrimination in this election. But it’s still worth asking the more general question: is Oxford sexist? The philosopher Alan Ryan has a lifetime’s experience of senior jobs at both Oxford and Princeton. He has recently retired as Warden of New College, Oxford, where he remains an Emeritus Professor, and has returned to Princeton to be a Visiting Scholar.

“Here at Princeton,” he says, “the President and the Dean of the College are women and there’s a general sense that strong women run the place. There’s less of a sense that it’s a boy’s club with women occasionally being elected as one of the boys.

“Oxford — for all the changes in the past 30 years — still feels like a boy’s club, while Princeton, except during reunions where all the old boys come back, feels as if it’s entirely thrown off that kind of past.”

Unlike Princeton, the higher echelons of Oxford are still dominated by men. The Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor are male, as are more than three quarters of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors. As for the top academic staff, only 9.5 per cent of professors are women. You might expect a tiny percentage in maths and science — it’s just 3.6 per cent — but in the humanities? Even there, only 14.8 per cent are female. University teaching ought to be a good career for an intelligent woman. Term times coincide roughly with those of schools and — except in science — much of the work can be done at home. All in all, it’s pretty family-friendly. So it’s not surprising that, across all UK universities, 42 per cent of academic staff are female. It’s more surprising, though, that this proportion drops down to 25 per cent at Oxford, lower than Cambridge and a lot lower than the Russell Group average.

In my three years of reading PPE at Wadham, I was never taught by a woman. Nor, 30 years on, is Rosie Swaine, in her first year of the same subject at the same college. Many women who’ve been at Oxford in recent years claim to have encountered no sexism at all, but Swaine says: “With some tutors, you can tell that they respect the boys’ opinions more and look to them more for opinions, especially the male politics tutors. It does make you feel a bit inadequate. It makes you question yourself and think maybe his opinion is better than mine.”

One young woman was advised by her male tutor to change her handwriting because, although university exams are marked anonymously, he warned her that examiners can subconsciously think that, because it’s a girl’s paper, it won’t be as brilliant as a boy’s.

In Naomi Alderman’s new Oxford-based novel, The Lessons, she writes of two friends: “Emmanuella received a lower second, while Simon got an upper second, and none of us could ever account for this except that it seemed often to be how things happened between men and women at Oxford, the men appearing to be marked with slightly surprising leniency, the women with surprising strictness.” Is this fair? Last year, 34 per cent of men were awarded first-class degrees at Oxford, compared with 23 per cent of women. In UK universities as a whole, the proportions are roughly equal. When Alan Ryan came back to Oxford from the US in the 1980s he was, he says, “thoroughly depressed” about the discrepancy. So New College decided to do some psychometric testing on its students. The results were startling.

“The women were normal and the men were crazy. The men all overestimated how interesting they were, how intelligent they were, how muchpeople liked them. They were skewed at the self-deceiving end of the spectrum, while the women were right on the centre. You are more likely to get boys in a tutorial saying, ‘Look at me! Look at me! ‘and getting more attention.”

This is borne out by a study by Jane Mellanby, of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology. She looked at more than 230 Oxford finals students, tested their intelligence and found that the men’s relative success in winning firsts couldn’t be explained either by superior ability or harder work. The only difference she found was in the “bullshit” factor: men were more inclined to stick their necks out, while women were more tentative. And men were more self-confident: more of them expected to get firsts and did so.

Alderman, who was at Lincoln in the mid-1990s, found Oxford an emotionally oppressive place for women. “I’d come from an all-girls secondary school, at which we were well looked after and there was always an atmosphere of concern for us. At Oxford, there was an odd sexual atmosphere, quite a blokeish environment. People who wanted to stand for President of the JCR [college student union] would be asked to do challenges. The men would have to drink a certain number of pints in one go, but the women were asked to do things like ‘mime as many sexual positions as you can in a minute’. In that sort of environment, you can understand why not many women would want to stand for JCR President, why they’d want to keep their heads down. It wasn’t a safe place emotionally.”

She remembers tutors who refused to teach female students and would farm them out to other dons. And some friends of hers had uncomfortable experiences with male academics.”One had a tutor who became besotted with her and harassed her. In the end, she complained to her college and was moved to a different tutor, but he didn’t get fired, which was a bit odd.”

The opening up of men’s colleges to women may have had a perverse effect on girls’ confidence. When my 82-year-old mother, Felicity Ann Sieghart, was at Somerville in the early 1940s, she recalls: “Our dons were so proud of us because it was so much more difficult to get into a women’s college.” The 86-year-old philosopher Mary Warnock, who studied and taught at Oxford women’s colleges, found the same. “I never felt the faintest prejudice.”

Libby Purves was at St Anne’s in the early 1970s. She recalls: “There was a breeziness to the women’s colleges. You just thought, ‘We are in a new landscape, something has been won, we are the beneficiaries of a battle’. It was a perfect ‘up-yours’ feeling, a sense of academic self-confidence and pride in being there at all. “Women were then in a small minority in the university and were therefore both socially in demand and academically brighter on average than the men because they were competing for far fewer places.”

A decade later, all but one of the men’s colleges had started to admit women. But there was a sense in which the girls were there on the boys’ terms. As they walked into hall for dinner, they were loudly marked out of ten for attractiveness.

Many boys felt uncomfortable with girls being as clever as — or cleverer than — them, and girls learnt to play pretty and demure rather than bright and assertive. It made them more acceptable to the boys.

Thankfully, that has now changed. These days, boys are more used to their female contemporaries being feisty. As Molly Guinness, who left Oxford two years ago, says: “For every vocal male figure, there tended to be a female match. I didn’t find it at all sexist.”

But, like many of today’s students, she was taught almost entirely by men. And that’s something the university says it wants to change. Women, when they do apply for academic jobs at Oxford, have a slightly better success rate than men. Unfortunately, they apply in much smaller numbers. Mary Warnock thinks it’s partly because academics these days are judged by the number of papers and books they have published, and writing scholarly tomes is hard to fit in alongside teaching and raising a family.

But it’s also — like Oxford finals — about confidence and the ability to bullshit. If clever women were persuaded that Oxford was starting to value bullshit less and quiet excellence more, they might be more encouraged to apply for academic posts. And then — who knows? — as examiners they might be less inclined to penalise papers with rounded handwriting .

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