Women told to take risks to get a first

November 1, 1996

High achievement in the Cambridge history course, one of the country's most prestigious, depends less on accuracy and more on brilliant wit and "bull**** of a high quality", an investigation by the university's history faculty has found.

The study was prompted by the comparative failure of Cambridge women to achieve first-class grades. In 1995, the proportion of men receiving firsts was three times that of women.

Lecturers believe that male undergraduates fare better because they adopt a punchy, aggressive and adversarial approach in their essays. In a BBC programme based on the study, Firsts Among Equals, to be screened next Tuesday, Jay Winter, history lecturer at Pembroke College, says: "People who get firsts take risks. They go beyond the literature and discuss their own points of view."

He suggests the gender discrepancy is "about women taking intellectual risks", going on to say that choosing the "safe and steady path" is "a deficiency that women bring with them".

Another lecturer, Jonathan Scott, says "men are more inclined to treat exams as a game", and reveals that he often finds himself "telling women that it is an artificial exercise" where students are not meant to "bare their soul".

Peter Clarke, professor of modern British history, endorses the view that wit and flair rather than accuracy scores well at Cambridge. "Even if it's bull****, if it's bull**** of a high quality . . . it makes a big impression."

He suggests that, in the light of the study, Cambridge could modify its marking system. "I have become a bit more suspicious of what I used to regard as the answer - full of brilliant flair but with many facts wrong. There are more ways of doing a good first-class answer than I used to think."

Early evidence suggests the Cambridge history faculty's self-analysis has resulted in some steady improvement. The 1996 exams saw a 50 per cent increase in the number of women scoring firsts. Gillian Sutherland, lecturer at Newnham College, said: "I would hope that in ten years time, this isn't an issue."

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