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An Assessment of the extent to which subject variation in relation to the award of First class degrees between the Arts and Sciences can explain the 'gender gap'

journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-07, 19:57 authored by Ruth Woodfield, Sarah Earl-Novell
There is a widely recognised national trend for girls to outperform boys at all levels of compulsory schooling. With few exceptions, however, most recent research has reported that, in relation to academic performance at university, men are proportionately over-represented at the First Class level. A number of general hypotheses have been put forward to explain this phenomenon, including those that assume gender-linked differences in cognitive and/or personality traits. A smaller proportion of research has given explanatory primacy to the broad subject area studied. More specifically, it has been alleged that the over-representation of men within the First bracket is largely a function of a 'compositional effect' whereby men achieve proportionately more Firsts as there are more of them within the First-rich Sciences. Based upon analysis of 1,707,408 students graduating between 1995 and 2002, this paper seeks to provide the most comprehensive exploration, to date, of this effect. It confirms that a substantial proportion of the 'gender gap' can be explained with reference to the male propensity to take degrees in first-rich disciplines.


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  • Published


British Journal of Sociology of Education







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  • Sociology and Criminology Publications


The paper followed a small number of others in treating `subject area studied' as a major explanatory variable when analysing the `gender gap' in the number of Firsts awarded at university. Based upon analysis of 1,707,408 students graduating between 1995-2002, it provides the most comprehensive exploration to date of the effect of discipline on the relationship between gender and Firsts awarded. Woodfield researched and wrote the paper, Earl-Novell, a former DPhil student, undertook some of the early statistical analysis and part of the literature review.

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