We don't need to make exams a battle of the sexes

Every time exam grades are discussed, it inevitably ends up with boys pitched against girls. Well, Glosswitch is sick of it.

So, who’s cleverest? 

  1. Girls
  2. Boys

<waits for response>

If you answered that immediately, I’m guessing you’re a man. If you took your time – umming and aah-ing, adding in various qualifications – I’ll bet you’re a woman. And if I got that wrong? Well, never mind. I’m a woman myself. I stopped getting things right straight after I took my GCSEs. 

According to Mike Nicholson, head of admissions at Oxford University, boys are better than girls when it comes to exams because they’re “much more prepared to take risks”. In an interview with the Telegraph, Nicholson describes how “female students are risk-averse and will tend to take longer to think about an answer. If it’s a multiple-choice question, male students will generally go with their gut feeling”. Apparently, it’s the latter which works best (if not in an investment bank, then at least in an Oxbridge exam hall). “Girls may be outraged by this” notes the Telegraph, somewhat smugly. No, we’re not. It takes us so long to work out what any serious article means, we’re too tired to get cross. Outraged? Not at all. We’re off reading Wonder Women

For many years now, debate has been raging as to who’s the best at thinking – team pink or team blue. For a while it looked like the ladies had edged ahead. Last year, in what was described as “a dramatic twist in the battle of the sexes”, women outperformed men in IQ tests for the first time ever. This, set alongside the underperformance of boys in school and the higher proportion of women being admitted to university courses, seemed to indicate that women had won. Hooray! Go us!

But alas, things are never so simple. There we all were, high-fiving one another, deciding (in a long-winded, female manner) which of us should step forward to claim the Cleverness Cup, when suddenly a report came in –  in 2012, boys beat girls in achieving A-level A*s for the first time ever!  Admittedly, it was by a mere 0.1 per cent, but that’s still a beating, right? And besides, this year the gap has widened. And yeah, girls might have retaliated by increasing their lead over boys at GCSE, but that’s just GCSE. Ladies, we came so close, but it’s no use. This thinking lark – it’s harder than we (wrongly) thought.

If I sound bitter, damn right I am. There’s something about our whole girls versus boys approach to exam results which has been driving my tiny female brain to distraction. It’s not just that – like archetypal cartoon villains – we feminists have been foiled again in our attempts to smash the patriarchy, this time using only coursework, female primary teachers and that patented male role model vaporiser. It’s that this approach is, and has always been, unremittingly sexist and counterproductive. Even when we were winning we were losing. In fact, as long as results are treated as a barometer for UK gender equality, it’s probably better for us girls to flunk as many exams as possible.

For years narratives of male underachievement have reinforced a view that the world of education is being “feminised” (and this is, clearly, not thought of as a good thing). In a report entitled The Feminization of the Classroom Dr Christopher Reynolds argues that poorer outcomes for boys “may in fact be directly related to the gender of the teacher and particularly a female approach to teaching and learning”. Ah, the female brain versus the male one! That ideology which dare not speak its name, apart from all the sodding time! I imagine Reynolds means well and just hasn’t got round to reading his Cordelia Fine, but it never ceases to amaze me how beliefs in essential gender difference perpetuate the very problems its proponents claim to be addressing. Stereotype threat is alive and well in every discussion of the so-called educational gender divide.

Still, at least Reynolds is using “feminisation” in a fairly objective manner. More frequently, it’s used to suggest a form of cultural dumbing down. Here’s what Melanie Phillips once had to say about “the feminisation of education”:

Boys tend to like ‘sudden death’ exams. They like taking risks, pitting their wits against the odds. Girls don’t. They prefer to work steadily and conscientiously without gambling against memory, the clock and questions from hell. Which is why at degree level boys have until now achieved more firsts and thirds than girls who tend to get safe, if dull, seconds.

Writing in 2002, what Phillips is offering is perhaps just a less PC version of Nicholson’s argument in 2013. But she goes on to say this:

Nor is it surprising that girls are taking more exams than boys. For the curriculum has expanded in ways that suit girls rather than boys, with a proliferation of discursive, ‘soft’ subjects like general studies, sociology or drama. 

Now let’s be honest: is it just me, or does it sound as though Phillips is suggesting girls are simply less clever than boys? That we need vague, wussy subjects that allow us to write long, flowery answers, preferably in purple pen with hearts over every letter “i”? This isn’t, by the way, my view of the subjects she mentions – I’m proud of my general studies A grade, thank you very much – but I bet it’s hers (although when I say “bet”, is that womanly intuition or manly risk-taking being used?).

At this juncture, one might also recall Dr David Starkey’s more recent complaints about how history has been “feminised”:

If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify.

Hence feminisation isn’t just wussy and wrong, it’s dishonest. It’s creating a world which panders to what women, rather than men, want to know. It pretends that women’s lives mean as much as men’s. We can’t have that. On the contrary, pre-emptive action is needed. Hence, even though men’s names still dominate most exam board reading lists, that’s not how it feels. The monstrous regiment is, apparently, taking over. That’s not what anyone wants, yet this is a pressure that’s been building for some time. 

I can’t help feeling that if girls are allowed, for one moment, to be perceived to be failing – to be seen as the losers again – it at least gives us a bit of a breather from the thinly-veiled misogyny of the “feminisation” rant. We never were on top, after all. Reports of girls outperforming boys in exams might have provided useful outrage fodder for men’s right’s activists, and they might have made us believe, more than ever, that biology is destiny, but that’s about all they did.  

If we want young people to achieve their full potential, we should allow to see themselves as so much more than risk-taking boys or cautious girls. We should allow them to celebrate their achievements on their own terms, not within a framework of mistrust and resentment. For now, though, girls, let’s be happy losers, but let’s also not forget that one day, all of us could win.

Students in Bath receive their A level results in the time honoured tradition. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.