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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Trade unions must adapt to the gig economy in order to survive

We can’t allow the story of UK trade unionism to just be about managing decline.

While the world around trade unions has rapidly changed, there is an impression trade unions have remained stuck in the past with antagonistic rhetoric, outdated governance structures and an inflexible approach. Yet trade unions remain as vital as ever in an insecure jobs market, and do have the capacity to protect workers and inspire support when they use positivity in place of hostility.

The future of the UK trade union movement has long been a matter for concern. Trade union membership has been stagnating for the last 30 years and structural changes in the UK economy have led to trade union density in the private sector dropping below 14 per cent. 

The most worrying aspect of this decline is that – despite work being increasingly less secure, growing wage inequality, and workers’ rights being slowly rolled back since 2010 – trade unions, or more precisely trade union membership, appears not to be a relevant choice for millions of workers.

Polling suggests that too many people who would be interested in being a member of an organisation that offered independent advice and protection at work are put off by the tone of voice and confrontational language they hear from union leaders, usually only during an industrial dispute or power struggle within the Labour party. If unions used to be angry, now they’re furious, and it is not helping.

Trade unions face serious challenges, but if we adapt, we can survive. The rise of self-employment, freelancing and the "gig economy" means more and more people are in need of the services and support that unions offer. But our benefits and services must be responsive to the needs of workers today and be flexible enough for change when it comes. 

We do not talk openly enough about our successes. We shouldn’t be embarrassed when we make something happen whilst working in partnership with decent employers. Nor should we shy away from championing successes achieved through industrial strength, but we need to be more sensitive to how we frame this to a wider audience.

But tweaks to our messaging and services are not enough on their own. We also need structural change in our trade union movement to ensure our long-term success.

Firstly, we need to recognise the severity of the situation that we are in and face up to the facts of declining membership, relevance and authority. There needs to be an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the trade union movement to understand the problems we face and to address them – not to blame others such as the press, politicians or employers.
 
Secondly, we need to build a consensus across the trade union movement on a recovery strategy. Given the diverse interests of our many sister organisations, that is easier to say than to deliver on. Strengthening the governance of trade unions should be one priority, seeking to develop a tripartite social framework with employers and government should be another.
 
Thirdly, we need to ensure the continuing and increasing relevance of trade unions to the world of work. We must recognise that we are struggling to connect beyond our membership and in many cases even beyond our activist base.

Too often change is done to trade unions, rather than by them. The Trade Union Act is the most recent example of a Conservative government taking action to reduce trade union influence. It won’t be long before they return to this pursuit. So rather than waiting to respond, why don’t we take the initiative?

It shouldn't be beyond the collective wit of trade unions to seek to develop and modernise our own structures, develop ideas that would underpin our future independence and seek out best practice across the movement in the delivery of services and benefits.
 
These are undoubtedly big challenges for the trade union movement. I know we want to help build a fairer, more equitable society with decent jobs, housing and education. Wanting to do these things isn’t enough, we need to be in a position to make change happen.

John Park is assistant general secretary of the trade union Community.