University of Sussex Media Release.
. The Hidden Factor Fuelling Female Success

13 November 1998
For immediate release

Women are outperforming men in education yet again, a new study by academics at the University of Sussex reveals. Delving into the lesser-studied area of gender-related performance in higher education, the research has reached a number of surprising conclusions. By the time they sit their second year exams, it reveals a discrepancy of nearly 10% in the average scores achieved by women and those achieved by certain categories of men.

Perhaps more surprisingly, however, there is only a tiny margin between the different groups of successful females - factors such as their age or their social class background seem to have very lttle bearing on their results. In contrast, these factors have a significant impact on male performance. Whereas all groups of women perform consistently well, and consistently better than men, there are large discrepancies in male success rates according to age and social class. The average female score is around 60%. Against this, men under 21, and older men from middle class backgrounds, attain an average of only around 55%, and older men from working class backgrounds do even worse than this, scoring an average of just 51.9% - almost 10% less than the women.

Dr Ruth Woodfield and Prof Pete Saunders, senior researchers on the project, set out to try to explain these patterns. They considered three sets of possible influences on degree performance. They assessed behavioural factors such as how hard people work and how good their attendance is; individual factors such as personality differences - e.g. ‘openness’ and ‘agreeableness’ - and cognitive ability; and sociological factors such as class background and educational history.

The found that all three play a part, but that behavioural factors appear crucial. Attendance at classes and completion of work assignments are key predictors of later exam performance, and on average, women score higher on these factors than men do. According to Prof Saunders, "in a sense the gender difference can be explained largely by the fact that women, on average, work harder." Women work consistently harder than men throughout the degree programme, and as Prof Saunders points out, "hard work brings its own rewards."

Yet women’s success goes beyond how hard they work - there is also a ‘hidden factor’. Although in the first year, personality factors assume little importance, by the second year they have become increasingly significant. Women tend to score more highly than men on things like ‘openness’ and ‘agreeableness’, and these factors start to influence degree performance as students move through their second year.

Dr Woodfield points out that, "whereas working class women who go back to education are perceived as bettering themselves, working class men may perceive themselves, and may be perceived by others, as having failed in the workplace." This may be why they are less likely to have the attributes of "open-mindedness, agreeableness, and compliance" which women - in particular those under 21 - score so highly on.

Crucially, however, this success may also account for the paradox that even though women get many more 2:1 degrees than men, men still get more firsts. As Prof Saunders points out, "men are much more spread out - there will be more men at the very top and at the very bottom than women." According to Dr Woodfield, women’s agreeableness and compliance, which allows them to do very well, may be preventing them from obtaining the best grades: "academics often say things like, ‘she did everything right but there just wasn’t this extra element of flair’ - women may be perceived as missing the maverick element needed for the very best marks."

Even so, the system may be gradually changing to favour the skills that women are more likely to offer, especially in subjects like the social sciences, where the majority of this research was conducted - although as Pete Saunders points out, "we are looking at a national phenomenon." As such, it seems clear that, as emotional intelligence is now being rewarded in the work place where the onus has shifted away from the individual and onto the team, so it is with University success. According to Ruth Woodfield, "Women are better equipped for the demands that Universities make now. As the trend leans towards continuous assessment, seminars and teamwork, people who are co-operative, flexible and less defensive are more likely to succeed - and these attributes are usually seen as feminine. What has previously placed women in the margins is now putting them firmly at the centre."

For further information please contact Sally Hall, Information Office, University of Sussex, Tel. 01273 678888, Fax 01273 678335, email s.l.hall@sussex.ac.uk, Dr Ruth Woodfield, School of Social Sciences, Tel. 01273 678037, email r.woodfield@sussex.ac.uk, or Prof Pete Saunders, School of Sociological Sciences, Tel. 01273 678883, email p.r.saunders@sussex.ac.uk.

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