In MML, the biggest difference in male and female attainment was 2014, with a gender gap of 18.7% in favour of menMichael Behrend/Wikimedia Commons

Since 2011, the average proportion of male undergraduates that receive firsts is 33% to just 25% of women, as Varsity has previously identified.

There is historical interest in this issue – in 2003 Cambridge commissioned a report reacting to concerns over the disparity. Recent efforts to fix the gap remain either sparse or stuck. Its slow movement has inevitably been impacted by the pandemic and consequent fluctuations in data.

Girls outperform boys throughout the education system – it is only at an undergraduate level where the gender attainment gap begins to favour men in these subjects. Though there has been much interest in disparities in STEM, it remains an important issue in the arts and humanities.


In 2021 71.2% of finalists were women, and it was a particularly damning year for the gender attainment gap: 61.5% of men achieved a first or starred first compared to only 32.8% of women. This is a consistent trend in English, with 2019 the only outlier. 2022 saw only 42.7% of women achieving firsts, compared to 54.1% of men.

Jason Scott-Warren, previous Chair of the Athena SWAN Committee for English, wrote that the Faculty has “taken various steps to try to close [the gap], but with very limited success. The pandemic gave us an unexpected opportunity to experiment with different modes of examination, but we were surprised to find that these did not improve the situation.”

“There may still be scope to experiment with different models and to learn from other universities that do not have this problem. The attainment gap remains a matter of serious concern; we would welcome any feedback from current and former students that might help us to address it.”


The gender split in those studying MML is similar to English: the average proportion of women studying MML between 2011 and 2017 is 68.9%, compared with 31.1% of men.

However, more men have been awarded firsts every year within that time frame, apart from 2015. The biggest difference in male and female attainment was 2014, with a gender gap of 18.7% in favour of men

As Prof Jenny Mander points out, the gender gap “was inverted and widened in favour of female candidates” after the pandemic.

She said: “Over the three years of the pandemic this differently gendered awarding gap has narrowed somewhat.” She added that this could be a result of “male and female candidates preparing differently over the year for at home exams.”

According to Prof Geoffrey Kantaris, the Chair of the MML Faculty, the “EDI and Undergraduate Studies Committees are currently analysing the way in which the change in assessment formats has affected attainment gaps in gender”.

Although he stresses that there are significant variations across different parts of the tripos, he suggests that “on the face of it, the shift to coursework-based assessments for most content has had a significant effect in reversing or equalizing the gender attainment gap.”


Although more women study history than men, the gender imbalance is far less pronounced than English or MML. However, the gender attainment gap has been a long-standing issue. With the exception of 2021, male finalists have consistently been awarded more firsts than their female counterparts.

In the History Part I examiners’ report for 2022, the external examiner expressed “serious concern” over the gender breakdown of firsts. They highlight that men were “unexpected beneficiaries of this year’s largely undiluted assessment regime of open book exams”, which “does not chime well with what is admittedly anecdotal experience of the gendered impact of open book assessments.”

History Professor, Peter Mandler, suggested the current disparities in history to be down to grade inflation during the pandemic, and the bunching of women at high 2:1 marks. As the proportion of firsts rose, more women were brought into the highest bracket. And conversely, as the rewarding of firsts grew stricter, it declined.

When requested for comment, the History Faculty said that they are “deeply committed to learning from past experience and continuing to build robust, equitable, and transparent assessment practices.”

They added: “With the introduction of the new Tripos, we have introduced a more varied diet of assessments and a new classing system less reliant on preponderance, and we will be providing examiners with additional training.”

Potential Reasons:

Modes of assessment:

In the case of MML, Mander notes that prior to the pandemic, the University helped the faculty to conduct a paper by paper analysis, in order to understand the gender gap. They found that the most significant gender gaps were “not in the essay writing ‘scheduled papers’ sat in the exam hall, but in the language papers, especially ab initio language papers.” Meanwhile, the long essay and dissertations did not have a significant impact on gender gaps.

Both History and English have recently undergone tripos reform, and one of the many changes that have been implemented include diversifying forms of assessment.

In the case of English, Dr Phil Knox (Director of Undergraduate Studies) pointed out that Part I of the tripos had been reformed to “give a clearer sense of progression through the different stages of the degree”, and that the “key aim” of this was to “help close the gender awarding gap”.

Mandler meanwhile hopes the reformed History Tripos will even out some of these inequalities. It places a greater weight on coursework,which he points out tends to favour women. Mandler is also an advocate for online exams, arguing that in-person assessment just “didn’t make sense pedagogically.”

Mandler is critical of the traditional examination format, coining it a “test of machismo.” Reflecting on his days at Oxford undergrad, Mandler described the examination process as “like a hazing ritual” which saw three years worth of exams crammed into five days. Mandler’s overall view is that it simply “is not a good assessment of your skills as an historian.”

Writing styles:

Another possible explanation is the emphasis examiners place on writing style. Anecdotally, women at Cambridge have found themselves told to ‘write like a man’. Academic studies highlight the gendering of different kinds of discourse, with qualities like rationality often considered characteristically ‘male’.

When asked if the examination criteria placed an emphasis on gendered kinds of style, Mandler disagreed: “criteria advises away from this.” His colleague Dr Melissa Calaresu noted that qualities such as ‘flair’ have definitively left the vocabulary of academics and examiners in the Faculty. Chair of the English Faculty, Raphael Lyne said “this is the sort of thing we keep under review, as we’re not complacent about any aspect of our examining.”

The cultural gendering of subjects:

The current culture surrounding academia also has a significant impact on the gender attainment gap. Mander, who is Chair of the EDI Committee for MMLL, commented that “one of my personal gripes about languages [...] and gender is that they have become ever more gendered in the public imagination and this impacts at school level.

“Given the gendered take up of computer sciences, engineering and physics, and given the economic, political and cultural importance that is attached [...] I fear that this has compounded cultural indifference towards languages in the UK and a yet wider sense that the arts and humanities are less useful in today’s society, something reflected in funding.”

Support in the academic ‘pipeline’:

Mandler admits there is a “limited amount you can do at a university at the very end of a young person’s [academic] journey to account for inequalities which emerge in society. Inequalities will pop up somewhere else.”

One reason for this is due to how decentralised gender equality is at Cambridge: it is often faculty based and led. Very few institutional mechanisms exist to tackle the issue.

Mander offered another perspective, writing “it is always helpful to consider the local in the context of the global [...] Recognising the repercussions of the return to these sorts of oppressive gender hierarchies may incentivise our own desire to make teaching and learning open and equal.”

Current and future efforts:

Several faculties have undergone working groups to assess the situation and compile solutions. In 2016, the History Faculty took part in several exercises aimed to reduce unconscious bias – such as a handwriting workshop.


Mountain View

Widening participation since 1999

Female students tend to perform better when provided with female role-models. Mander told Varsity that “the MMLL survey revealed a strong sense of there being good role models for female undergraduates, but there is always more that we can do in a context where finding postgraduate research funding is very challenging.”

The move to more online-assessments post-pandemic has had diverse ramifications. In 2021, whilst female finalists in History tripos were awarded more firsts than men, the gender gap for final year English students widened.

English will return to in-person exams next year, and so will certain language papers within MML. “It will be interesting to see whether this changes outcomes,” Mander commented.

Despite the lack of attention towards the gender attainment gap in the humanities, the University has recognised the issue for some time and faculties are trying to fix it. Nonetheless, whilst the impact of tripos reform is yet to be seen, it is clear that there is still work to be done to close the gap.