The Faculty of History is trying out new methods to close its gender attainment gapLouis Ashworth

If you’re female and studying history, you’d be excused for feeling a little nervous.

Across the university there is a gap (albeit a slowly closing one) in grade attainment between male and female students. That gap is particularly striking in the History Tripos.

The disparity is felt most keenly during Part I of the Tripos, for which the majority of the marks are awarded based on a set of exams taken at the end of second year. For several years, examiners’ reports have tracked a gap between how many firsts are being awarded, with the vast majority going to men.

2014 was a system shock: female students constituted 49.5 per cent of those taking Part I, yet secured just 8.7 per cent of the firsts awarded. Moderating External Examiner Professor Robert Frost described this as “striking”, and the Faculty reacted quickly. In Michaelmas 2014, examiners took part in a workshop on “unconscious bias” – with the suggestion that they might be discriminating unknowlingly against female students due to their background and personal experiences.

“The board”, said 2015’s Examiners’ Report, “was as aware as it could be of potential gender issues, and yet the gap was much the same.”

The issue being unresolved, another wave of second-years took their Part I exam in 2015, with a broadly similar, if slightly less pronounced, result. In what the examiners described as a “disquietingly large gender gap in achievement”, the vast majority of firsts went, once again, to male students, despite 52.8 per cent of candidates being female. In addition, Frost noted that “female candidates formed around 80 per cent of the lower seconds awarded” – disparities were strongly felt at both ends of of the scale.

Moderating External Examiner Matthew Innes echoed the sentiment.

“Whilst this year’s figures were better than last year’s very worrying outcome,” he wrote, “it does remain a concern that fewer than a quarter of the firsts, but over three quarters of lower seconds, were awarded to women”.

So what is the Faculty of History doing to change the situation for female students, and to close the gap in gender attainment?

I spoke to Dr Sarah Pearsall, Academic Secretary for the Faculty of History, and Dr Lucy Delap, a University Lecturer in modern British History and member of one of the Faculty’s major Tripos working groups, the Gender Working Party (GWP), to find out what the future holds for the History Tripos.

“If it was an easy problem to fix we would have fixed it years ago,” Delap told me.

“There’s quite a few common-sense options as to what the problem is, which have turned out to not be the root issue…it was thought for a while there simply weren’t enough women on the board, but statistical analysis shows that even if the board was made up entirely of women, it still wouldn’t fix the gender problem.”

Instead, the Faculty has moved its attention away from the assessment teams themselves, and directed it instead towards the way that tuition operates in Part I.

“Everything is up for grabs,” said Delap – including some tuition methods seen by many as fundamental to the way Cambridge operates.

“Right now it’s a pretty traditional Cambridge setup of lectures and weekly supervisions,” Pearsall told me.

“We’re partly think about mixing it up more so that there are seminars, other ways of offering the teaching.”

The supervision model, Delap told me, doesn’t “do all kinds of forms of training and skills acquisition”. For instance, she said, “making presentations in public is something you don’t really get from the supervision system”. Instead, the Faculty is looking into the potential of other modes of teaching and assessment.

The Faculty has cast its gaze wide in search of solutions, closely studying the results of History students at other universities, and examining how other faculties have avoided gender-based disparities.

“Other unis running similar kinds of programmes don’t have it,” said Delap, “so we think it’s something about the structure of the course, and the way it’s taught”.

More seminars are core to a proposed new method, which is already a major feature of Part II, which features less-pronounced gender disparities. Staff working on a Tripos revamp think small, presentation-led group discussions could hold the key to creating a more effective academic learning environment for female students.

Yet seminars alone don’t hold the key to changes.

“It isn’t clear,” Delap explains, “that there’s definite ways in which women might benefit from seminar teaching rather than supervisions”. The approach, the Faculty believes, must be one which makes many small changes and assesses their net effect.

“Unfortunately there’s no magic bullet,” said Pearsall. She described the difficulty of identifying causation within the disparity, and pinning down key factors in attainment.

“None of it works as ‘well, if we do this then we’ll get rid of that problem’, which would obviously be great.”

Both emphasised that a key goal was removing the emphasis upon lengthy, all-important exams, and instead spreading the grading process out – what Delap describes as “other ways of assessing that don’t involve just sitting down and writing for three hours”.

“There might be coursework or presentations or other forms happening throughout the two years,” Pearsall said, “rather than having the vast majority taking place in the last couple weeks”.

In spite of the challenges, Pearsall and Delap are unequivocal about the importance of tackling gender disparities.

“It is an issue, especially in Part I,” said Pearsall. “It’s something the Faculty is concerned about, and has been for some time.”

“The gender disparity is something we’re very worried about,” Delap told me.
“In 2014 it looked like it was getting substantially worse.”

The problems also extend to other marginalised groups: Delap noted that there are also issues faced by “students coming from state schools” – male and female. Disparities most keenly affect those who fall into both groups.

“It’s women from state schools who are most systematically underperforming, so gender is our main remit here,” Delap said.

“This is not a sex war; this is a much wider question about how well prepared people are to take advantage of Cambridge.”

The changes are not just restricted to addressing attainment imbalances, however – Delap says that there is scope for “a completely new Tripos”.

Though, Delap told me, “one of the motivations is to deal with the gender disparity,” there are also changes to be made in terms of areas covered by the Tripos, particularly in the wide-ranging Part I.

“We would like there to be scope for courses to be put in which aren’t just within organised blocks of time.”

Instead, she envisions a course structure in which topics are “thematically organised” under broad headings, giving students an understanding of powerful forces across history.

“We’re not really worried about coverage because we’re one of the largest history departments in the world.”

Despite the amount of energy for change currently in the Faculty, the path ahead is far from secure. Previous attempts to radically change the History Tripos have stumbled after meeting resistance from academics seeking to protect their own papers and areas of expertise.

“There have been a lot of years of trying to make changes,” Pearsall told me.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to be as fast as we’d like…the hope is that it will continue to improve, and hopefully that accelerates a little.”

Previous attempts were met by particular resistance from academics teaching Part II, who sought not to have too much Faculty imposition upon them and, as a result, failed to manifest any real change.

“The efforts to reform the Tripos around four or five years ago were promising,” said Delap, “but did not in the end achieve any consensus about the shape of the overall course, and so were put on hold”.

This time, thoughts are firmly set upon Part I.

Changes will need some time to take effect, and will require a period soon during which first- and second-year History students are studying significantly different Triposes.

Whether this revamp will occur in time to coincide with the introduction of the new ‘History and Politics’ and ‘History and MML’ triposes, which will begin in 2017, is as yet unclear, but together they spell big things in the future of the History faculty.