Education, Genetic Explanations

Why do male students get more first class degrees at Oxford University than female students?


Recent research has shown that once again more male students at Oxford University were awarded first class degrees than female students. In 2013, male Oxford graduates received more first class degrees in 26 out of the 38 schools in which both genders were examined. Almost a third of male candidates at the University of Oxford were awarded firsts in 2013, compared with just a quarter of female candidates, according to statistics released by the university in 2014.

In chemistry and English, two of Oxford’s biggest subjects, the gap is remarkable. In chemistry, 52% of men gained firsts, compared with just 30% of female students. In English literature and language, 42% of men were awarded firsts, compared with 29% of women.  In history last year, 29% of male candidates gained firsts, compared with 19% of female candidates.

The gender gap in exam results at the university is something that has come up repeatedly, causing the university to announce last year that “steps should be taken” to give all students the degree they deserve. When this was reported in the Guardian newspaper it was amusing to read the convoluted and complicated socio-economic, misogynistic, conspiracy based theories put forward to explain this phenomenon.

There is a simple, well known and well understood explanation – but one we are not allowed to mention.

The average IQ of men and women is, by definition, 100.   Any questions that show a sex bias, favouring either men or women are removed from the test.  However, despite this, the spread (variance) of IQ is different with more men having high IQs compared to women and also more low IQs compared to women.


Fig. 1 IQ variation in boys and girls.

Another measure of cognitive ability is g (short for “general factor”) a variable that summarises correlations among different cognitive tasks, reflecting the fact that an individual’s performance at one type of cognitive task tends to be comparable to his or her performance at other kinds of cognitive tasks.  It is also used as a proxy for “intelligence”.  This also shows a variation between men and women.


Fig. 2  The distribution of g in male and female populations. The scale of the x-axis is in units of the male standard deviation.

The difference in variance (regardless of whether there is a mean difference) will ipso facto result in more adult males scoring highly than adult females, provided the sample is large enough and the test ceiling is high enough to allow the males to outscore the females. For instance, at the near-genius level (an IQ of 145),  very bright men outnumber very bright women by 8 to 1. The numbers of people with exceptional intelligence are very small, so very large, or preferably population-wide studies are required to detect them. 

This is why we see more male geniuses and more male dunces in the real world.  Try this simple thought experiment. Name 10 female geniuses from any period in history.  This is not easy.  Socioeconomic reasons are often offered to explain this phenomenon.  There have clearly been major disadvantages for women and the poor to achieve their true potential throughout human history. As society becomes more equal we expect a higher proportion of women to take their rightful place in society and there is good evidence that this is finally happening.  

But this fails to explain the entire difference in the proportion of genius between the sexes.   Many of our geniuses were from quite modest backgrounds so their elevation to eminence was caused by something inherent to them.  Einstein, Mozart, Shakespeare and Newton, to name a few, were not born into wealth.  When Mozart saw a piano keyboard he did not see a line of black and white keys, as we mere mortals would. He saw a symphony. He was driven and consumed by his music. He couldn’t not write music. Are we to really believe that a woman with that talent would not have been noticed? The same goes for Einstein as he wrote his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905 whilst working as a patent clerk.  His genius was undeniable.  Shakespeare obviously wrote prolifically and effortlessly with very little editing. When Newton went to Cambridge University in 1661 he had to pay his way by performing valet’s duties.  At this point he had not received any formal mathematical training, but he was still able to teach himself and then go on to invent calculus and describe the laws of gravity.  Intellect at these levels is impossible to deny or repress.  

Throughout most of human history poor people were not well educated but more affluent men and women were educated. Middle and upper class women were certainly taught to read and write and were also taught music.  Music was considered a very appropriate pastime for young ladies, as was painting.  These ladies of leisure most certainly would have had the education, and more importantly the time, to produce a female version Shakespeare, Rembrandt  or Mozart.  More recently the list of the top 100 guitarists of all time, according to Rolling Stone magazine, contains only 2 women – the highest ranked at number 75. Can we realistically argue that modern society denies women the opportunity to learn to play a guitar? 

In 2014, after more than 50 consecutive male winners, a Fields Medal (the top mathematics prize) went to a female mathematician.  If you tossed a coin 51 times, your probability of 50 tails then a head would be less than one in 2,250,000,000,000,000.  Are we to believe that only explanation for these staggering odds is sexism?

The same relative shortage of female genius is discovered in lists of science Nobel Prize winners and in most other objective and meritocratic measure of accomplishment where men and women are free to compete for the prize.  This is not denying that there are many very bright women and some female geniuses.  There are just fewer women than men in this category.

Nobel prize winners by gender

Fig. 3  Nobel Prizes and the Prize in Economic Sciences 1901- 2011.

Genius is not just a question of talent.  Geniuses are also ruthless, single minded and driven. A combination of all these traits is unstoppable.  To get a first class degree from an elite university requires a certain amount of risk taking in answering key questions.  One must be prepared to take a little travelled path of logic and try something genuinely new and ground breaking; to be prepared to risk ridicule or abject failure for the small chance of greatness; to believe that you are right and stake and substantiate your ground when everybody else believes in something more obvious, more mundane and more intuitive. Testosterone, as we all know, causes males of the species across the animal kingdom to flaunt risk-taking and aggressive behaviour.  As well as exceptional intelligence would this not give an edge to the people at the brilliant end of the academic spectrum?  Brilliance, confidence, risk taking and even arrogance are the preserve of real genius.

In recent years we have seen a University education expanded from about 8% of the UK population to nearer 50% .  As more students with lower IQs are University educated we would logically expect there to be more female graduates.  When a University education is available to all students with average and above average IQs  we would expect there to be more female graduates than male graduates because men out-number women at the lower end of IQ variance.  In 2010-11, there were more female (55%) than male fulltime undergraduates (45%) enrolled at university.  This is consistent with the variance in IQ and g models.

The variance in male / female intelligence is politically charged and attracts vitriolic responses from certain sectors of society.  There is less controversy over other aspects of extreme male behaviour.  There are many more male psychopaths, terrorists and criminals for example.  Neither does the fact that more males have learning difficulties attract much political controversy.   But for high intelligence there is often the assumption that because it is unfair and morally objectionable (either in fact or in its possible misinterpretation or misuse) it cannot be true.  Intelligence is the one thing that differentiates our species from other animals and it is emotionally, politically  and morally charged.  But this does not mean there is no truth in a genetic basis for intelligence.

Just as controversially there is also good evidence that the male bias towards science and the female bias towards humanities is also moderately heritable  i.e. inherited in our genes.  So gender-science stereotype is not totally determined by culture and personal experiences.

Of course we must take every necessary step to ensure that boys and girls get the same opportunities in education and in life, but let’s also accept that those same opportunities will not necessarily produce the same outcomes.  Economists who study patterns of discrimination have long argued (generally to no avail) that there is a crucial conceptual distinction between difference  and discrimination. A departure from a 50-50 sex ratio in any profession does not, by itself, imply that we are seeing discrimination, unless the interests and aptitudes of the two groups are identical.

So, at a super-elite University such as Oxford, where we are looking at a tiny proportion of the brightest students, we would expect there to be more males achieving 1st class degrees. It is not fair but it is also not a mystery.  It is a consequence of the male genome (particularly the short Y chromosome), which causes greater genetic variations in men, leading to both good and bad extremes of male behaviour.


Further  Listening:

Intelligence: Born Smart, Born Equal, Born Different  (3 Podcasts from The BBC on the genetics of intelligence).

What makes some children smarter than others?  Professor Robert Plomin talks to Jim Al-Khalili about what makes some people smarter than others and why he’s fed up with the genetics of intelligence being ignored.


9 thoughts on “Why do male students get more first class degrees at Oxford University than female students?

  1. Pingback: Gender based learning difficulties – why do many more boys struggle than girls? | RGAmbler

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  3. Pingback: Chivalry – An evolutionary explanation | RGAmbler

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  6. Alex Klages says:

    As A. Feingold points out, which gender shows greater variability in intellectual abilities differs by country: “No consistent gender differences (variance ratios) were found across countries in any of the three broad ability domains. Instead, males were more variable than females in some nations and females were more variable than males in other nations. “

    • The variability hypothesis still evokes controversy, but recent data and analyses may bring some closure to the debate […] Data from a number of representative mental test surveys, involving samples drawn from the national population, have become available in the past twenty years in the USA. These have finally provided consistent results. Both Feingold (1992b) and Hedges and Nowell (1995) have reported that, despite average sex differences being small and relatively stable over time, test score variances of males were generally larger than those of females. Feingold found that males were more variable than females on tests of quantitative reasoning, spatial visualisation, spelling, and general knowledge. […] Hedges and Nowell go one step further and demonstrate that, with the exception of performance on tests of reading comprehension, perceptual speed, and associative memory, more males than females were observed among high-scoring individuals.

      Archer, John; Lloyd, Barbara (2002). Sex and Gender (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 186–8.

  7. Pingback: Genetics, gender and race – how will social policy cope with recent scientific discoveries? | RGAmbler

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