Oxford University in England remains, arguably, among the premier institutes of higher education in the world, with a history of continuous operation stretching back nearly a millennia to at least the year 1096. Given that lengthy span of service, you might expect them to be a bit stodgy and set in their ways. Perhaps that explains one of their more curious recent decisions. As reported in the Daily Mail, the administrators at Oxford decided to begin allowing students additional time on their math exams. The reason? Female students weren’t doing as well under the pressure of the time clock.

Oxford University has extended time for maths and computer science exams in a bid to help women get better grades.

Undergraduates were given 105 minutes to complete their papers, rather 90. There was no change in difficulty or the length of questions and female students were said to do better as a result.

Dons trialed the changes to allow women to achieve higher results, with just seven female maths finalists achieving firsts last year compared with 45 men.

The proposals were put forward to reduce the ‘undue effects of time pressure’ which the prestigious university believe effects women more than men, reports the Sunday Times.

I’m no expert, but isn’t that sort of, er… sexist? Then again, if Oxford’s results are repeatable over the years, perhaps they have a point. There should be zero difference between the ability of men and women to do math, at least in theory. But if that’s the case, why would the ratio of students achieving “firsts” on the math exams (which I assume means the highest possible grade range) break down to more than six to one in favor of the men? They aren’t providing numbers for the current year, but presumably the women are doing better since the university cites a “marked improvement” in performance.

The “pressure” angle based on allotted time certainly sounds like a promising lead. Stop and think about it for a moment. If women were actually worse at math than men or less able to master those skills, giving them extra time wouldn’t change the result, right? A wrong answer will still be wrong even if you have an additional fifteen minutes to look the test over. But as one University of London professor is quoted as saying in the article, they’ve noted a marked tendency for female students to double check all of their math answers before moving on. The men were less likely to double check, meaning that they actually got more questions wrong but they finished the entire test. From the sound of it, the women were being more careful in their work but it took them so long to complete each problem that they either weren’t finishing the exam or had to rush through the last few pages, sacrificing accuracy in the process.

So all of that makes sense, but it still doesn’t answer some of the other, long-standing questions in the battle of the sexes. One of the big ones which we’ve covered here before is why there has never been a female world champion in chess? Obviously, men have a natural advantage in sports where physical strength is required, but there are few pursuits more purely intellectual than chess. Women are allowed to compete in the world championships and they do, but they don’t manage to win the title. In fact, there’s a separate women’s chess championship held every year.

Once again, that might not be a result of pure “ability” or anything to do with how synapses fire in the male and female brain. It could simply be thousands of years of conditioning and how we raise young girls. If the expectation is that they won’t do well in something like chess, they don’t start training for it as early as the boys do. And perhaps, as suggested with the math exams at Oxford, there’s an element of “pressure” involved in tournament chess with a time clock limiting how long you have for each move.

I still maintain that men and women (including aspects of their brains) are different in wild and frequently wonderful ways. But the idea that one gender is less capable of complex calculations seems impossible to me. Maybe Oxford is on to something here.