Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

"Write like a man": Gendered Differences in Undergraduate Writing

During my time studying and teaching, I've noticed a few differences in the ways in which male and female students tend to work, write and participate in tutorials. I want to get the latter out of the way first, but I have a number of thoughts on working and writing, and the way in which it contributes towards the degree classification differences between men and women, specifically in arts, humanities and social sciences. A quick google reveals a litany of news articles bemoaning the high failure rate of men at university, but this doesn't tell the whole story. In many instances, men are more likely to fail but also more likely to get a first than women, who overwhelmingly tend to get 2.is. I believe there are a number of factors at play here, but first I want to share some observations, practices and conundrums in tutorial participation.


 

Tutorial Participation is fairly well-trodden ground: male students tend to dominate tutorials, making their voices heard (even when their opinions are rubbish or based in evidence they got off of Breitbart), and often making it difficult for female students to get a word in edgeways, even when they know very little about the subject at hand. Women are more likely to remain silent when they believe they don't know anything, and sometimes it can be difficult to get them to say anything at all. Adversarial-style tutorials which set students up in debating formats again tend to be dominated by men. Whilst this is primarily based on anecdotal evidence, it's anecdote which has been corroborated time and again (and the plural of anecdote is data, because data is just a conglomeration of individual experiences and responses).

One way in which I attempt to deal with this problem in my tutorials is to separate students out into pairs or threes, and force them to talk to each other to answer a fairly open question. I do this two or three times per tutorial, and after they've spoken to each other I ask them to then feed back to the group. This means that discussions tend to be a lot more collaborative, and that there is never a group which is dominated by only one individual whilst everyone else is afraid to speak. This has the added benefit of ensuring that students participate at least to some extent, but that those who are afraid to speak up in front of the whole group have the option not to, and to instead cede that role to their partner.

There have been instances in which one student (almost always male) will give some kind of opinion which is fairly obviously either ill-informed or actively offensive, and nobody else is willing to speak up to challenge them (I've noticed this particularly in Sociology, where the number of men in a class is rarely greater than one or two). Under these circumstances I've usually found myself having to try and challenge them, in terms which are as polite as possible, and find that most of the women in the group end up nodding along. I wish I could come up with some way in which to get them to do this instead of me, but perhaps they're more likely to speak up as they go through university.


Moving on then to working and writing, I think there are a few different kinds of extant gendered differences, which I'll first explore and then attempt to provide some short- and long-term solutions for.

1. I think that women tend to take fewer risks than men, both in their working practices and in their writing of essays and exams. This contributes to the larger number of men getting thirds and fails, but it also seems to result in the higher number of firsts coming from male candidates. This isn't because of anything inherently positive about risk-taking; indeed, quite often the riskiest essays I've seen have been the ones that finish after one paragraph or attempt to defend biological essentialism. However, as examiners we do have a propensity to mark most highly the things that stand out in terms of originality and creativity, rather than the things that play it safe and stick to the reading list or the material covered within the module.

Similarly, female students are often more meticulous in the work that they write. When helping some female students with essays, they've often been at their most doubtful when they're, in their words, "thinking like a woman" and worrying about how they can do justice to every argument and point of view within the remit of the essay. This would almost certainly mean that they were writing what the more pretentious academic might call a "book-length work" every time they were asked to produce a 1500 word essay. 

Male students have a greater tendency to think that the point of view that they've taken is either adequate, correct, or the most important one, and have fewer qualms about ensuring even-handedness. That means that they don't end up torn between the Scylla of wanting to do everything well, and the Charybdis of trying to get the essay done on time and write an argument that's detailed enough to merit a good mark.

Finally, I've noticed that women tend to work more consistently than men. This means that they're less likely to fail overall, and more likely to get a mid-high 2.i. But the reason it doesn't make them more likely to get a first (necessarily) is because consistent work is often risk-free work, which remains within the bounds of the prescribed lectures and reading list. We reward work which goes outside of those boundaries, especially if it links in with other disciplines or tries to synthesise ideas in bold ways. Men who often work more erratically have a tendency to draw on more "out-there" type literature, or to try to bring in their knowledge from other areas to fill in gaps that they've produced by failing to follow the course consistently.

Solutions: this isn't an easy issue to resolve. It requires a shift in the kinds of essays we tend to reward and the diversity of kinds of brilliance we recognise. In marking essays, I make active attempts to ensure that I reward those that are not necessarily "original" but are well-argued and robustly rooted in the literature just as much as I reward those with creative flair.

If you are a student reading this and wondering what you can do to improve, I would always recommend reading and referencing outside the essential reading list in order to show that you understand the subject and have done more than the minimal amount of work required. Referencing specific page numbers and attempting to play authors off against each other in your analysis is also good, but make sure that your own voice doesn't get lost in endless block quotes. Always be critical of the works you cite.

I'd also recommend trying to bring in knowledge from outside of the subject you're working in at the moment. This doesn't mean trying to entirely answer an essay about political ideology in the 20th century with quotes from Hobbes' Leviathan, but it does mean that you shouldn't be afraid to reference outside works when they seem relevant to your argument, or to take a concept from another field and apply it in your essay. Some of the most successful exam answers I've written have been ones that have drawn on things I've read outside of the course; I once used Ben Goldacre's Bad Pharma to answer a question about informed consent in Philosophy of Science, and it was one of the highest marks I've gotten on an exam ever.


 

2. Linked to this, female students often write in ways that are less confident. My male students generally state their opinions as though they're objective fact, or at least the most reasonable possible belief to have. Comparatively, my female students tend to inject quite a lot of "I think" or "this might be" into their thoughts and writing, hedging their bets. This isn't necessarily an issue, but we often reward students for trying to remain detached or removing confessions of subjectivity, at least at undergraduate level.

Teachers often make up for this by telling their female students, either explicitly or implicitly, to "write like a man". This means that they should write confidently, "objectively", not hedging their arguments, coming down boldly on one side of an issue, etc. This is obviously an issue, in that it prizes particular styles of writing over others when there's nothing inherently better about any of them. Moreover, it often forces people into styles that they are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with, meaning that they are less likely to do it as well as they would if they wrote in a style that they were used to. When you write with confidence, there's a fine line between being forward and being arrogant, and it's one that you only learn to walk through trial and error - and in most universities, there are only so many opportunities to be corrected on that through feedback.

Solutions: This is, again, a deeply complex area with a number of moving parts. I don't think it's something that can be solved with a few handy tips, but we can at least attempt to ameliorate the issue somewhat.

The issue of "writing like a man" needs to be disentangled from our attempts to inculcate an academic writing style into students. The latter is important to be able to succeed in university, although there are obviously quite a lot of critiques of this style as exclusionary and elitist (and I recognise that I myself have fallen prey to the problem of academising all of my language to an embarrassing degree). However, attempting to make all students fit into a style that men have been socialised into to a much greater extent isn't ideal, particularly given the merits of being epistemically modest in the work that we write.

If you're trying to write an essay that sounds confident, but not arrogant, I'd recommend a couple of things. First, don't be afraid to use "I", but do say "I argue" or "I contend", rather than "I think" or "I believe". Second, be careful of using overly emotive language, but at the same time make sure you don't use the passive voice, or you'll sound like you're an evil doctor trying writing their lab notes in a 1970s horror film. Avoid phrases like "we all know", or appeals to intuition; instead, try to make sure that all of your arguments are reasoned out and grounded in the academic literature.


I think there's an awful long way to go in deconstructing the kinds of work that we reward at undergraduate level (and of course in society at large). I recognise that a lot of this might not be news to many people, but there are likely quite a few people out there who haven't thought about the work they've written or marked in this way before. The more people who flag up these issues, the more likely they are to get noticed at higher levels, and the higher the probability that changes will occur in policies which then bleed down into practice. At least, that's the theory.

N.B. I am well aware that I am a male tutor and student writing a broad-brush post about the experiences of both male and female students, only one of which I have been. I have made every effort to try not to essentialise in this piece, and any areas in which I have indicated that behaviours are in any way determined by sex or gender instead of socialised in a stochastic manner are accidents. Nevertheless, please don't hesitate to correct me if I have made a mistake.

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