Oxford admissions: Gender and ethnic bias

19 August 2009

A paper co-written by CLS researcher Dr Alice Sullivan, which found that women are less likely to gain a place at Oxford University than men even when they have better grades and are from similar backgrounds, has attracted strong media interest from the Guardian and the BBC.

Elite higher education admissions in the arts and sciences: Is cultural capital the key?

A paper co-written by CLS researcher Dr Alice Sullivan, which found that women are less likely to gain a place at Oxford University than men even when they have better grades and are from similar backgrounds, has attracted strong media interest from the Guardian and the BBC.
 
The research by Dr Sullivan and her co-authors – Anna Zimdars, Manchester University and Anthony Heath, Oxford University – was reported in the Guardian on 19 August 2009 under the headline: ‘Oxford University admissions favour men, study finds’. Dr Sullivan was also interviewed about the research for Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed by Professor Laurie Taylor on the same day (which will be repeated on 24 August and is available via Listen Again).

The main findings from the paper, published in the August issue of Sociology (vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 648–66), are as follows:

  • Social class continues to have an impact on Oxford admissions, as children who have two parents from the professional classes have a significantly better chance of getting in, even controlling for exam results.
  • An examination of whether participation in culture and cultural knowledge might help to explain this class gap found that participation in 'high brow' cultural activities such as attending art galleries, museums, theatre, classical concerts, and playing a musical instrument was not linked to success in gaining a place at Oxford. However, reading habits were linked to success in science admissions, and cultural knowledge was linked to success in arts admissions.
  • Women and South-Asian applicants were disadvantaged, even controlling for exam grades and cultural factors.
  • State school applicants were actually at a slight advantage compared to private school applicants once exam grades were controlled for.

Dr Sullivan was quoted in the Guardian as saying: ‘The direct ethnic and gender effects may be due to the overwhelmingly white and 80% male academic staff at Oxford tending to recruit in their own image.’