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Oxford college tries and fails to even the gender imbalance on University Challenge

Oxford have been criticised many times for a lack of diversity. Source: Shutterstock.
Source: Shutterstock

The University of Oxford have made headlines yet again with complaints of a lack of diversity. This time the criticism stems from the news that Wadham College is now abandoning its plan to have more women on its University Challenge team, just a month after another Oxford college, St Hugh’s, faced backlash for the lack of women on its team.

Following the backlash on St Hugh’s, Wadham College had introduced “female-only” trials for University Challenge in a bid to even out the gender imbalance. The college hoped this would encourage more women to apply and aimed to ensure at least one woman was accepted onto the team.

However, The Telegraph reported the trials have now been halted. Allegedly the college have revoked the policy on the grounds that it would be accepting women into the team based on gender not talent. The argument runs that accepting a woman with a lower score than a man because of her gender will be “tokenistic”.

The final decision on whether the proposed all-male team will go ahead or not is now in the hands of the Students’ Union. There will be an all-female vote to determine the sex composition of next year’s University Challenge team during the SU’s “next sitting”.

Wadham is widely considered one of the university’s most liberal colleges, so it is unsurprising they were the ones to lead attempts at promoting gender-balance. In 1974, the college became one of the first all-male colleges to admit women.

On the other hand, St Hugh’s was founded in 1886 initially as a women’s college. With an all-male team in this year’s show, Jeremy Paxman, University Challenge host, remarked on air: “we could be forgiven for thinking they’d [men] rather taken it [St Hugh’s] over”.

Men may have taken over University Challenge but the college remains open to women and men. The single sex trials, however, are causing more problems. The Daily Telegraph reported that one student claimed “it would not be good for the welfare of the woman entrant to be there knowing she was let in to fill a quota.” 

“We’d like to have a representative team,” said another, but “it would be embarrassing and maybe tokenistic that the team was not selected on a meritocratic basis if this affects performance.”

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Vita Bax and Greg Ritchie, social secretaries at Wadham College claimed they weren’t surprised at the lack of female applicants and that it was “entirely unexpected”.

Arguably, the issue does not lie with University Challenge but is rooted much deeper. The lack of diversity in general at Oxford is widely criticised.

In the last academic year, approximately 57 percent of postgraduate students at The University of Oxford were male, according to data taken from Oxford’s website. There are about 1,500 more male post-grad students than female at the prestigious institution.

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Equally, there is also a significant lack of diversity from other universities and colleges on University Challenge, not just from Oxford.

“It’s a bit like snooker and darts,” Ritchie told The Telegraph, “quizzing tends to attract more males.

“[…] Putting a woman who isn’t of the necessary standard on the team is not fair on other contestants or the wider movement for gender equality in University Challenge,” he added.

It has been two years since Paxman first remarked at the lack of female contenders on the show, recognising the gender inequality. He queried during the 2015 semifinal “why on earth are there no women left in this stage of the competition?”

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