Newsletter 141 - More Research - The Martha Effect & Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Extracts from The ‘Martha Effect’: The compounding female advantage in South African higher education by HENDRIK VAN BROEKHUIZEN & NIC SPAULL November 2017


International Research on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) linked to Educational Underachievers by Cape Times 30 November 2017

Abstract – The Martha Effect”

  1. In this paper we use population-wide panel data to follow every South African student from the 2008 cohort as they enter into and progress through university, following them for six years (N=112,402).
  2. We find indisputable evidence of a large female advantage that continues to grow at each hurdle of the higher education process.
  3. To be specific, relative to their male counterparts we find 27% more females who qualified for university, 34% more who enroll in university, 56% more who complete any undergraduate qualification and 66% more who attain a bachelor’s degree. This despite there being roughly equal numbers of boys and girls at the start of school.
  4. We show that this female advantage remains after controlling for school-level performance, and exists for all subgroups of race, age, socioeconomic status, and province of origin.
  5. We examine 19 fields of study and find that females are significantly more likely to get a degree in 12 of the 19 fields (often by substantial margins), and are significantly less likely to get a degree in five of the 19 fields. However, this is almost entirely because they do not access these traditionally ‘male’ programs rather than due to lower completion rates.
  6. Irrespective of field of study, race, age, socioeconomic status or location, females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to dropout than their male counterparts (including in traditionally ‘male’ fields like Engineering and Computer Science). Building on the idea of the
  7. ‘Matthew Effect’ in reading (the rich get richer), we present evidence of a gendered version of this phenomenon in higher education; what we call the ‘Martha Effect’.

Discussion & conclusion

The aim of the present analysis has been to construct a country-wide panel dataset and use it to examine the higher education outcomes of a single cohort (NSC 2008) by gender. Given that we only have six years of panel data, the one main limitation of the present study is that the completion rates reported are only for those who access university immediately after school. That is to say that if we want to follow a cohort for the full period (six years), we have to select those who leave school in 2008 and enroll in university in 2009. This is obviously a selective group of students compared to those that delay entry into university. That being said, by reporting both Acess-1 and Access-6 we show that there is only a small decline in the female access advantage if one looks at six-year access rather than four-year access, and thus that the results presented here are unlikely to change significantly.

The six most important findings of the analysis are listed below:

1) Overall: After controlling for pre-university achievement females are 20% more likely to access university and graduate with an undergraduate degree in six years than are their male counterparts.

2) Gendered access: We find much stronger evidence of gendered access effects rather than gendered completion effects. This is both for sub-groups and for fields of study.

3) Dropout: Relative to their male counterparts, females are always and everywhere 20% less likely to drop out of university programmes. This is not affected by pre-university achievement.

4) Socioeconomic status: Among the quintiles of socioeconomic school socioeconomic status, only females from the poorest 20-30% of schools do not exhibit an advantage in accessing university. Most pro-female advantages are largest among the wealthiest groups.

5) Pre-university achievement: A third of the overall female advantage (Conversion-6) can be explained by school-level achievement. However, among the best-performing sub-groups the female advantage is almost entirely (77%) explained by superior school-level achievement.

6) Gendered fields of study: While it is true that fewer females graduate with a degree in traditionally male fields of study (Engineering, Computer Sciences, Architectural Sciences, Mathematical Sciences and Agricultural Sciences) this is largely because females do not enter these fields, not because they do not do well in them once enrolled.

We would encourage other scholars – particularly those in political science and sociology – to expound the various ramifications of the pro-female advantages identified above. Perhaps the most obvious implication being the impact of this situation on the labour-market in South Africa. Using labor-force data from QLFS 2011, Van der Berg & Van Broekhuizen (2012: 29) find that the broad unemployment rate for those with degrees in South Africa was 5% in 2011 compared to 33% among non-graduates. Interestingly they also find evidence that this graduate premium is rising over time in South Africa. Looking more broadly, the long-term impacts of the global female advantage in school and in higher education are likely to only become more acute over time. The premium on higher education in the labor-market is likely to grow as the world moves toward a knowledge-based economy. This is in addition to the effects of liberalizing gender norms globally and declining fertility rates.


We echo the words of Vincent-Lancrin (2008: 1) that in “promoting equal opportunities for men and women the focus can no longer be solely on women.” Understanding how and why females outperform males at school and at university is an important ongoing strand of research, and one that is likely to have significant impacts on the way that curriculum and pedagogy are structured and implemented. Yet while this topic is being addressed universities in South Africa and throughout middle-income and developed countries will continue to produce significantly more female graduates than male graduates which will, in all likelihood, have large impacts on society more generally. As Esping-Anderson (2009: 1) concludes: “The quiet revolution of women’s roles, as Claudia Goldin (2006) calls it, is

arguably a close rival to new technologies in terms of its seismic aftershocks touching, directly and indirectly, all major social institutions. And like its rivals, it

has not yet come to full maturation. Incomplete revolutions tend to be associated with major disequilibria.”


OCD & link to Educational Performance

The Cape Times reported on 30 November 2017 on a link between people with OCD and educational achievement. If early diagnosed people with OCD “are less likely to pass compulsory school tests or go on to higher education”.

Symptoms of OCD include the following rituals which may impact on educational performance;

  • Highly distressing thoughts and feel compelled to perform rituals for hours – which compromise the ability to concentrate
  • Individuals with contamination fears “may not be able to sit in class or might have to constantly go to the toilet for hand washing
  • The need to read and re-read “which makes learning slow and frustrating”
  • Poor school attendance.


  • 40-65% of learners with OCD are “less likely to pass all their compulsory education courses”
  • 53% “less likely to move on to upper secondary school”
  • 28% “less likely to move on to an academic upper secondary school programme”
  • 57% “less likely to finish upper secondary school”
  • 28% “less likely to start university”
  • 41% “less likely to finish university”
  • 48% “less likely to complete postgraduate education”.

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