Women's Trouble: Women, Gender, and the Learning Environment

(Susan Collard, Joyce Stalker)

Chapter Eight in

Creating Environments for Effective Adult Learning

Roger Hiemstra (Editor)

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education

Number 50, Summer 1991

Ralph B. Brockett, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Alan B. Knox, University of Wisconsin, Madison, CONSULTING EDITOR


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Institutional settings both create and mirror a learning environment that devalues and disempowers women learners.

Women's Trouble: Women, Gender, and the Learning Environment

Susan Collard, Joyce Stalker

Primarily in the past decade adult educators have considered the significance of gender to learning and education. The shifts in thinking that have occurred around this issue are in part due to the increased number (however minimal proportionately) of analyses of gender as related to both the practice and the study of adult education--for example, Hayes and Smith (1990), Hughes and Kennedy (1980), Hugo (1990), McLaren (1985), Rockhill (1986), Thompson (1983), and Warren (1990). This chapter draws on the work of these authors. In particular, our focus is on how gender, viewed as an issue and as an expression of power, is organized and reproduced in the learning environments provided by adult education institutions.

We begin with a definition of the term gender. We then consider the societal environment within which both women and educational institutions exist. We explore the areas of politics, work, and violence to understand the sex or gender system in our society. We next move to more specific analyses of some ways in which gender relations are experienced within educational institutions. For illustrative purposes, we examine the institutional environment, curricula, classroom conduct, and teacher-learner relationships. We conclude with recommendations for bringing about more equitable learning environments for women.

Our discussion of these issues is illustrative rather than exhaustive in nature. That is, it is based on our lived experiences and those of our women friends and highlights only a few of the ways in which both societal and institutional learning contexts devalue and disempower women. Moreover, space limitations do not permit a discussion of similarities of conduct in such settings as industrial training, continuing medical education, and military education.

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Defining Gender

It is generally acknowledged that "gender" is not a substitute term for "sex." While we are born into fairly unambiguous sexual categories (female and male) and while our gender (feminine and masculine) is usually ascribed on the basis of our sex, gender more properly refers to sociocultural interpretation of, and norms and values attached to, sexual differences. Guided by these ascriptions, we go on to live our lives on the basis of gender definitions that are arbitrarily tied to sexual differences.

Social conventions both define and legitimate what is considered "normal" and "natural" for one's sex or gender, with an emphasis on the differences between the sexes rather than on their common characteristics. Because gender characteristics are ascribed in polarized ways--to be masculine is not to be feminine--identification with one set of characteristics precludes identification with the other.

If gender were simply about differences, we probably would not be writing this chapter. However, there is an aspect of gender that is problematic. Social and cultural understandings of sexual differences are related to the oppression and exploitation of women. As we explore in the following discussion, these understandings allocate the privileges of status, power, and authority according to sex and gender differences: Masculine characteristics, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are valued as the norm, and the feminine counterparts are devalued. Men are empowered, women are disempowered.

Women and Gender in Society

Women's experiences in the learning environments of educational institutions cannot be separated from their experiences within the wider society. The polarization and differentiation noted above are imbedded within social structures, and they affect women both in their daily lives and as learners. Indeed, institutional learning environments are both created by and mirror these broader societal patterns. Thus, the interrelationship among women, gender, and society is basic to a discussion of women and the learning environments provided by institutions.

The experiences women have in society are neither accidental nor incidental. A sex/gender system exists and it organizes relations between individuals and between the sexes in distinctive ways. Although there may be variations across historical periods, and variations or divisions along ethnic, racial, or class lines about what is appropriate to one's gender, common features exist. Consistently, the sex/gender system devalues the feminine while valuing the masculine and disempowers women while empowering men.

This system most often associates the feminine with the private sphere in our society--the familial, domestic, and apolitical. The masculine, by

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contrast, is associated with the public sphere in our society--patriarchal, political, and oriented to full-time paid work. This dichotomous conception that allocates men and women to different spheres is central to a sex/gender system. Such thinking affects the organization of society, the institutions and individuals within society, and our expectations of these institutions and individuals. It is useful at this point to illustrate some ways in which women experience the sex/gender system in the wider society. While there is a significant and growing body of literature on this issue, we examine only three areas of women's lives: politics, work, and violence. We explore how a gender system assigns women and men to separate spheres and how, if taken for granted as "natural," this allocation then provides "explanations" about women's being and behavior.

Women and Politics. In exploring the political overtones of women's experiences, we are concerned with two interrelated meanings of the term politics. First, we are referring to formal politics, or the formal governmental organization. Second, we associate the term more broadly with issues of power, control, and authority.

A central problem in looking at women and politics is the definition of what constitutes political experience. For example, frequently, "women's issues" are defined as moral rather than political concerns (Siltanen and Stanworth, 1984). Consequently, issues of significance to women are not necessarily addressed by formal politics and politicians in the public arena. This problem of interpreting the political is compounded by the scarcity of women within formal politics and by the lower rates at which they participate in politics. This differential level of participation is the result of a political agenda that excludes women's issues and restricts women's power, control, and authority in society. Thus, this allocation of women and women's issues to a sphere that is separate from that of men fosters polarization between the sexes at the same time that it disempowers women. As discussed shortly, this scenario is repeated in institutional learning environments.

Women and Work. Women's relationship to work is another useful illustration of the ways in which women occupy a separate and less valued sphere. Analogous to politics, the definition of work is an issue. Feminist writers frequently point out that the interpretation of work as paid employment in the work force is misleading since it ignores women's unpaid domestic labor. Some feminist authors also argue that such undervaluation occurs because women's work in the home is seen as an extension of women's "natural" nurturing capacities and inclinations.

Some authors discuss the ways in which certain "women's work" presumes and draws on a certain type of sexualized femininity or on characteristics categorized as feminine (Connell, 1987; Stanko, 1988). It follows that those women who work in "nontraditional" areas are few in number and are seen to violate a "natural order" (Cockburn, 1985). Increasingly,

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women are seen to violate a natural order simply by entering the workplace, and this breach of "proper" behavior is being met by violence. In the United States from 1980 to 1985, 42 percent of women killed at work were murdered. This compares to 2 percent of men ("Alarm Over Workplace Murders," 1990). As noted later, this "gendering" of the work world into separate women's and men's spheres is paralleled, and supported, by a gendering of the learning environment.

Women and Violence. While some might suggest that violence is not an area of women's experiences in the same way as are politics and work, we view violence against women as an area that subsumes all others, as indicated at least in part by the above-cited statistics on women murdered in the workplace. Analysis of women's relationship to violence clearly illustrates how women and their concerns are disempowered and devalued in both obvious and subtle ways.

There are many studies that detail the extent to which obvious forms of violence against women occur. For example, in the United States it is estimated that over 1.5 million women are physically assaulted by a partner each year (Browne, 1987). Although this kind of statistic clearly speaks to the existence of violence in women's experiences, it is important to realize, most researchers acknowledge, that women underreport violence against them. We do know, however, that such violence is a problem in all socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious groups.

Less obvious, but equally problematic, is the issue of sexual harassment in women's lives (Stanko, 1988). Indeed, violence against women can be seen as all-pervasive if we take into consideration the images in media and popular culture that present women in highly objectified ways or as passive ornaments for consumption by the male gaze (Bartky, 1988; Bordo, 1990; Dworkin, 1981).

This kind of violence clearly illustrates the allocation of women and men to separate spheres. So, too, does the gender-based difference in remediation. Inasmuch as the private sphere, associated with the feminine, familial, and domestic, is defined as outside the arena of political intervention, violence against women can be ignored by those within the public sphere. Indeed, many governments refuse to pass legislation on issues such as domestic violence.

Thus, when women enter institutional learning environments, they have already learned about what is "normal" and "natural" from their experiences in the wider social context. Most adult women learners not only have learned the lessons of the gender-based double standard in U.S. society, but they also have learned how to survive in that hostile climate. These survival strategies are required in institutional learning environments as well. Unfortunately, those settings both mirror society at large and create similarly hostile contexts for women learners.

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Women and Gender in Educational Institutions

What happens to women in society happens to women learners in institutional learning environments at two levels. First, the larger institutional environment mirrors the characteristics of the broader social environment. Second, and more important, educational institutions produce and reproduce the sex/ gender system. Although its production and reproduction happens in many ways, we briefly focus here only on the interrelated areas of curricula, classroom conduct, and teacher-learner interactions.

Institutional Environment. Within educational institutions, as within the wider society, women still occupy a separate sphere. In terms of paid work in some institutions, women tend to occupy different and lower administrative positions in educational bureaucracies than those that men occupy. The workplace participation of women continues to be concentrated primarily in service rather than administrative positions. They operate in traditionally "female" positions such as cleaning, catering, and clerical work. Rarely are they seen in the higher reaches of administration, research, and teaching (Ramazanogl, 1987).

Like the wider society, educational institutions provide locations for violence against women. The 1990 Montreal massacre of fourteen young engineering women students by a man who first condemned them as "feminists" is a vivid and poignant illustration of the consequences of entering what some perceive as nontraditional areas and violating a "natural order." A more subtle form of violence, sexual harassment, also occurs within educational institutions. At Cornell University, for example, 60 percent of women students reported having been sexually harassed at the institution (Gabriel and Smithson, 1990). Gender-based harassment is not restricted to students. Backhouse, Harris, Michelle, and Wylie (1989) detail the existence of a "chilly climate" for faculty members as well. This chilly climate within institutional environments is intensified for women learners through male-dominated curricula, classroom conduct, and teacher-learner interactions.

Curricula. It is important to understand that curricula are not simply neutral selections and presentations of knowledge (Griffin, 1983). Curricula are expressions and reflections of what we consider worth knowing. As such, they legitimate certain areas of information and knowledge while they exclude others. Generally, what is considered worthwhile knowledge has been described as knowledge by, for, and about men. In the history of adult education, for example, while we devote a considerable amount of time to charting the progress of male adult educators and male-dominated organizations, we have not devoted a corresponding amount of time to the stories of women adult educators and the organizations in which women were prominent (Hugo, 1990).

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In most adult education curricula, there is an absence of women, women's concerns, and feminist literature that might provide a basis from which women learners could begin to articulate, present, and theorize about their experiences (Walker, n.d.). This avoidance of women's concerns is complemented by texts that characterize women in stereotypical ways, that is, ways that at least implicitly position women in the domestic sphere and in unauthoritative roles. For example, in one adult education text (Houle, 1972) analyzed by Collard (1990), out of a total of twenty-two roles mentioned in the first fifty pages, only five were used with the pronoun "she." Women were described as broadening their interests, as home economists teaching low-income mothers, as secretaries, and as typing teachers. In contrast, men were ascribed not only more roles, but those roles covered a much broader range from tutor to director. What is important to realize is that this text (even though it is nearly twenty years old) legitimizes a covert message that devalues and disempowers women when used as a reference for or by adult educators.

Moreover, among adult education studies that consider sex as a major variable, there is a tendency to cast in stone what differences do exist and to view females as aberrant or deficient when and where they fail to comply with male "norms." Alternately, some research is centered on males, but results are treated as generalizable to the population. Often these circumstances are hidden in texts that cite researchers' works without noting .the sex of their respondents. For example, the research work of London, Wenkert, and Hagstrom (1963) on participation and social class is often cited as a classic. However, the fact that the sample was exclusively male is seldom noted.

Given these characteristics of the curricula, it is important to examine precisely what women learn, or what can they learn, from curricula and texts that ignore their lives and experiences. Often such curricula and texts even cast that experience in highly conventional and trivialized ways. As Benhabib (1990) suggests, "gender" can be used as a theoretical term that both sensitizes us to certain kinds of differences and helps focus our attention on the social and cultural constructions of sexual differences. If this analysis is correct, then the prevalence of maleness in the curricula ensures the existence of a learning environment that works to the detriment of women.

Classroom Conduct. Curricular problems are compounded by what can broadly be termed classroom conduct. While many adult educators now recognize the importance of using gender-neutral language in texts and in teaching, few recognize that the language, the ways that the language is used, and classroom discourse and conduct are interrelated. For example, the adversarial logic that dominates education institutions alienates many women learners (Moulton, 1983; Schweickart, 1990). This logic typically includes argument and counterargument, posture and pose, as integral parts of a dem-

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onstration of intellectual competence. These behaviors are reflected in and defined by frequent usage of militant, aggressive language, for example, words like win, lose, battle, ammunition, defeat, and compete (Kramerae and Treichler, 1990). As Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule (1986) suggest, these ways of being or conversing are outside of women's usual and preferred ways of reaching understandings and coming to "know" their worlds.

One possible outcome of the mismatch between classroom conduct and women's ways of knowing is silencing. Warren (1990) suggests that silencing may be an adaptation to a situation of perceived powerlessness by the learners, even among women who can display a mastery of knowledge.

With respect to classroom discourse, part of the "problem" for women learners involves their progress toward thinking, reading, writing, and talking "like a man." That is, while acquiring the skills and knowledge needed to demonstrate their intellectual abilities, women may have to "defeminize" their ways of knowing. They may become distant from their preferred, female ways of learning and knowing. In doing so, they become "denatured," that is, they depart from the socially sanctioned norms of what it is to be a woman. Consequently, to be a successful woman learner and to achieve in educational institutions is to somehow not be a woman.

In summary, within educational institutions the criteria for acquiring and demonstrating learning and knowledge of the curricula emphasize a "masculine" mastery. In contrast, criteria that emphasize a display of comfortable familiarity with knowledge and information, acquired through ways more appropriate to women's ways of knowing, would foster the valuing and empowerment of women learners.

Teacher-Learner Interactions. There is a considerable amount of literature indicating that teachers give qualitatively different evaluations and feedback to girls than is given to boys (Stanworth, 1983). The dominant message in elementary and high schools continues into the adult learning environment (Butterwick, Collard, Gray, and Kastner, 1990). Through teacher-learner interactions, women, like girls, learn that their achievements depend on care and compliance with formal rules and that their failures result from inadequate intellectual abilities. The structures of the teacher-learner interactions in essence "teach" learners about male dominance. In other words, differential patterns of social constraints and privileges are experienced by women and men. Who gets to talk, who interrupts, and whose comments are acknowledged all indicate to women learners that the nature of teacher-learner interactions is gender-related (Kramerae and Treichler, 1990; Lewis and Simon, 1986; Spender, 1980a, 1980b).

This differential treatment of men and women is explicit in situations where teachers make comments clearly tied to women's sexuality or allocate rewards to women students who act according to "normal" female gender characteristics. Most pernicious are those instructors who require, and draw on for their own support, the stereotypical "feminine" qualities of

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nurturance and support. Such interactions in some situations might be termed collegial. However, in learning environments within institutional settings, there are power differences between the instructor and the student that cannot be ignored and that can change the tenor of the interactions from that of friendship to that of harassment.

Teacher-learner interactions are further confused by the different expectations of male versus female instructors. Often, there is an expectation that women teachers will be more nurturing. At the same time, they are frequently evaluated by students as less authoritative in terms of content and processes if they perform in ways congruent with women's ways of being and knowing (Backhouse, Harris, Michelle, and Wylie, 1989; Kramerae and Treichler, 1990). In the context of educational institutions dominated by masculine ways of being and thinking, such evaluation disparities are not unexpected.


Although this chapter has dealt only briefly with a complex subject, the aim has been to point out some of the dilemmas in the interrelationship of women, gender, and learning environments that exist in educational institutions. Resolution of these problems can be approached in two ways. We could focus on women learners and the activities required for them to alter their devaluation and disempowerment. But this type of approach is not consistent with the direction of this chapter because the approach suggests that women learners are more likely to accommodate than resist their situation. Moreover, it treats women learners as somehow not "normal" and requiring remediation. In effect, it blames the victims.

Rather than focus on women learners and steps they might take to resolve these issues, we believe that a focus on adult educators is a more promising approach to addressing inequities in the learning environment. Adult educators can choose to ignore the hostile learning environments that women face in institutional settings. Alternately and more usefully, adult educators need to respond to gender-based discrimination at individual, institutional, and societal levels.

As individuals, adult educators must begin to take personal responsibility for understanding the issues and concerns relevant to women learners. In the last twenty years, a myriad of articles, books, and monographs have been written about these issues and concerns. Nonetheless, some educators continue to treat these matters as more appropriate for the coffee room than for the classroom. Educators must begin to examine their own daily behaviors. They must ask of themselves, their colleagues, and their learners the question, "In what ways do I disempower and devalue women learners?" And they must act constructively on the responses.

Obviously, educators can pursue, as part of their programs, content

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and instructional processes that are appropriate to women learners. They can foster dialogue on women's issues at all levels of practice, theory, and research. They can implement techniques that ensure sufficient time and space are available for women to identify their own concerns and develop their own strategies. These recommendations are not simple ones, however. Both adult educators and learners may not be sufficiently aware of gender issues to be able to undertake these processes productively. Further, if not handled sensitively and appropriately, specific dialogue or techniques may inadvertendy suggest that women learners are passive recipients rather than active players in the discourse. Nonetheless, progress can be made and it is worth the effort to try to increase the value and power of women learners (see Lewis and Simon, 1986).

Although the sensitivities and endeavors of individual adult educators are laudable, individual goodwill is not a sufficiently effective response to the current situation of many women learners. Adult educators need to work within institutional learning environments that facilitate their efforts for positive change. Institutions that have a serious concern for women learners must make structural changes to ensure that women and women's issues are considered. They must shift their concern from equal accessibility and opportunity to equal outcomes for women. Such a shift requires that firm policies be established in cooperation with women learners and administrators. Clearly stated goals for the institutions, explicit timelines, and supporting rewards and sanctions are needed.

Individual and institutional efforts can improve institutional learning environments for women. However, within institutional settings such solutions are not totally satisfactory, for the issue of gender is embedded within broader societal structures. Ultimately, changes must extend to all levels of society to ensure that women's learning activities are conducted within the broader context of a society that is supportive and validating. The implementation of such changes is a complex process. It requires adult educators to facilitate and lobby for political changes that empower and value women. Adult educators also must foster the involvement of women in both formal governmental organizations and in the processes of power, control, and authority.


Increasingly, adult educators are becoming familiar with the issues of women, gender, and the learning environment. Certainly, the concerns raised in this chapter are not new. They have existed in Western societies since the mid-1800s when women attempted to enter male-dominated educational institutions. Intellectual understanding of the need for genderneutral learning environments, however, is not the same as creating genderneutral learning environments. The establishment of these environments

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requires us, as adult educators, to accept the responsibility for conducting ourselves in ways that display a genuine commitment to women learners.


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Bartky, S. L. "Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power." In I. Diamond and L. Quinby (eds.), Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

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Griffin, C. Curriculum Theory in Adult and Lifelong Education. London, England: Croom-Helm, 1983.

Hayes, E. R., and Smith, L. "The Impact of Feminism on Adult Education: An Analysis of Trends in Scholarship." In Proceedings of the Annual Adult Education Research Conference. Athens: University of Georgia, 1990.

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Susan Collard is a doctoral student completing her research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. Her research interests are in the areas of feminism and critical theory.

Joyce Stalker is assistant professor of continuing education at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her research interests are in the areas of equity and the sociology of adult education.

Both authors have been regular contributors to and active participants in adult education conferences in Canada and the United States.

July, 2001

-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

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-- Go to Editor's Notes, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Four, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, Chapter Nine, Chapter Ten, or The Index.