Working-class women study social science degrees: remembering enablers and detractors

Liz Beddoe

Over the last three years I  have had the pleasure of working with a small group of Australian feminist researchers undertaking a feminist memory work study.

In this  second article about this collaborative project, we report on a feminist memory work project conducted with 11 working-class women in Australia. Participants responded to the question: what helps and hinders working-class women study social science degrees?

We explored the role of  ‘enlightened witnesses’ “in higher education, in the context of hidden injuries of both class and gender, and an awareness of cultural changes outlined earlier. This included people, policies and practices that recognised past injustice and encouraged women from working-class backgrounds to succeed in higher education” (Fraser et al, 2015, p.3).

The women confirmed that to succeed at university, they needed opportunities, resources, support and encouragement. We called these enablers and considered the role of ‘enlightened witnesses’ [Miller, 1997. The essential role of an enlightened witness in society. Retrieved from]. Hindering the possibility of university success were detractors of many forms including inadequate resources and social conventions that discouraged the women from study. We describe saboteurs as undermining people and forces that the women had to overcome.

We found that enlightened witnesses, broadly conceptualised, go some way but not all, to mitigating detractors and saboteurs that continue to hamper fair and meritocratic access to tertiary education.

You can read the full article here : Fraser, H., Michell, D., Beddoe, L., & Jarldorn, M. (2016). Working-class women study social science degrees: remembering enablers and detractors. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-14. doi:10.1080/07294360.2015.1137885

In our first article ‘Planting a Seed’ we highlighted  the benefits of “social workers joining with service users, and others with whom they work in the community, to support their aspirations, including those relating to higher education. It also con- firms the need to ensure that social work educators recognise the ongoing negative messages that can be conveyed to, and about, students from low SES backgrounds, especially mature-aged single mothers. Positive (and negative) messages can be received well before even an intention to enter higher education is fully formed. Having people believe in their ability and right to study – no matter their age or background – mattered to the women, from initially nurturing aspirations through to entering a programme and on through to completion” (Jarldorn et al, 2015, p.930).

There are still free copies of the first article here:

Jarldorn, M., Beddoe, L., Fraser, H., & Michell, D. (2015). Planting a seed: encouraging service users towards educational goals. Social Work Education, 34(8), 921-935. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1098607


About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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4 Responses to Working-class women study social science degrees: remembering enablers and detractors

  1. David McNabb says:

    Great looking article Liz, very timely as our numbers of mature students dwindle in the face of increasing financial barriers to a 4 year social work degree.

    • socialworknz says:

      Thanks David. The women we talked to faced so many economic barriers going to university and in many western countries rising tuition and burgeoning student loans are reducing participation, especially of mature part time students.

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