Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Jackie Stalker and Susan Prentice, eds.
Illusion of Inclusion: Women in Post-secondary Education.
Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1998. 220 pp. $22.95 paper (1895686172)

Increased participation by women in institutions of post-secondary education in the latter half of the twentieth century can only be described as phenomenal. Between 1960 and 1985 enrolment by women in university undergraduate programs increased steadily, and by 1988, women’s enrolment had surpassed men’s. In 1993-94, the proportion of women in the 18-21 age group enrolled full-time in university undergraduate programs in Canada was 20%; the comparable figure for men was 14%. Since 1976, women’s full-time enrolment at community colleges in Canada has exceeded men’s and more women students have always participated part-time at community colleges (Statistics Canada, 1990, 1996).

Given these figures, I am rather bewildered why a book published in 1998 on women in post-secondary education would begin with the statements “Although women purportedly have been admitted to higher education in Canada for over a century, their participation has never been equal to that of men. Numerous studies have shown that women lag behind men on all measures of formal status” (p.12) [emphasis added]. The tone for subsequent chapters in this volume is set in the introduction by the editors with sweeping statements such as “whether in universities or colleges, the traditional curriculum regularly ignores women in course content and omits relevant scholarship by women and minority researchers” (p.22) and “most campuses have formal commitments to gender equality and human rights. . . . Nevertheless, both the evidence and the case studies in this anthology show that nothing has really changed” (p.24).

A central problem with this book is the uneven, and at times, misleading use of research and the employment of dated statistics to support claims such as these. For example, research by Gillett (1991) on the history of women at McGill University and Stewart (1990) on the experiences of women at the University of British Columbia in the first half of the twentieth century is used to suggest that today “many women who excelled as undergraduates remember overtly discouraging advice from their supervisors and professors” (p.17). Although the Women in Post-Secondary Education Project (WIPSE) began in 1992 and submissions for this volume were reviewed in 1993, a 1998 publication date should have required that statistics and references be updated. However, even by employing statistics no later than 1991, the questions underlying the majority of contributions in this book could have been framed in ways that both reflect the opportunities and progress of women in institutions of higher education and problematize the intricacies of inequalities that continue to exist. Rather than using results of small scale studies to generalize that women undergraduates “make the grade against the odds” (Blackwell, this volume) and that graduate study is “still a man’s world” (Vezina, this volume), questions such as the following could have been posed: Given that women have been the majority in undergraduate education since 1988, how does this influence the day to day lives of female (and male) students on university campuses? How have greater numbers of female students in various disciplines and faculties influenced epistemological and methodological approaches to teaching and learning?

Several questions and studies about access to graduate programs could be generated by first examining the gap in full-time graduate enrolments between women and men. Since 1983-84, whereas part-time graduate student enrolment by women has increased considerably, participation by men has been static. Has increased access to part-time graduate programs led to increased part-time participation by women? Is acceptance into full-time graduate programs – including access to scholarships – still biased towards males? To what extent does access to full and part-time graduate study vary by discipline?

Fortunately, not all of the contributions to this volume fall prey to essentializing arguments and overgeneralizations. Three, in particular, warrant mention. Margaret Gillett provides an (albeit all too brief) historical overview of the four phases of women in the university. Exclusion of women on university campuses (pre-nineteenth century) in Phase I was followed by reluctant permission granted to women students and to a much lesser extent faculty to participate in university life (Phase II). Phase III began around 1950 and was characterized by escalating participation and completion rates by women. Hiring and promotion of women faculty members remained slow during this period, but gains in the form of increasing recognition of the need for pay equity and services such as day care were made. Finally, the current Phase IV is portrayed as an era that, while offering considerable opportunities for women to reach their full potential as members of the university community, also poses formidable challenges, not the least of which may be exhaustion by women faculty.

In an essay on “vocal presence,” Patricia Hughes highlights how instructors in contemporary classrooms are challenged to ensure inclusion by dominant and marginalized groups. Acknowledging that “there are, of course, no simple answers,” she offers several concrete recommendations, including recognizing the existence of multiple intra- and inter-individual identities represented in the classroom setting, specifying expected classroom conduct in course syllabi, and co-constructing curricula with class participants.

Finally, by drawing on sociological and feminist theories while recounting her own story and the stories of those around her, Eunice Marie Fisher Lavell provides an engaging portrayal of the experiences of working-class mothers attending university. Her richly textured description of limited resources, competing demands, multiple urgencies, and numerous inflexible and insensitive systems within the university (e.g., Student Aid a.k.a. “Student Aggravation”) which compel working-class mothers to survive and thrive through sheer determination and employment of creative (and often community based) strategies, serves to illustrate the complexities of inclusion and exclusion in post-secondary settings.

It should be clear that I do not agree with the assessment by editors Stalker and Prentice that “women’s inclusion is real in only one area. As tuition-paying customers seeking education and training, as well as degrees, certificates and diplomas, women are welcomed and their dollars are appreciated. In all other areas, women’s inclusion is token, simulated, and definitely illusory” (p.29). Rather, I prefer Gillett’s conclusion that although women in the twenty-first century have enormous potential to participate in all aspects of post-secondary life, it will require that “we actively stake our claims for it” (p.46).

Statistics Canada. (1996). Education in Canada, 1995. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada. Catalogue 81-229-XPB.

Statistics Canada. (1996). Women in Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Supply and Services Canada. Catalogue 89-503E.

Lesley Andres
Centre for Policy Studies in Higher Education and Training
University of British Columbia
March-April 2000
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