Research Showcase: Sam Shields

Sam Shields is a Lecturer in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences. Her book Working-class Female Students’ Experiences of Higher Education: Identities, Choices and Emotions (2021) is part of the Palgrave Studies in Gender and Education series.

The book is premised on the concept of gender as culturally-mediated understandings of femininity and masculinity and the concomitant roles and expectations associated with these. Twelve working-class women, six middle-class women and two working-class men were interviewed from three universities in the North of England. This research was prompted by a desire to understand what factors enabled working-class women to gain entry into university and in what ways this was a different experience to their middle-class counterparts and/or men. Teachers cite ‘feminine’ attributes of conscientiousness, hard-work and compliance for the educational success of young women. Furthermore, the debate on educational underachievement in young men has led to assumptions that all young women are academically successful. Yet this discourse is flawed, when socio-economic backgrounds are considered, working-class girls often underperform in the education system.

Neoliberal educational narratives tend to ignore the structural disadvantages of gender and social class. As individuals are involuntarily placed within society, they are structurally impacted by different sets of ‘enablements’ and ‘constraints’. ‘Internal conversation’ considers how individuals reflexively mediate between structure and agency and provides insights into how meaningful the ‘successful girl’ discourse is to women. Furthermore, gendered insights are offered through Archer’s concepts of ‘morphogenesis’ and ‘morphostasis’. Morphogenesis meaning transformation and change and morphostasis meaning the reproduction of existing structures.

The book illuminates the contextualising role socio-economic background can play in shaping gendered expectations of women being supporters of family or supported by family. The meaning-making of the working-class women undergraduates did not generally reflect the sense of competitive ambition and individualism that is often needed by neoliberal approaches to academic success and careers, which frequently necessitate geographical mobility and a readjustment in balancing the needs of family and friends. For many of the working-class women, the strength of familial bonds and locality-ties meant that educational or career aspirations would never supersede these priorities and commitments. This was a very different experience to the middle-class women undergraduates who were expected by their families to be geographical mobile and were supported in embarking on postgraduate qualifications to facilitate career aspirations. For the few working-class women in the study undertaking morphogenetic life-projects more akin to their middle-class counterparts, they undertook these against a backdrop of an increasing fracturing of their natal familial contexts.

Further Reading:

Archer, M.S. (2003) Structure, agency and the internal conversation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Al-deen, T. J. (2019) Agency in action: young Muslim women and negotiating higher education in Australia, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40 (5), pp. 598-613

Baker, J. (2010) Great expectations and post-feminist accountability: young women living up to the ‘successful girls’ discourse, Gender and Education, 22 (1), pp: 1-15

Jones, S.  & Myhill, D. (2004) ‘Troublesome boys’ and ‘compliant girls’: gender identity and perceptions of achievement and underachievement, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 25 (5), pp. 547-561

Lips, H. M. (2019) Gender the basics, Abingdon: Routledge, 2nd ed.

Pinkett, M. & Roberts, M. (2019) Boys don’t try? Rethinking masculinity in schools, Abingdon: Routledge

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