Professor Sue Jackson. / Photo: Sue Jackson's archives.

It is still a man’s world the women learn to live in

Interview. Women can, and do, learn to live in a man’s world”, says Professor Sue Jackson who has made a lifelong career within lifelong learning and gender. Before stepping into retirement, she encourages to give up the assumption that the gender is no longer an issue in education.


The current emphasis across Europe on learning for work and to enhance the knowledge economy fails to take into account the gendered nature of the workforce and of the unpaid labour still largely undertaken by women, says Sue Jackson, professor of lifelong learning and gender, just days before her retirement from the office.

− There are still far fewer women than men in the more highly paid fields of engineering and in many of the ‘hard’ sciences, and far fewer men than women in the lower paid caring professions.

Education is a contributor to wider inequalities

This has far-reached implications, reminds Jackson. The sharp gender gap in pay and the fact that women’s careers are being interspersed with caring responsibilities cause that women are likely to retire on much lower pensions than men.

And in this picture education does not, like nothing else, exist in a vacuum.

On the contrary education is both a reflection of and contributor to wider inequalities.  Women can, and do, learn to live in a man’s world, but it is a world we enter as migrants.

− Feminist theory demonstrates that what is valued within universities is oriented towards those qualities associated with masculinity. Education operates around traditional binaries that privilege the objective over the subjective; the rational over the emotional; and quantitative over qualitative, professor Jackson says.

The need to shake the ways of thinking in educational institutions

Jackson argues that educational institutions, especially higher educational institutions, are deemed to be objective and neutral, although they are very far from it.

− ‘Science’ is prioritised over the arts; competition between students and institutions is valued more than collaboration; marking and assessment is assumed to be bias free.

When we discuss gender equality in learning, Jackson asks: ‘equal to what?’.

− Do we teach girls and women that they can succeed on male terms? Can we develop new pedagogies to enhance feminist approaches to learning and teaching?

Jackson is currently researching how marginalised groups can learn to transgress dominant paradigms through the border crossings of geography, religion and culture −  finding ways not just to be, but also to challenge the taken-for-granted spaces we all inhabit.

Widening participation

Jackson herself left school at 15. She began her higher education as a mature student at the Open University, and went on for Master’s in women’s studies, and a PhD in women and education.

− My experience of learning as a mature student has resulted in a passionate commitment to widening participation, social justice and to part-time, non-traditional students. It is not so much about bringing non-traditional learners into the academy, as important as that is, but is about widening and deepening the ways in which all students can feel a sense of belonging and participation in higher education.

What learning is and who counts as a learner? To go beyond the normalised understandings, Jackson argues that we need more critical spaces in which ‘expert knowledge’ can be questioned.

− Recognising that teachers learn and learners teach; and that new knowledges can be created from these experiences.

This can also transform the thinking of those who occupy more dominant positionings.

The gender still is an issue

Let’s leave the murky sides of presistent gender gaps aside for a short moment. Professor Sue Jackson sees something very positive about the trends she has witnessed recently at her field. The most delighting of them is the general increase in interest in feminist approaches.

− It is heartening that lifelong learning and gender has now become a well-researched and theorised area, she says.

However, as she is stepping into retirement, she finds herself deeply concerned that the issues which affected her as a young working-class woman continue to affect so many others. Policy makers still do not pay sufficient attention to the findings of research on gender and lifelong learning, she reminds.

− There is often an assumption that gender is no longer an issue. The playing field may appear to be levelling, but it is still very much a male-dominated game in which women are expected to participate.

Sue Jackson

Sue Jackson is Pro-Vice Master for Learning and Teaching at Birkbeck, University of London, where she is Professor of Lifelong Learning and Gender.

Born as a girl in a working-class family made her learn that there were only some opportunities available to her, whilst others were so far beyond her reach that they were unimaginable.

Jackson has devoted her research career for studying lifelong learning and gender, especially the intersections of gender, social class, ages and other identities, as well as the impact this has on our learning.


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