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History Table of Contents
1993 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1993
The Challenge of Lifelong Learning in an Era of Global Change

Building a Learning Culture

ELIZABETH PARR-JOHNSTON,
President, Mount Saint Vincent University

We know that Canada's future success hinges on developing in this information, knowledge-based society, its intellectual capital – women and men capable of critical thinking and creative and innovative approaches to tomorrow's issues and challenges.

In building the requisite learning culture, we must recognize that even today men and women in the same classroom will not have the same quality of learning experience. Many aspects of our culture, starting from early childhood, and our educational institutions, result in an educational system which continues to be male-oriented and includes implicit forms of exclusion, despite massive changes and despite an undergraduate university population in which women now represent about 55 per cent of undergraduate students.

Let me give you a quick overview.

A 1993 Canadian book titled, Lifting a Ton of Feathers, says that the mere admission of women to most institutions has not meant the elimination of subtle forms of exclusion or mistreatment of them.

The message here is that it's more than just numbers. Getting women into institutions is a beginning. It's necessary, but it's not sufficient to the achievement we need. It's more than just numbers; it's the quality of the learning experience. This is for the benefit of both the institutions, the individuals, but more importantly for Canada as a nation.

Since 1975, we know that women have increased their participation in university education and in the professions. In some cases, the rates have been fairly high. Women have entered non-traditional fields in areas of universities and the changes are occurring differently across the universities. There's a new focus on women's studies, a fairly new field, and research and the participation of women in research; a focus on women's issues, political activism, and at the extreme certainly political correctness.

Is it an economic or is it a social issue?

I submit it's an economic issue, because if women don't have access to education, they don't have access to the economic realities that will be important to them as individuals and to Canada as a nation. What we need to do is focus on system changes that will bring some of this about.

The situation affecting women's learning experience relates to culture and socialization. It has to do with our culture and the socialization of women. It has to do with being told that little girls should play with dolls and little boys play with erector sets, or mechano sets, or whatever they are today – Lego, I guess. I gave my daughter a Lego set and it paid off very well.

If young women are told they have to be nurses and they cannot be doctors, they will grow up believing it and we're into remedial action. So we need to start from square one. We have systemic biases, not just in the university education system but in society overall and certainly in our educational system starting at pre-kindergarten and going all the way through Ph.D. and subsequent academic careers.

We certainly have gender-based standards and values. If you have an educational system which says students are expected to go to university immediately after high school and they are expected to be full-time students, you exclude a large number of people who desperately need higher education but who have not, for one reason or another, been able to get it earlier in their lives. We need to challenge that.

Do women in education, particularly in university, meet the same expectations and receive the same encouragement? The answer is no.

I'd like to focus on access to education and that is, part-time versus full-time; traditional versus non- traditional students.

It's more than just funds that limit women's access to education. If, for one reason or another they have family responsibilities, or have had to go to work, or have not had access to the kind of development and educational experience which allows them to enter university immediately, they may not be able to enter at all.

Part of what we try to do at Mount Saint Vincent is look at these barriers to women. How do we overcome that? If the student has not had that mathematical training, if they've not had that scientific training, are there some transitional programs and experiential learning that we can give credit for or facilitate in order to get them into university where indeed success will ultimately come.

We know that differences exist in levels of achievement – women versus men; in enrolment proportions, particularly in different programs. In the composition of faculty, women are not represented in terms of university faculty; certainly are not in terms of full professors. A small proportion of faculty are female.

If role models are important to women in the educational environment, then we have to look at these issues. You may be surprised to know that only 12 per cent of the senior administration of Canadian universities is female.

When it comes to the disciplines, women are disproportionately misrepresented in high numbers in education and low numbers in engineering.

From 1985 through 1989, women were about half the students entering medicine and receiving degrees. Similarly in law. We know, though, that in medicine women go into family practice, dermatology and physiology. They don't go into neurosurgery and they don't go into cardiovascular, so the overall numbers again mask some vast discrepancies. We also know that in law women tend be trained as lawyers, but they don't tend to remain as professional lawyers. they tend to go into other areas.

Let's look more specifically at engineering. If you look at the statistics from 1985 to 1989, you find that female enrollment in engineering is declining in a period when we need more engineers and more scientists.

Similarly, if we look at engineering and applied sciences we see an increase through 1985-86. But since then, the decline in enrollment is declining and it's declining even more rapidly in math and physical sciences. And this happened at a time when overall student enrollment increased 37 per cent.

As a percentage of university graduates, women tend not to go on proportionately to higher education. Yes its improved, but if you look at women as a percentage of doctoral candidates from 1971 through 1987, they are just more than 20 of doctoral candidates, as opposed to today's 55 per cent of undergraduate students who are female. What's happening is that women opt not to go to get masters and, more importantly, doctoral degrees.

Let's examine some of the factors affecting women's educational experience. Women in general have a more difficult time amassing or having access to funding to attend university and they tend, as individuals, to be more reticent to incur student loans. So, there's an issue there.

But access is more than access to dollars. Women still face barriers in entering higher education and in entering particular fields, particularly women who are not directly out of high school.

We have a large percentage of the Canadian population who are out there who have not had a university or a more advanced education and yet even today over half of our new jobs require the equivalent of a university education. And that's going to become more pronounced.

Do we write the masses off, or do we do something to make our education system more hospitable, more user friendly to these students? I submit the latter.

Support and counselling, we find, is extremely important to women in their education. Women look for a supportive nurturing environment. We have to have a peer support system that allows women to talk to other women and say, yes, it's difficult, but you can succeed and you're expected to succeed.

Encouragement to enter non-traditional fields is an issue. We run a summer camp in math and computers for Grade nine girls in Cape Breton. These are girls who never thought math was fun. Many of them missed a critical juncture. We're going back and we're introducing these concepts to them and letting them know their career choices many years down the line hinge on the choices they make now.

We tend to think it's only women who are affected, but there are many groups out there who have been largely excluded from higher education and it's more than just funding.

We need educational systems that allow for part-time, as well as full-time learners that are hospitable to mature learners; the ability to offer a degree in accounting, as we do, to a man in the military services who studies at the bottom of a submarine. And yet he's learning. He will get his degree next year and he's done it all by distance education, using a VCR, printed materials and an 800 telephone number.

We have a large body of research that suggests that graduates of women's universities go on to succeed at disproportionately high rates. It doesn't mean a women's university is the right model, but an alternate model. It gives us a message for our educational system overall. It says that women respond to role models, they respond to encouragement and expectations; they respond to leadership opportunities.

Life experiences are really important to us at the Mount, because our classrooms have both men and women in them. Eighty-five per cent of students are women, 15 per cent male. But we also have women of all ages from 70 years or more of age on down and they learn from each other.

Group co-operative learning again, instead of an authoritarian mode, tends to be extremely important – and a personalized environment. And what it leads to is self-esteem and to women's knowledge that they have the ability, they have the right to make choices for themselves.

To achieve our full potential as a nation, we must design a far more inclusive learning culture, where all qualified participants are welcomed, challenged and empowered towards achievement in learning and life. I submit that's our challenge.