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Gendered choices: Listening to older women learners 18 th May 2007 Presenter: Jan Etienne.

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Presentation on theme: "Gendered choices: Listening to older women learners 18 th May 2007 Presenter: Jan Etienne."— Presentation transcript:

1 Gendered choices: Listening to older women learners 18 th May 2007 Presenter: Jan Etienne

2 Introduction The workshop draws on key findings of an ESRC funded National research project into Lifelong learning and the Womens Institutes (WI) - the largest organization for women in the UK. The workshop illustrates the type of lifelong learning taking place inside the WI and questions the nature of choice open to the women.

3 Background: Methodology 11 interviews conducted with: WI Advisers; Chairmen of 5 case study Federations; NFWI officers 15 Focus Groups held within: regional Federations involving 96 WI members from 24 local womens institutes within the 5 regions. Questionnaires completed: 63 (out of a possible 70) completed by Federation Chairmen and an additional 155 completed by ordinary WI members.

4 Who are the WI women? The vast majority of Federation Chairmen surveyed in the study described themselves as white and middle class. Over 75% of this group of women were aged over 65 and came from largely educated backgrounds with degrees and diplomas (many former teachers and civil servants). Members gave the major reason for joining the WI as: to meet friends.

5 Introducing Lifelong Learning Lifelong learning includes informal learning and is the idea that learning can and does occur beyond the formal structure of an educational institution and occurs throughout one's lifetime.

6 What is informal learning? The learning that takes place in social networks The learning that helps to improve quality of life in later years The learning that acknowledges the wealth of experience and knowledge that older people are able to offer. In an ageing society, women in particular, have a significant role to play.

7 Celebrating learning There has been increasing global political interest in the idea of learning societies and learning organisations, which seeks to reflect a commitment to encouraging and celebrating learning (Field. J and Leicester, M. 2000 )

8 WI roles and Activities Within the social networks of the WI the women participate in lifelong learning via a variety of roles including: Participating in WI meetings as: President; Secretary, Treasurer, Event Organizer In many cases (in order to prevent closure of a WI ) women find themselves being nominated for such roles on the very first day of joining the WI

9 Joining the WI – to meet friends

10 Informal learning – Impact on quality of life The warm welcome from the WI plays a pivotal role in transitional life changes most interestingly from village newcomer to WI President. Informal Learning inside the WI was clearly having an impact on quality of life.

11 Coping with the help of the WI In the study women talked about going through separation; divorce; loss and bereavement and how the learning experiences within the WI helped them cope at a time when they were frightened and alone.

12 Isolation The majority of women in the study also came from largely rural, isolated areas of the country. Within focus groups the women revealed how isolated they felt and the practical barriers they faced to accessing learning.

13 Obstacles to learning at a critical stage in the life course Listening to the voices of older women participating in the study demonstrated the hurdles and obstacles to learning faced by an important group of women at a critical stage in the life course. Accessing transport and the fear of going out at night were particular concerns.

14 Escape from the family Several women indicated that the WI was often a lifeline in escaping from an identity located entirely in the home. Respondents spoke about escape from the family, gaining independence, and freedom to start thinking about other things.

15 Following husbands Within focus groups the women revealed how isolated they felt when relocating to new areas, particularly when following their husbands to new employment opportunities. In such cases the women had little choice over where, when and how they lived. My husband was transferred overseas and we spent 10 years living abroad

16 Wedded to the WI In order to engage in a learning community, the women have had to stick with what they know and with whom they know in order to maximise their quality of life. Even when they are freed from a life of caring responsibilities, they become wedded to the WI, its homemaking and family centred activities and its priority for caring for its wider membership.

17 What choice for the WI women? For a seemingly affluent group of women, even in retirement, choices are largely influenced by family responsibilities, money and networks of support

18 In control of learning lives? On the one hand the research shows the women to be privileged, white, educated, middle class, confident and strong willed, living largely in rural areas and in control of their learning lives.

19 What choice in lifelong learning terms? But, in lifelong learning terms, very little choice or independence exists for this group of older learners.

20 References Field J & Leicester M (2000) Lifelong Learning, Education Across the Lifespan, Routledge Im suddenly somebody Birkbeck Institute for Lifelong Learning (BILL) Seminar: 27 th April 2006 Like minded people, BILL seminar, 6 th July 2006 Learning Citizenship: Lifelong Learning, Community and the Womens Institutes. ESRC funded research. Project website:

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