Women’s Issues in Adult Education

Before beginning a discussion on women’s issues in adult education, it is useful to consider a working definition of adult education. The Informal Education Homepage (Smith, 2007) quotes Darkenwald and Merriam (1982) in stating:

Adult education is concerned not with preparing people for life, but rather with helping people to live more successfully. Thus if there is to be an overarching function of the adult education enterprise, it is to assist adults to increase competence, or negotiate transitions, in their social roles (worker, parent, retiree etc.), to help them gain greater fulfilment in their personal lives, and to assist them in solving personal and community problems.


This essay will examine the varied and complex mechanisms by which the field of adult education today remains insufficient in its inclusion and validation of women and women’s experiences in both practice and theory, thus falling short of its goal of “helping people to live more successfully.” Several different ways in which adult education can be problematic for women will be examined: in needs assessment and program planning, in our understanding of how women learn, through barriers to women’s participation in adult education, in how we define the field of adult education and how we interpret its history, and through historic failure to include women in adult education administration. The essay will conclude with a re-examination of our working definition, and with recommendations on possible remedies for the problems described.

Women make up the majority of adult learners (Spencer, 2006). Still, consideration for women has been consistently left out of the planning process in adult education. This is evidenced through the “deficit model” approach often used by educators, which assumes that learners must “catch up” with the rest of society or with their peers, and potentially fails to consider the diverse knowledge and experience that learners already bring to the learning environment. The result of this failure is that too often, women feel a devaluation and a defeat which sabotages what might otherwise be a useful learning experience. Unfortunately, the literature in the field of adult education has been guilty of perpetuating this deficit model (Hayes & Smith, 1994). Another way in which program planning fails to consider women is through influence from corporate and economic sponsorship on both formal education and human resources development (HRD) (Bierema & Storberg-Walker, 2007; Miles, 1998; Thompson, 1996). The corporate-sponsored model places male-oriented values such as aggression and the seeking of profits and tangible results first. Women’s contributions to the informal economy are devalued.

Adult learning theory has also failed in the depth of its consideration of gender differences in adult learners. Studies on women have tended to observe only variations in the linear “adult life stages” model used in describing men’s development. Some researchers have proposed entirely different ways of looking at the development of women. Caffarella & Olsen (1993) urge the examination of women’s social connectedness and multiplicity of roles, as well as a reconsideration of the presumed linear nature of adult development. They also urge that no theory can explain the full breadth of women’s experiences (this is likely true for men too).

Adult education has also unfortunately failed to consider barriers to women’s participation, whether these barriers come in the form of role conflicts, economic or technological problems, or larger “macro” level issues. The conflicting roles women play, e.g. as mother, wife, community member, worker, and learner, have the potential to create conflicts that distract from learning (Home, 1998). Women face economic barriers due to lower earnings and technological barriers attributable to a “digital divide” (lesser access to the technology needed to successfully participate in education) (Kramarae, 2001). Finally, adult educators must remain vigilant against the “macro-level” attitudinal barriers such as reification, vilification, and subjugation (Stalker, 1998).

The professionalization of the field of adult education has also been problematic. Women were very involved as educators and as learners in the days when the field was first conceived as a profession (Thompson, 1996). As the field became professionalized and journals and conferences devoted to it began to appear, we began to see “the narrowing, over time, of the field’s notion of what constituted significant adult education and who were qualified adult educators (Hugo, 1990).” The “circle effect”, in which women were not included in the circles of men who decided what was important in adult education, saw to it that women were excluded from leadership positions in the field and that its history be interpreted from a male perspective.

It is possible and desirable for the adult education practitioner and researcher to recognize and accommodate for gender issues, paying attention to the problems described here. Doing so will bring us closer to meeting our working definition of “helping people live more successfully.” Inspired learning experiences can be planned which incorporate feminist pedagogies (Tisdell, 1998), including transformational, constructivist and situated learning. Potential barriers to women’s learning can be accommodated. The adult educator should plan ahead for possible role conflicts and develop the openness and the skills necessary to identify and assist in working around these conflicts. Steps should be taken to reduce financial barriers through aid programs, and technological barriers reduced through accessible technical help. Adult educators should remain vigilant in identifying and rectifying within themselves and within those in their sphere of influence evidence of the “macro-level” barriers mentioned here. Finally, it is imperative that adult education researchers begin to recognize and incorporate research and practice which not only includes or focuses on women, but also validates the informal, non-formal, grassroots and social learning experiences that are so often women-focused or women-driven:

By being physically accessible and philosophically open to the new paradigms proposed by groups such as environmentalists, feminists, indigenous peoples, adult education can be strengthened in its ability to challenge neo-liberal ascendancy and retain an autonomous self-definition that does not fall into the easy traps posed by credentializing and formalizing a field that is necessarily and preferably broad, diffuse and diverse (Miles, 1998).


Bierema, L. L., & Storberg-Walker, J. (2007). Tracing HRD’s Rational Masculine Roots: Feminist Alternatives for aMore Mindful HRD. Adult Education Research Conference Proceedings. Retrieved November 5, 2007, from http://www.adulterc.org/Proceedings/2007/Proceedings/Bierema_Storberg-Walker.pdf

Caffarella, R., & Olson, S. K. (1993). Psychosocial Development of Women: A Critical Review of the Literature. Adult Education Quarterly, 43(3), 125-151.

Home, A. M. (1998). Predicting Role Conflict, Overload and Contagion in Adult Women University Students with Families and Jobs. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(2), 85-97.

Hugo, J. M. (1990). Adult education history and the issue of gender: toward a different history of adult education in America. Adult Education Quarterly, 41(1), 1-16.

Kramarae, C. (2001). Excerpts from The Third Shift: Women Learning Online. Retrieved November 11, 2007 from http://www.uoregon.edu/~cheris/third%20shift.pdf

Miles, A. (1998). Learning from the Women’s Movement in the Neo-Liberal Period. In Learning for Life (pp. 250-258). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Smith, M. K. (2007). Introducing Adult Education. The Informal Education Homepage. Retrieved November 20, 2007, from http://www.infed.org/lifelonglearning/b-adedgn.htm

Spencer, B. (2006). The Purposes of Adult Education: A Short Introduction. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Stalker, J. (1998). Women in the History of Adult Education: Misogynist Responses to our Participation. In Learning for Life (pp. 238-249). Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing.

Thompson, M. (1996). An historical and linguistic analysis of women in the histories and the early literature of adult education, 1926-1962 : toward a balanced historiography of the field. (Doctoral dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University, 2001).

Tisdell, E. J. (1998). Poststructural Feminist Pedagogies: The Possibilities and Limitations of Feminist Emancipatory Adult Learning Theory and Practice. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(3), 139-156.

3 thoughts on “Women’s Issues in Adult Education

  1. Greetings Ms. Harp

    I discovered your blog not long ago and I am very interested in the information and research you are sharing here. I have a few questions I would like to ask you – would you agree to speak to me on the phone (5mn maximum:) I would like to cite you for an article I am writing for school (being an adult learner myself:)
    Many thanks in advance for your feed-back.
    Anne Dronnier
    in Washington D.C.

  2. hi i have just read your blog and plan to quote from it. if that is ok?

    it is for a thesis on women adult learners. the thesis title is The Experience of Learning: A matrure Students Perspective; and the focus is on a group of women ‘returners’ to education and their experience.

    also when was it written. i cannot find a date.

    if you need to know more do not hesitate to contact me.
    many thanks in advance


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