Femininity, academic discipline and achievement: Women undergraduates’ accounts whilst studying either a STEM or arts/humanities discipline at a high-performing British university
Stentiford, Lauren Jessica
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
In the academic year 1996/1997, the number of women undergraduates enrolled on degree courses at UK universities for the first time in history surpassed the number of men (Dyhouse, 2006). Year-on-year, statistics continue to indicate that women outnumber men in higher education (HE). Feminist scholars have noted that, as a consequence, women’s participation in HE has in recent years been constructed as an unequivocal ‘success story’, with women widely regarded as both outnumbering and outperforming men (Dyhouse, 2006; Leathwood and Read, 2009). This thesis seeks to trouble the notion that women really are the educational ‘winners’ by virtue of their gains at the point of access by highlighting some enduring gender inequalities within HE – that is, women's uneven experiences of the cultures and structures of HE by gender, class, ethnicity and discipline. Using a qualitative case study design, this thesis seeks to explore the everyday ‘lived’ experience of a small number of women undergraduates studying either a science, technology, engineering or mathematical (STEM) discipline or arts/humanities discipline at one high-performing British university. Using a combination of focus group interviews and 14 longitudinal case studies of individual women (comprising participant-kept diaries, in-depth interviews and email interviews), this study seeks to provide a detailed understanding of women's lives both inside and outside of their course and their negotiations of academic achievement, disentangling some of the complex processes involved in identifying with, and specializing in a discipline over time. In this study, a ‘patchwork’ theoretical approach has been adopted in order to conceptualise women’s identities, incorporating insights from feminist post-structural theory, new material feminisms and Becky Francis’ (2012) concept of gender monoglossia and heteroglossia as re-worked from Bakhtin (1981, 1987). This study indicates that women's gender and academic identities are intricately interwoven and often complex, contradictory and precarious – with women differently taking up and discarding dominant discourses of the ‘ideal’ and ‘successful’ university student in line with their distinct classed, ethnic and ‘aged’ backgrounds. This study also highlights the role that academic disciplines play in shaping women’s lived university experience both inside and outside of formalized learning contexts. In particular, the data suggests that the discourses of academic success open to the women were uneven, and powerfully shaped by the science/arts divide. Yet this study also highlights how the high-performing university was constructed by many women as a positive and freeing space, offering up a variety of discourses of student success.
Economic and Social Research Council