Change Strategies for Integrating Women's Knowledge into Social Work Curricula

Article excerpt

There is little argument that social work curricula should reflect the range of conceptual viewpoints and theoretical perspectives that are germane to the profession. Social workers' effectiveness depends on the growth of knowledge within the profession and allied disciplines. Given this, as well as the demographic composition of schools of social work and the clients served by social workers, the problem-solving stance of the profession, its philosophy of social justice, the development of contemporary applied theories, and Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) mandates (1992, 1994), social work more than any other profession or discipline should reflect the integration of women's knowledge in its curricula. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that is not the case (Figueira-McDonough, Netting, & Nichols-Casebolt, 1998; Hooyman, 1994).

Reamer (1994) contends that social work has constructed a body of practice knowledge whose common denominator is sensitivity to individually based concerns and the environmental forces that affect them. However, while there is increasing awareness of the importance of gender integration, social work knowledge continues to be dominated by traditional social science theories in which women's experiences are neglected. The social sciences were developed for the most part by a homogeneous group of white, middle-class, western men who pursued their search for knowledge by building on shared assumptions and observations. Since assumptions shape observations and observations are understood in terms of assumptions, the process constituted a closed circle within which theories were articulated and evidence for confirmation was sought (Zalk & Gordon-Kelter, 1992). Therefore, what passes for universal knowledge reflects the experiences and actions of some men.

However, simply adding sex as a variable would fail to restructure disciplines that were not designed to study women. Since these approaches reflect men's experiences and interpretations, the strategy serves mainly to compare women to a male standard. Inasmuch as theories are supposed to reflect experiences and not the other way around, conceptual approaches that do not include women's experiences cannot claim universality. Gilligan's (1982) critique of Kohlberg's moral development research illustrates this point. However, propositions about the stages of moral development emerged from male experiences, and validation for these propositions was obtained from male samples. When Kohlberg's program of research was extended to samples of women, it led to the "universal" conclusion that females were less morally developed than males.

Amid this neglect of women's experiences in the construction of knowledge is an increasing awareness and demand for the incorporation of women's content into social work curricula. However, too often this is likely to mean simply adding a unit on "women's issues" in each course or requiring students to take a special course on women's issues within the curriculum. While these alternatives give students the opportunity to be exposed to knowledge and perspectives not otherwise easily available, they cannot contribute to a balanced curriculum. In fact, they reinforce the idea that women are an atypical subgroup and that their knowledge is not integral to the substance of the profession. In addition, when women's content is relegated to a separate unit or specialized course, there is the likelihood that faculty will continue to pursue and teach "traditional" knowledge within other courses or sections of courses--traditional knowledge that is based on limited and selective samples in which a majority of humans (women) are treated as special cases or exceptions to the norm.

Gender integration seeks to bring gender to the center of the curriculum by examining critically how gender (and other attributes such as race and ethnicity) influences knowledge development and ways of knowing. …