Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Education and the "Woman Question"

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Education and the "Woman Question"

Article excerpt

CPA Award for Distinguished Contribution to Psychology as a Profession (1996) / Prix pour contribution remarquable a la psychologie en tant que profession (1996)


The "woman question" refers to the nineteenth century debate about whether the rights and freedoms available to men should be extended to women. The intent of this paper is to explore the expression of this debate within the context of the post-secondary education system. Selected examples of the historical arguments in support of the exclusion of women are outlined (i.e., women are lower on the evolutionary scale; reproductive harm; loss of femininity) followed by a more contemporary analysis of gender differences in graduate education with a particular focus on access, graduation rates (i.e., attrition) and time to completion of graduate degrees. The "chilly climate" construct is presented as a possible explanation for the alleged gender differential on these latter two variables. According to this model, the structures and operation of academic institutions embody significant elements of systemic discrimination and micro-inequities which disadvantage women. A series of six studies are described in which various aspects of the chilly climate (i.e., mentoring and supervision, sexual harassment) are explored especially in terms of the effects on attrition and time to completion. Paradoxically, although the research reveals a failure of educational institutions to fully resolve the woman question, women continue to operate effectively under conditions of inequity. Despite general dissatisfaction with the quality of their educational experience, and the concomitant experience of significant life stress, women did not withdraw in larger numbers nor take longer to complete their degrees than did men. The paper concludes with a few modest speculations about the future constructions and deconstructions of this debate.


In the discussion to follow women's experiences in academe are explored in terms of the historical rationales for keeping women out of the academy, gender differences in access, attrition and the time to complete graduate degree requirements, and the "chilly climate" explanation for these differences. A series of research studies in which gender differences in graduation rate (i.e., attrition) and the time taken to complete all graduate degree requirements are examined in the context of the chilly climate hypothesis.

Historical rationales

The "woman question" refers to the nineteenth century debate about whether the rights and freedoms available to men should be extended to women, a debate triggered in part by the entry of women into the labour market (Fee, 1976). Among the myriad rights and freedoms at issue was whether women should be allowed to participate in educational institutions on the same footing as men. Historically women were denied access, a decision justified by the view that women were intellectually inferior.

This alleged deficit in intellectual capacity underscored the obvious foolishness of exposing women to the form of education offered to men but some forms of training or learning were regarded as appropriate. Rousseau, for example, argued persuasively in 1762 that:

Women's entire education should be planned in relation to men. To please men, to be useful to them, to win their love and respect, to raise them as children, care for them as adults, counsel and console them, make their lives sweet and pleasant: these are women's duties in all ages and these are what they should be taught. (cited in Griffiths, 1976).

In early nineteenth century Canada, Rousseau's advice was reflected in the curriculum offered in Mrs. Cockburn's (private) Girls' School. The pupils were taught plain and fancy needle work, drawing and painting on velvet along with dancing, music, flower and cardwork (Griffiths, 1976).

The assertion that a small brain equals a small mind held sway well into the nineteenth century, elephants notwithstanding. …

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