Daniel Schugurensky, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

Questions and Answers on Adult Education

Edited by Daniel Schugurensky

This site includes questions and answers on Adult Education that were written by students in the course 'Outline of Adult Education' at OISE/UT. The questions are first raised in class by the students themselves. Then they organize in teams in order to research and answer them. New entries are added regularly. This website is intended to provide information about the field to new students and to those who have a general interest in Adult Education. Anyone is welcome to submit a question and/or answer.


How can feminist pedagogy promote the empowerment of women?

BShehna Jabbar, Janice Jones, Anu Kashyap and Magdalena Rydzy (OISE/UT)

The history of a social movement can shed light not only on its past contributions but also help us understand our present and give us some perspective on the direction to take in the future. Empowerment is a social experience that motivates people to transform their social location and effect the environment around them. It can be seen in examples such as the national and international women’s movements and the struggles of immigrant workers. Faced with war in the 20th century one of the shifts within Canada included women doing work that was traditionally considered male domain. They did this out of need to ensure the survival of their families.  When the men returned, women realized that they had a strong contribution to make to society and were determined to be equal and active members. Absolute conviction or simply a strong desire to make change may have motivated women to begin this process of empowerment.  “The roots of empowerment lie in the multifaceted efforts of many of those who experienced domination to achieve self-determination and to free themselves from external control through revolution, other less violent forms of resistance and nationalism” (Stein, 1997, pg. 54). 


Empowerment can be a “strategy designed to redistribute power and resources” or “is a social action process that promotes participation of people, organizations, and communities in gaining control over their lives in their community and larger society” (Stein, 1997, pgs. 1 & 7).  The discussion of empowerment in this paper will focus on women. The paper will assume that women are unequal in power. Solutions and strategies will be presented on how women can overcome the barriers and practice empowerment. The social structures or barriers in society that perpetuate unequal distribution of power and oppress women will be explored within group settings that involve the home, workplace, education and the pursuit of personal development. Empowerment can be experienced through education, research and development, campaigns, networking, training and media. It c an be experienced through building a “collective” voice or through transformative learning.  These methods will be explored within the feminist pedagogy perspective. Examples of the practical implementation of empowerment strategies will be explored in the context of critical analysis of laws, availability of economic resources, co-operatives and women in leadership roles.


Feminist Pedagogy

            Feminist pedagogy invites learners to learn and expand their consciousness and become transformed in the process. It is concerned with increasing the status of women in society. Feminist pedagogy can be viewed through three models: psychological, structural and post structural views. These views focus on the psychological development of women as learners, the role of social class, gender and race as it affects learning, and how critical thinking can be developed to blend both of the above to create social change. Elizabeth Tisdell chronicles her journey in life to the point where she begins to view herself as a feminist educator. She constantly brings up her interactions with other women in different settings and the dialogue or exchange of information she has with them.  She questions t hese exchanges to determine her role in these various frameworks.  She is open to the views that are expressed in her interactions, thereby raising her own psychological consciousness within the unequal social structures of society.  In this process she becomes informed of the dichotomy of privilege and oppression and its effects on her as a teacher and learner.  In this way, she recognizes within her life all three models of feminist pedagogy outlined above (Hayes and Flannery, 2000).


Power Structures That Undermine Feminist Empowerment

Various social forces influence women’s lives, but women can be “active agents in resisting oppressive forces and shaping their own lives and learning” (Hayes & Flannery, 2000, pg. 15).  The social structures that contribute to women’s oppression are related to women’s social identities, specifically gender, race, and social class.  Patriarchy, which leads to gender-based oppression, is characterized by male domination and oppression of women.  Sexism, which is related to patriarchy, is a power structure whereby women are defined as inferior and are subjected to “exploitation and demeaning treatment” (Kramarae & Treichler, 1985, pg. 424).  Women have to struggle with the inequalities of patriarchal relations in work, in school, in the family and in relation to the state.  Hayes and Flannery (2000), points out that women’s jobs tend to be lower paying then men’s.  In 1993, the median annual earnings of women was 71% of what men earned.  Even in the same occupation, women tend to be paid less than men.  More women than men work part-time, in most cases to accommodate childcare and household responsibilities. “Women are often in positions that have limited power and autonomy and are more likely to be secretaries than managers, teachers than principals and nurses than physicians” (Hayes & Flannery, 2000, pg. 35). 


Studies have shown that gender stereotyping in the curriculum of higher education still exists.  For example, “men are often portrayed in leadership roles, whereas women are depicted as passive and subordinate” (Hayes & Flannery, 2000, pg. 35).  Furthermore, faculty in higher education may interact differently with women and men in the classroom; for example, calling directly on men students but not on women, responding to men’s comments in greater detail than women’s and interrupting female students more than men.  Hayes and Flannery (2000) suggest that these biases may be related to faculty members’ unconscious or conscious assumptions that men are more talented, more intelligent, or more serious students.  In any event, faculty ’s biased attitudes towards male and female students reflect and reproduce inequitable power relationships that are linked to gender roles. 


The home is not immune to the hierarchical structure of patriarchy.  The patriarchal structure of society, in which women experience oppression and domination, is also replicated in families.  Hence, in families, certain beliefs about the sexual division of labour are developed and members experience the effects of gender hierarchies in personal ways (Baber & Allen, 1992 as cited in Flannery and Hayes, 2000).  Even when women work outside the home to support their families, they are still expected to do most of the housework and child-care tasks.  Consequently, many women have learned to sacrifice their own needs in the interest of their families.  Furthermore, some women have little say in the decision-making process in their own homes as a result of their subordinate role in the family.  Then, too, women’s oppressions in the home can be played out in more aggressive ways.  Often, women are not only the victims of verbal and emotional abuse, but are also victims of physical violence, such as rape and murder.  In many families, therefore, women may not question the husband’s dominant role for fear of repercussion.


            Gender oppression is one type of power relationship that women must deal with in their daily lives.  However, other power structures, specifically racial oppression and class-based oppression, are just as pervasive and women need to develop strategies to resist these systems of oppression.  Hayes and Flannery (2000) recount the biography of a Black woman in order to illustrate how women are oppressed by racism in the workplace.  The woman in question worked as a technician for the phone company, but was passed over for a promotion on several different occasions, while many of the White women were promoted. When she was finally promoted to supervisor, she learned that she had no power as a Black woman because she was expected to carry out the decisions of her White boss.  In developing strategies to resist power structures that oppress them, women need to keep in mind that “race, class and gender are inter-locking aspects of women’s experiences that entitle certain people and deny status and power to others”  (Hayes & Flannery, 2000, pg. 69).


Perspectives of Empowerment

The empowerment of women can be viewed from two different perspectives; there are the objective and subjective sources of women empowerment.  Objective sources include economic resources, laws and institutional rules and norms held by others, while subjective sources are self-efficacy and entitlement.  England (2000) as argued in Presser and Sen (2000), that women are empowered by money, which comes to them through earnings, return on capital owned (land, stocks), their husbands’ income and money provided by their parents or the state. Having a job is empowering.  However, women’s access to share in their husbands’ income does not necessarily empower them.  It seems that money benefits single women, including single mothers, who are the sole provider for their families. Economic resources may not only affect the individual women, according to England (2000), but also “women’s average access to economic resources which also affects women as a group, since it affects the resources available for feminist collective action” (Presser & Sen, 2000, pg. 45).  England suggests that laws (rules of province, city, country) and institutional rules (corporations, banks, religious institutions) can empower or disempower women.  Many of the laws operate indirectly through their effects on the economic resources.  Social norms and values affect women in two ways.  “First, the extent to which a woman has internalized feminist norms will affect her behaviour in ways that affect her well-being.  Second, the extent to which oth! ers subscribe to feminist norms will affect one’s behaviour in ways that constrain women’s ability to realize their goals” (Presser & Sen, 2000, pg. 45).  Internal subjective states such as self-efficacy and entitlement are important to whether one will exercise power in one’s self-interest.  While self-efficacy is a belief that one’s actions will have the intended effects, an entitlement refers to how much one thinks one deserves in comparison to others. “Without some degree of self-efficacy, one may fail to exercise power even when one’s objective, external resource situation would allow one to gain substantially from doing so, because one venomously believes it is hopeless” (Presser & Sen, 2000, pg. 55). When resources increase (resources, laws, rules and norms), one’s self-efficacy and entitlement also increase and vice versa (Presser & Sen, 2000).< /FONT>


The Strategies of Empowerment

In order to understand the process in which empowerment occurs a report by Carolyn Medel-Anonuevo (1995) on the International Seminar on Women’s Education and Empowerment proposed six interrelating strategies through which empowerment can occur: education, research and development, campaigns, networking, training and media.  Empowerment through education would include re-educating policy makers, securing equal access for boys and girls to education, holding workshops for teachers, producing materials in local languages, implementing special programs for women in the field of Adult Education and incorporating tradition, race and ethnicity into programs.  In considering research and development in empowerment, the importance of producing and disseminatin g information about women’s rights, collecting cross-cultural studies and analyzing successful advocacy cases are crucial in order to learn about the arguments that persuade policy makers. One cannot emphasize enough the significance of undertaking campaigns and lobbying in order to bring about changes in society by reminding the legislators and policy makers about women’s issues.   Networking is essential in women’s empowerment.  It allows sharing experiences and learning from one another, and involves organizing meetings on gender sensitivity in organizations.  Empowerment through training could involve training capable female leaders and preparing them for jobs that are not usually open for women. Media plays a crucial role in reinforcing traditional barriers in society.  Therefore, media could be a very powerful tool in! women’s empowerment.  Organized mass media campaigns can raise awareness and create a social climate friendly to women’s issues (Medel-Anonuevo, 1995).


Co-operatives as tools for Empowerment 

            Co-operatives have the potential to be a great source of empowerment for women. Housing co-ops, organizational co-ops or credit unions are some examples of co-op structures that women can utilize to seek empowerment. Worker co-ops established by women have demonstrated innovative ways in which women have empowered their workplace by accommodating family responsibilities within the workplace such as childcare and the installation of a washer and dryer. Collectives are common in feminist organizations, which emphasize the democratic right of every woman to participate in the decision-making process. Single mothers find co-op housing an affordable and secure alternative to tenancy (Bold and Ketilson, 1990).  There are limitations to co-ops according to Melanie Conn who argues that co-ops st ill have a long way to go to empower women. She suggests that co-ops reflect the same social inequalities of society. Women do not hold leadership roles in co-op management (except in housing co-ops). She sees a future role of co-ops in helping unions fight the privatization of health care services such as home care and group homes. Conn believes that co-ops should work with Unions to establish a new kind of model that is “an alternative to the individual entrepreneurship model” (Bold and Ketilson, 1990, pg. 7). 


Voice and Empowerment

            Women express themselves differently from men, thus influencing the way they participate in group discussions. This also impacts on their learning patterns and, as adult educators, we must be cognizant of this in order to be effective mentors for women by creating a comfortable environment for women to learn and grow.  Women speak in a tentative and suggestive manner in a group setting compared to men who assert dominance and authority in a group setting. This is part of the socialization process that occurs in the early years. Through the process of education women may become more aware of their own voice and recognize the aspects of the self that are expressed and the parts that are suppressed. As we develop and change and reevaluate our identities in l ife, Hayes & Flannery (2000) suggest, women need to not only find just one “authentic” voice, but rather to learn how to overcome limitations and find new means of self-expression. This is empowerment through education. 


            Hayes suggests that women are silent because they choose to be silent or they are silenced. Silence is a means of self-protection and a desire to not express an opinion that would be different from the mainstream.  Of course, in some cultures silence is highly valued and viewed as a sign of thinker. One who speaks too much may be seen as overestimating the power of her voice. Nevertheless, in Western society, women can acquire a collective voice through education.  The use of “we” is empowering and gives strength to the resistance of oppression. Education can be a means by which women can learn about the experiences of other women and form a collective consciousness that empowers them to fight injustices. There exists a challenge to recognize the voice of diversity with women in terms of class and race.  Thus, the “voice” is not to be generalized, as this would ignore the experiences of some. For example, a view by Feminists of Color suggests that collectivism does not recognize the oppression of women against other women.


Women in Leadership

            It is often suggested that women in leadership roles have a different approach to empowering women and men who work as their subordinates. Jean Baker Miller suggests that power over others is the competitive notion that one wins while the other loses. She suggests, “power can be conceived as a renewable resource that is shared through co-operation, dialogue and reflection” (Irwin, 1995, pg. 132). Rita Irwin in her book called “A Circle of Empowerment” discusses an interesting case study of a woman in a supervisory role within the education system with a focus on arts education. Ruth is the supervisor of a number of teachers within an area and is the intermediary between the state and the teachers. Ruth practices power sharing rather than power over others.  She seeks to empower her teachers against the regulatory control of the state but not at the expense of her own power. She negotiated between “collegiality and control” to empower her teachers in implementing curriculum changes.



Empowerment is seen as a holistic process encompassing cognitive, psychological, economic and political dimensions in order to achieve emancipation. Although there are various barriers that impede women, empowerment can begin to take place within a variety of settings. The paper has successfully outlined the ways in which empowerment can be understood and practiced. Education can empower women to see the structural and psychological limitations, self-imposed or imposed by society, and to work toward an identity that can surpass these barriers. Adult educators must inform organizations and individuals of these barriers so that women can reach self-actualization and contribute to society in effective ways. A sincere engagement in learning can be empowering at many different levels if one approaches the exercise with an open mind and allows one’s assumptions to be called into question. Women must seek to make their c ollective voices heard. It is through this resolve that women can educate their communities, and promote and enhance their own empowerment.





Bold, J.M. & Ketilson, L.H. (1990).  Empowerment Through Co-Ops.  Printing Services:  University of Saskatchewan. 


Hayes, E. & Flannery, D.D. (2000).  Women as Learner, The Significance of Gender in Adult Learning.  California: San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc. Publishers


Irwin, R. L. (1995). A Circle of Empowerment. New York, Albany: State University of New York Press. 


Kramarae, C. & Treichler, P.A. (1985). A Feminist Dictionary.  England, London: Pandora Press.


Medel-Anonuevo, C. (1995). Women, Education and Empowerment: Pathways Towards Autonomy.  UNESCO Institute for Education.


Presser, H. B. & Sen, G.  (2000). Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Process: Moving Beyond Cairo.  England: Oxford University Press.


Stein, J. (1997).  Empowerment & Women’s Health.  New Jersey: Zed Books.

November 2002

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