One prominent theme emerging from recent social work writing about
race, culture and gender is the concept of difference. In the United
Kingdom, attention to anti-oppressive practice has focused on gender and
race differences with clients and on students as part of their learning
processes. Anti discriminatory social work practice theory has forced
educators to examine their response to stereotypical assumptions about
different categories of people--clients, students and supervisors.
There is increasing evidence that some mainstream practitioners and
supervisors actively discriminate against particular groups
(O'Neill 1995). Educators are examining socially structured
differences including gay/straight; disabled/able-bodied; male/female;
coloured/white; and Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal. Examining biases in these
relationships can lead to an understanding of the impact of differences
on factors such as access to services, life chances, pedagogical
approaches and learning outcomes.
Much social work literature has emphasised student supervision as
predominantly educative and supportive, demanding sustained interaction
and concentrated introspective personal relationships. In contrast,
anti-discriminatory practice focuses more explicitly on power as a key
factor in the supervisory relationship. Formal power resides with the
supervisor because of their expertise, status and evaluative role. This
dimension is acknowledged in most supervisory approaches. Power also
comes from informal power determined by variables such as race, gender,
class, age, sexual orientation and other abilities (Brown and Bourne
1996). The student and supervisor relationship is an ideal place to
examine the extent to which gender differences impact on learning
Gender sensitive supervision Gender is a major division in our
profession and in the workplace yet the supervisory system has largely
escaped scrutiny in the social work literature. Differences might be
expected to occur in patterns of communication, male approaches to
intervention and the closeness of the relationship between supervisors
and supervisees (Crespi 1995; De Lange 1995). In a small qualitative
study, Conn (1993) examined gender differences in the organisational and
professional system. She noted differences in the way men and women, at
senior and middle management described their roles in the supervisory
process. Although professionals thought about the impact of gender in
the client system, they almost ignored the impact of their gender in the
supervisory system itself.
Reviewing several publications on women in social work, Brown and
Bourne (1996) extrapolated that a male dominated culture influences
supervisory styles, resulting in the disempowerment of women. Such
disempowerment influences women's professional identity. If these
supervisory styles are also evident in student supervision, we might
expect that the male supervisor and female student combination would
result in poor learning outcomes for women. McMaster (2000) presents an
alternative view based on anecdotal evidence. In their field education
experiences as part of social work education, McMaster notes that male
social work students frequently have difficulty. He speculates that
gender is at the core of such difficulties although he does not
attribute these difficulties to the supervisor's gender but to
concepts of masculinity held by the student. Success in working closely
with their supervisor and passing field education largely depends on the
student's construction of masculinity and the extent to which their
views determine expectations and entitlements in work with others.
Despite a growing awareness of gender based pairings and inadvertent
gender stereotyping in supervision, gender based supervisory approaches
have largely been ignored.
Student and supervisor pairings
In field education a wide range of combinations and pairings of
students and supervisors is possible. For example, it is possible to
have a male supervisor/female student and vice versa; Asian
supervisor/Caucasian student; and so on. These examples of pairings
provide only for a dichotomous view of relationships. In reality,
multiple oppression exists so that a student may be a woman of colour,
of a particular ethnic group and be in poverty. Whilst social work
education has not extensively examined the impact of these
learner/supervisor pairings on student learning outcomes some
preliminary research finding are revealing.
Behling, Curtis and Foster (1989) examined sex-role combinations on
the evaluation of students' field education outcomes. Their
findings revealed that same gender combinations of students and
supervisors were more positive for learning outcomes than different
gender combinations. It is not surprising that the worst learning
outcomes occurred with male supervisors and female students. Thyer,
Sowers-Hoag and Love (1989) came to similar conclusions although they
suggest their findings are more ambiguous. Differences can be amplified
when race and gender are combined with supervisor/learner pairings (see
Brown and Bourne 1996, 39).
The consequences of different gender, learner and supervisor
arrangements are worth exploring as part of developing better
educational and management practices in field education. Bernard and
Goodyear (1992) suggested that female students may not think that their
male supervisor is taking issues seriously and that a male supervisee
expects his female supervisor to be more nurturing. On the other hand,
Shardlow and Doel (1996, 17) illustrated the problem by referring to a
female student with a male supervisor. A female student may enter
placement feeling less powerful in social transactions than men,
discriminated against by social structures or denied access to various
commodities because she is a woman. These feelings may be reinforced
with a male supervisor. On the other hand, it is also acknowledged that
a female supervisor with a male student may be able to provide a
beneficial consciousness raising learning environment for the student
(Humphries, Pankhania-Wimmer, Seale and Stokes, 1993).
This paper reports on our exploratory study in which we sought to
examine the impact of gender on learning outcomes in field education
placements. Using archival material held by the School of Social
Administration and Social Work at Flinders University, Adelaide, we were
able to explore placement outcomes in relation to the gender of both the
student and supervisor, and by whether the supervisory relationship
involved a same or mixed gender pairing.
Social work is a feminised profession. The percentage of male
enrolments range between 19 percent to 30 percent dependent upon the
year of enrolment (Blanchard et al, 1994.) The gender distribution of
South Australian social workers has previously been found to be similar
to the national average (Healy 1982) and Flinders graduates have been
previously found similar to social work graduates from other schools on
a range of variables (Lindsay 1989).
The field education program
The Australian Association of Social Workers requires that all
students be supervised by a qualified social worker with more than two
years experience (AASW 2000). Students at Flinders University are
required to compete two placements (60 days and 80 days) over the two
year full-time course leading to a Bachelor of Social Work
qualification. In exceptional circumstances, including those when
students are unable to satisfactorily complete a placement for reasons
beyond their control (eg ill health, lack of suitable learning
opportunities), or after having failed a placement, subsequent
placements may be undertaken. Supervision is provided through voluntary
arrangements, based on individual commitment and is added to an existing
agency workload. There is little formal recognition of the supervisor
role professionally, educationally or industrially (Gordon 1994).
Training provided to supervisors is through a two-day voluntary workshop
with ongoing supervision training for both new and experienced
supervisors. There is no formal evaluation of supervisory performance by
either the students or the faculty's staff.
Students in field education are required to achieve particular
competency standards. Prior to the mid-placements, students submit
evidence of their achievements to faculty staff for review and feedback.
This is followed by an agency visit where students are formally assessed
to determine if social work competency standards have been achieved.
During this visit, learning difficulties between the student and the
supervisor may emerge. If students are not achieving some of the
required standards at mid-placement or if there are interpersonal
difficulties impacting on student learning, faculty closely monitor the
student's work and provide remedial assistance to ensure
achievement of placement standards.
METHOD AND RESULTS
The five consecutive cohorts of students from the School of Social
Administration and Social Work, Flinders University who undertook their
first practicum between 1992 and 1996 were analysed for this study. The
cohorts were followed until 1998. A search of the school's archives
identified a total of 541 placements, which were undertaken by 277
students as meeting these criteria. For each of these placements, a
three-way classification of the learning outcomes was adopted:
The student failed to achieve placement standards.
At mid-placement there were problems identified which required
follow up by university staff, either because the student had not
achieved some standards at mid-placement, or there were difficulties in
the placement which may preclude the student achieving the required
standards at the end of the placement. These students achieved all
standards at end of placement.
The student achieved all standards at mid-placement and end of
placement and no major difficulties were identified at mid-placement.
For each placement, the gender of both student and primary
supervisor were recorded, together with the learning outcomes. One
further variable concerning whether the student-supervisor relationship
was of same or opposite gender was computed from the recorded data
items. In addition to gender and learning outcome variables, it was
hypothesised that professional socialisation may be just as important a
predictor of whether students have difficulties in achieving placement
standards, such that one might expect students on their first placement
to experience more difficulties than students on a subsequent placement
irrespective of their gender. Thus placements were coded as being a
first placement, second placement or a third or subsequent placement.
Finally, as there were major changes in the field education program over
the study period, the calendar year in which the placement was
undertaken was also recorded. Table 1 provides a summary of each of
As very few students had failed placements, cases with this
learning outcome were combined with those in which students experienced
difficulties for the subsequent data analyses. Chi-square tests were
then undertaken to establish whether or not placement difficulties were
associated with any of the other variables which were presented in Table
1. The results of these analyses are summarised in Table 2 which reveals
problematic placements as more likely to involve male than female
students, a difference between the gender of student and supervisor
compared with same-gender pairings and be a first placement rather than
a subsequent one. There was however, no evidence that difficult
placements were associated with either supervisor gender or the calendar
year in which the placement was undertaken.
The three variables which individually had been found to be
associated with placement difficulties (gender of student, gender of
student and supervisor, and placement number) were then entered into a
step-wise logistic regression analysis to establish which, if any,
remained significantly associated with the known presence of major
difficulties (known difficulties = 1, no known difficulties = 2), when
other factors were taken into account. The results of this analysis,
which are presented in Table 3, reveal the gender of the student and
whether they are undertaking a first or subsequent placement, are
jointly predictive of placement difficulties. In particular, male
students were 2.44 (1/0.41) times more likely to experience placement
difficulties than their female counterparts, and students on their first
placement were 1.96 times more likely to have difficulties than students
on subsequent placements.
Like Lloyd and Degenhardt (1996) and McMaster (2000) who found the
non-completion rate in placements to be far higher among male than
female students, our findings lend support to the proposition that the
gender of the student is a significant predictor in placement outcome.
Students completing their first placement were also more likely not to
achieve field education standards. The results of this study provide no
evidence that the gender of the supervisor contributes to placement
outcome. Nor was there any evidence that mixed gender student and
supervisor pairings lead to poor learning outcomes.
One should not discount the possibility that the findings reported
here are an artefact of the methodologies employed in collecting and
analysing the data. The use of archival data restricted our analyses to
variables which could be extracted from information collected as part of
the management of a field education program and may well have excluded
more salient factors which impact on learning outcomes. While the
supervisory relationship is not supposed to be a therapeutic one
(Gardiner 1989), the intimate and interpersonal nature of the
supervisory relationship is not dissimilar from the verbal articulation
and insight required of clients in psychotherapy and reference to
literature from psychotherapy may shed light on these findings. The
inclusion for example, of additional variables may override the
importance of gender as a predictive factor of placement outcome
(Howard, Orlinsky and Hill, 1970). Whether the effect of supervisor
gender would become significant when qualified by the supervisor's
experience is a further possibility (Hill 1975).
Clearly, further research is needed to understand the impact of
gender in field education, and the results of this exploratory study
contribute to a rationale for developing a more comprehensive
prospective study in which a wider range of factors which potentially
influence placement outcomes could be examined. Prior to undertaking
such a study, focus group interviews with students and supervisors would
hopefully not only shed light on the current findings but produce
hypotheses about placement outcomes which could be tested on one or more
cohorts of students from one or more university field education
In the meantime we are left with the finding that male students are
more likely to have difficulties on placements than are female students.
As convenors of field education programs it has been our experience that
issues of gender in field education receive scant, if any, attention in
either the training of new field teachers or in the preparation of
students for their placements. In light of such experiences, McMaster
(2000) has proposed that male students may benefit from an inquiry into
their concepts of masculinity and their impact on the learning
relationship and workplace. According to McMaster, this inquiry would
invite responsible male behaviour in supervision and provide a framework
to map gender issues within the supervisory relationship. However,
whether such an approach would have helped the male students in our
study who had placement difficulties is unknown, and alternate
strategies to assisting male students may also need to be developed.
In summary, whilst gender is a core issue in field education,
different gender pairings do not seem to lead to student failure. Male
students do experience difficulty in field education, irrespective of
the gender of their supervisor and strategies to address this issue
should be considered as a matter of urgency.
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Western Australia 1982-1986', Australian Social Work, 42: 27-34.
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with male social work students', in K. Cavanagh and V.E. Cree
(eds.) Working with men: feminism and social work, Routledge, London.
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education', in Cooper, L. and Briggs, L. (eds.) Fieldwork in the
human services, Allen and Unwin, Sydney:
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same-sex sexual orientation', Canadian Social Work Review, 12:
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Lesley Cooper and Beth R Crisp 
Lesley Cooper is on Associate Professor, School of Social
Administration and Social Work, Flinders University of South Australia,
GPO Box 2100, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia 5001. Email:
To whom all correspondence should be addressed.
Beth R Crisp Department of Social Policy and Social Work,
University of Glasgow, Lilybank House Bute Gardens, Glasgow G3 6TT,
Although all of them thought that at times their work was
influenced by their own gender, and understanding of gender
related roles and behaviours, they did not think this was
seen as part of the supervisory task. (Conn 1993, 47)
TABLE 1. SUMMARY CHARACTERISTICS OF PLACEMENTS
Placement Characteristic Number of Percentage of
Gender of student
Male 121 22.4
Female 420 77.6
Gender of supervisor
Male 134 24.8
Female 407 75.2
Gender of student and supervisor
Same 370 68.4
Different 171 31.6
First 276 51.0
Second 253 46.8
Third or subsequent 12 2.2
1992 58 10.7
1993 97 17.9
1994 99 18.3
1995 109 20.1
1996 122 22.6
1997 56 10.4
The student achieved all field 489 90.4
education standards and no problems
were identified at mid-placement
At mid-placement there were problems 45 8.3
identified but students achieved all
standards at end of placement
Student failed to achieve standards 7 1.3
TABLE 2. KNOWN PLACEMENT DIFFICULTIES BY PLACEMENT
Placement Known No known Statistical test
Characteristic difficulties difficulties
Percentage of placements
Gender of student [chi square] (1) =
8.58, p < .01
Male 16.5 83.5
Female 7.6 92.4
Gender of [chi square] (1) =
supervisor .40, n.s.
Male 8.22 91.8
Female 10.1 89.9
Gender of student [chi square] (1) =
and supervisor 4.24, p < .05
Same 7.8 92.2
Different 13.5 86.5
Placement [chi square] (1) =
number 4.75, p < .05
First 12.3 87.7
subsequent 6.8 93.2
Year undertaken [chi square] (1) =
1992 12.1 87.9
1993 9.3 90.7
1994 9.1 90.9
1995 10.1 89.9
1996 9.8 90.2
1997 7.1 92.9
TABLE 3. STEP-WISE MULTIPLE LOGISTIC REGRESSION
ANALYSIS WITH KNOWN PLACEMENT DIFFICULTIES
AS THE DEPENDENT VARIABLE
Order entered Attributional Dimension Odds 95 % C.I. P
1 Gender of student (1) 0.41 .22-.75 0.0039
2 Placement number (2) 1.96 1.07-3.58 0.0289
(1) Female =1, Male = 2
(2) Second or third placements = 2