Gender differences and learning outcomes: does gender matter?
Student placement outcomes were examined using archival data from a field education program on the gender of both students and supervisors to test the hypothesis that gender is a predictor of placement outcome. The results of these analyses suggest that whilst the supervisor gender is not critical, the student gender is a significant predictor of placement outcome. As male students are more likely to encounter placement difficulties than female students, inquiry into the student's concept of masculinity is proposed as a way to assist male students in field education.

Cooper, Lesley
Crisp, Beth R.
Pub Date:
Name: Women in Welfare Education Publisher: Women in Welfare Education Collective Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2002 Women in Welfare Education Collective ISSN: 1834-4941
Date: Sept, 2002 Source Volume: 5
Accession Number:
Full Text:

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 outcomes.

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.


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 these variables.

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 programs.

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.


Australian Association of Social Workers (2000) Policy and procedures for establishing eligibility for membership of AASW, AASW, Canberra.

Behling, J.C., Curtis, C., and Foster, S.A. (1989) 'Impact of sex-role combinations on student performance in field instruction' in M.S. Raskin, (Ed.), Empirical studies in field education, Haworth Press, New York.

Bernard, J. M. and Goodyear, R.K. (1992) Fundamentals of clinical supervision, Allyn and Bacon, Boston.

Blanchard, A., Wearne, A., and Carpenter, J. (1994) 'Where are all the men? Gender imbalance in social work', Advances in Social Work and Welfare Education, University of Western Australia, Perth.

Brown, A. and Bourne, A. (1996) The social work supervisor: Supervision in community day care and residential settings, Open University Press Buckingham.

Conn, J. D. (1993) 'Delicate liaisons: the impact of gender differences on the supervisory relationship', Journal of Social Work Practice, 7:41-53.

Crespi, T. (1995) 'Gender sensitive supervision: Exploring feminist perspectives for male and female supervisors', The Clinical Supervisor, 13: 19-29.

De Lange, J. (1995) 'Gender and communication in social work education: A cross cultural perspective', Journal of Social Work Education, 31:75-81.

Gardiner, D (1989) The anatomy of supervision: developing learning and professional competence for social work students. Milton Keynes: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Gordon, D. (1994) 'Critical issues in field education', paper presented to: Enhancing the Quality of the Practicum; Partnerships, Effectiveness and Efficiency: University of South Australia Faculty Conference; Underdale

Campus, Adelaide.

Healy, J. (1982) 'The status of women in the Australian welfare industry', Australian Social Work, 35 (3): 19-26.

Hill, C. (1975) 'Sex of client and sex and experience of counselor', Journal of Consulting Psychology, 22: 5-11.

Howard, K.I., Orlinsky, D.E. and Hill, J.A. (1970). 'Patient's satisfactions in psychotherapy as a function of patient-therapist pairing', Psychotherapy, 7: 130-134.

Humphries, B., Pankhania-Wimmer, H., Seale, A., and Stokes, I. (1993) Improved practice teaching and learning: A training manual. CCETSW, Leeds.

Lindsay, R. (1989) 'Student graduate survey: University of Western Australia 1982-1986', Australian Social Work, 42: 27-34.

Lloyd, S. and Degenhardt, D. (1996) 'Challenges in working with male social work students', in K. Cavanagh and V.E. Cree (eds.) Working with men: feminism and social work, Routledge, London.

McMaster, K. (2000) 'Working with male students in field education', in Cooper, L. and Briggs, L. (eds.) Fieldwork in the human services, Allen and Unwin, Sydney:

O'Neill, B.J. (1995) 'Canadian social work education and same-sex sexual orientation', Canadian Social Work Review, 12: 159-174.

Shardlow, S. and Doel, M. (1996) Practice teaching and learning, Macmillan, London.

Thyer,B. Sowers-Hoag, K. and Love, J. P. (1989) 'The influence of field instructor-student gender combinations on student perceptions of field instruction quality', in M.S Raskin, (ed.) Empirical studies in field education, Haworth Press, New York.

Lesley Cooper and Beth R Crisp [1]

[1.] Authors:

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, Scotland
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)


Placement Characteristic                 Number of    Percentage of
                                         placements   placements

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

Placement number
  First                                  276          51.0
  Second                                 253          46.8
  Third or subsequent                     12           2.2

Year undertaken
  1992                                    58          10.7
  1993                                    97          17.9
  1994                                    99          18.3
  1995                                   109          20.1
  1996                                   122          22.6
  1997                                    56          10.4

Learning outcomes
  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


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
Second or
subsequent           6.8            93.2

Year undertaken                                   [chi square] (1) =
                                                  .88, n.s.
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


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
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.