Dr Alexandra Allan

"My interest in gender and education goes back a long way. It can probably even be traced back to my own time at primary school where, for example, I was passionate about the need to set up a young women’s football club to rival the only (male) team which existed in the school."

Dr Alexandra Allan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the Graduate School of Education and is a member of the Centre for Research in Higher Education and the Re-place research group. She teaches on the MSc, MEd and EdD programmes as well as on some cross-college and Anthropology modules for undergraduate students.

What are you interested in researching?

My research has focused on issues relating to equalities in education. For some time now I have had a particular interest in gender.  My PhD research, for example, sought to explore the way in which young women constituted gendered subjectivities in the context of a private, single-sex, selective school.  Whilst young femininities formed the central focus of the project, I also looked at the ways in which these young women were constructing particular kinds of classed subjectivities and the way in which they perceived and experienced academic achievement. This was particularly interesting to explore in a privileged school context where all of the pupils were assumed to be achieving well, and where they had been selected to enter the school on the basis of their academic achievements. Other projects which I have been involved in have enabled me to explore gender in a variety of different ways –for example, in relation to school and peer cultures, sexuality and sexual health. I also have a keen interest in research methodology, particularly the use of ethnographic and visual methodologies. I am excited to currently be working as co-editor on a special edition of the Gender and Education journal, where, alongside another author, I will be making a contribution centring on the use of visual methods in gender and education research.

Why are you passionate about this area?

My interest in gender and education goes back a long way. It can probably even be traced back to my own time at primary school where, for example, I was passionate about the need to set up a young women’s football club to rival the only (male) team which existed in the school. I wasn’t a great footballer myself, but even at a young age I think I could see that school was something which was often experienced differently according to gender, and that this had an impact on how young people might be viewed, how they might act and, eventually, the decisions that they might make.

I studied the sociology of education for the first time at A level (aged 16/17). Just being confronted with statistics relating to young men and women’s academic achievements was enough at that stage to capture my attention (for this was a time when young women were not seen to be doing well at school and feminists were very concerned about the differential treatment girls were receiving in classrooms). However, it was when I encountered, what I felt were really interesting concepts, like ‘the hidden curriculum’ (the idea that cultural values and attitudes are also transmitted in and through education and in ways that aren’t always immediately explicit or apparent) and began to read more in-depth qualitative research that I knew I had found my particular interest. Studying both sociology and education at degree level meant that I could pursue these interests further and that I could bring this perspective to bear on my own PhD research. By the time I reached postgraduate study, things seemed to have changed considerably for young women in education – for this was, supposedly, the first time that young women were seen to be achieving more than their male counterparts, and not just at one level in the education system or in those subjects which they had traditionally achieved better in. So at a time when the focus was firmly fixed on young men (as the apparent victims of a pernicious and feminised schooling system), I wanted to examine, in some detail, what the situation was for young women. I wanted to ask questions about their achievement (e.g. was it assured and unproblematic?) and their experiences as young women at school (had things really changed? What did it mean, to them, to be a young woman at school?).

Today, the sociology of education continues to intrigue me. I remain interested in exploring the social nature of education in qualitative depth, and in examining the difference that gender makes to people’s lives, despite the strong claims to the contrary (i.e. that we live in a world where gender equality has been achieved). It is a pleasure to play an active part in this field, having been a member of the Gender and Education Association Executive Committee and a conference organiser, and continuing to work as part of the editorial board for the Gender and Education Journal and the British Journal of Sociology of Education.

Current Research

I recently secured some research funding from the Humanities, Arts and Social Science Strategy (HASS) at the University of Exeter, from the Behaviour and Lifestyle Shifts strand. With a group of colleagues from a range of university faculties (education, sociology, psychology, medicine, business) I have been working to develop a project which will look at women’s experiences as they move along the ‘pipeline’ from education to employment.  The metaphor of the ‘water pipeline’ is something which has commonly been used to depict the track from education to employment. Most recently it has been taken up by those who want to ask particular questions about why young women’s success in educational attainment has not yet been mirrored by success in the workplace. Why is it, for example, that in higher education more women than men gain a first or second class degree (HESA 2012), but in employment men continue to make up the majority of workers in the top 10% of earners for all employees (ONS 2013)? Using a series of longitudinal studies, involving both survey and case study research and complemented by experimental research, the project will examine how achievement translates across these different sectors – how women understand achievement, how it is experienced over time and how it is negotiated alongside wider social subjectivities (e.g. class, race, sexuality, etc).

Looking at the constitution of subjectivity over time has been something of a recurring theme in my research. In my PhD study I looked at young women’s experiences as they made the transition to secondary education (age 11 and 12). In a more recent project I have been able to return to conduct research with some of the same young women. At this stage in their lives (aged 16/17) they had just moved into further education and were already contemplating the transition they would make into higher education or employment. However, my previous research has always focused on women’s experience in education, which is why this new project represents a unique opportunity to work with experts in organisational psychology and clinical education, in order to explore how this might extend into a new context – that of employment.

Supervision

I am always interested in hearing from students who might want to pursue research at Masters or PhD level. In recent years I have worked with several MSc Education Research students to gain funding for PhD research. I currently supervise three students who have been successful in securing ESRC funding. The students’ projects which I supervise vary widely, including emphases on all sorts of equality and achievement issues (e.g. elite schooling and class privilege; gendered violence; young women’s academic achievement in the context of higher education; the professional identities of women head teachers; global and local understandings of gender in Southern Indian school contexts).