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Book Examines Impact of Women’s Studies

by Lois Elfman

Today is Equal Pay Day, an event originated by the National Committee on Pay Equity in 1996 to generate awareness about the ongoing pay gap between women’s and men’s wages.

College students are engaged in daily discussions about civil rights, gender, race and class and we look to them to continue the fight against inequality. But when it comes to declaring a major, they are often dissuaded from pursuing women’s and gender studies due to perceived impracticality. Advisors, fellow students, parents and even the general public often ask, “How can that lead to a career?”

Dr. Michele T. Berger and Dr. Cheryl Radeloff answer that question in their book Transforming Scholarship: Why Women’s and Gender Studies Students Are Changing Themselves and the World (Contemporary Sociological Perspectives), published in February by Routledge. Drawing from both quantitative and qualitative data, the authors detail how women’s studies majors from 1995-2010 utilized their degrees to pursue careers both directly and indirectly related to their undergraduate studies and create change in all areas of social justice.

“We have written it so that it is accessible and user-friendly, but it is backed up through scholarly work,” says Berger, an associate professor in the department of women’s studies at the University of North Carolina. “We want to empower students and faculty that are mentoring students. It gives faculty and administrators ways to talk about the value of this major, minor or concentration.

“The experience of being a women’s and gender studies student teaches you how to apply theory into the real world,” she continues. “You’re thinking about gender consciousness and race consciousness.”

Berger and Radeloff designed a survey that gathered demographic information and empirical data about women’s and gender studies majors from around the world. There also were follow-up interviews. Approximately 1,000 surveys were distributed and 900 completed by students from 125 institutions ranging from Georgia State to the University of Ghana.

“We talk about women’s studies students as change agents. That is in some way what they’re being trained to be at the undergraduate level,” says Berger.

“Students in women’s studies leave with a lot of practical, real world applied skills because that is part and parcel of how women’s studies defines itself and also part of its social justice commitments,” says Dr. Allison Kimmich, executive director of the National Women’s Studies Association.

One of the prominent trends in the field of women’s studies is the concept of intersectionality — race, class, gender and other dimensions of difference.

Berger has been engaged in this type of research for years and has seen how women’s studies translates into activism. Seventy-two percent of the survey respondents were active in local, state, national and global organizations, often as a career.

In the book, Berger and Radeloff describe three types of career paths that women’s and gender studies students have taken. “Sustainers” are people who have moved into jobs directly related to their major, such as working in a women’s shelter or counseling victims of domestic violence. “Evolvers” are people who have used the critical skills developed through their degree to work in different venues. “Synthesizers” are people who are often involved in political activism, but not directly related to women.

“A lot of our graduates are in the health field,” Berger says, with a significant number engaged in work related to public health and to HIV/AIDS and how it impacts marginalized communities.

“Other disciplines are not asking the questions about power, race, class, gender and sexuality that women’s studies is able to ask,” she says.

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