Feminist Self-Identification Among Social Work Students: Possible Implications for Education
There has been a lack of visibility of feminism in the public realm and in social work including a hesitance to self-identify as feminist despite endorsing feminist principles (Burn, Aboud, & Moyles, 2000;) and a limited feminist perspective among recently graduated social workers (Black, Weisz, & Bennett, 2010). It is possible that hesitance to self-identify as feminist is due to stigma: both men and women are more likely to consider the term “feminist” an insult rather than a compliment (Huddy, Neely, Lafay, 2000). This study sought to better understand the perception of feminism among social work students and possible implications for social work education. It was hypothesized that participants who endorse a more positive perception of feminism would be more likely to self-identify as feminists; that both feminist and non-feminist social work students would endorse feminist attitudes and ideologies; and that when provided a definition of feminism, most respondents would self-identify as feminist.
Matriculated MSW students (n=116) from a large, public university completed an internet-based survey in February, 2012. Perception of feminism was comprised of three constructs: knowledge, attitudes and ideologies, and description. Knowledge of feminism was operationalized by exposure to feminist teachers and readings in their MSW program, and self-reported feminist knowledge. Feminist attitudes and ideologies were operationalized by the Liberal Feminist Attitudes and Ideologies Scale (LFAIS) (Morgan, 1996). Description of feminists/feminismwas operationalized by respondents’ endorsement of adjectives describing feminists, and whether they identified social work as a feminist profession. Multiple regression was used to indicate whether these constructs were correlated with feminist self-identification.
Results indicated that a minority of social work students (42%) self-identified as feminist. Standard multiple regression indicated that eight key measures used to comprise the perception of feminism explained 47.9% of the variance of feminist self-identification, F (8, 116)=10.01, p <. 001. Significant variables were LFAIS scores (B=.304, p=.002; whether students see social work as feminist (B=.200, p=.033; adjectives describing feminists (B=.214, p=.025; and father’s educational level (B=.165, p=.040). Students who self-identified as feminist (M = 5.36 sd = .33) and non-feminists (M=5.03 sd=.46) on the FLAIS suggesting that both groups. endorse feminist attitudes and ideologies. The rate of self-identified feminists increased from 42%, at the beginning of the survey, compared to 94% when asked at the end of the survey and provided with a definition of feminist, suggesting that students’ understanding of feminism may be unclear.
Most social work students do not self-identify as feminist, but both feminist and non-feminist students endorse feminist attitudes and ideologies, suggesting a disconnect between self-identification and values, and that another factor, like stigma, might be impacting feminist self-identification. Variables that constructed knowledge of feminism were not uniquely significant in this model suggesting that a different educational approach may be needed. The finding that most students self-identified as feminist after being given a definition may indicate that students need foundational exposure to feminism. Findings about the significance of description of feminism could indicate that an exploration of the role of stigma should be included in curricula about feminism.