University of Rochester

Crossing Cultures: Blue-Collar Women in Higher Education

March 10, 1998

Women from working-class backgrounds who go to college and become professionals in academe face considerable obstacles. Their hard-earned higher social status can bring crises of identity and self-esteem, and a loss of close personal relationships.

Research by Signe M. Kastberg, assistant professor at the University's Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, discovered that women who become professors and administrators in higher education often find that their gender and class keep them on the margins of their professional and personal lives. At times, the women seem to hold multiple identities, she observed, because of the contradictions in the value systems of their past and their present.

"The academic climate in education, from the earliest years of schooling through the terminal degree, sometimes rejects -- literally and figuratively -- deserving women from lower social classes," said Kastberg in her study. "Blue-collar academic women are rare indeed."

Last week (March 6), Kastberg received the Ruth Strang Research Award and an honorarium from the National Association for Women in Education for her work.

In her doctoral dissertation, titled "Turning Fish into Swans: The Ambiguous Transformation of Women from Blue-Collar Backgrounds into Higher Education Professionals," Kastberg focused on social class and gender, and how these intersect with educational and professional opportunity and achievement. She explored the experiences of a select number of women through in-depth interviews and data analysis.

Kastberg received her doctoral degree from the Warner School in February. She currently teaches in the Warner School's counseling and human development program.

The National Association for Women in Education addresses issues in higher education, with particular attention to the interests, scholarship, and advancement of women educators and students.