Gendering the First-in-Family Experience

23 February 2022

Despite efforts to widen participation in higher education, students who are the first in their family to attend university remain severely under-represented. 

Many first-in-family students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.   As a result, there has been extensive focus on how social class influences their experience and significantly less attention to the role gender plays.

Associate Professor Garth Stahl and Dr Sarah McDonald conducted a study with 48 first-in-family students over the course of three years as they made the transition from secondary school into university.  They came from ethnically diverse backgrounds and were recruited from across state, independent and faith-based schools. The research focused on their experiences in higher education and how their aspirations changed in relation to such experiences.  This work is presented in Gendering the First-in-Family Experience:Transitions, Liminality and Performativity.

Garth Stahl
Associate Professor Garth Stahl.

Dr Stahl and Dr McDonald found that during the transition to university, many of the participants questioned the gender norms of their school and family environments.  It is at university where many first-in-family students are first exposed to a diversity of gender identities which often contrast the gender identities present in their secondary schools. Some students spoke of the pressure they felt during their secondary school years to be a certain type of girl or boy, while they felt less pressure at university. 

Of the 48 participants, 9 students withdrew from university, 7 chose not to attend and 2 deferred. Very few first-in-family students enrolled in elite Sandstone institutions. Instead, most participants chose to attend the universities closest to home. Dr Stahl and Dr McDonald were drawn to the role gender played in the first-in-family experience where they focused on three areas: gender and the family; gender and influential teachers; gender and mental health.

Gender and the family

The research found that families of first-in-family students are supportive of their children’s education, but they do not necessarily have sufficient knowledge of higher education to be able to give advice about navigating the system.  Instead, families focus on supporting students emotionally and extended family members were often influential and an important resource when first-in-family students struggled.

Dr Stahl and Dr McDonald further found that family life and expectations were significantly gendered.  Mothers were often the primary resource in terms of the emotional support for the participants.  In contrast, fathers were less involved. This was especially true for the girls in the study, where part of their aspirations for university were to experience the opportunities and futures their mothers were denied. The boys in the study wanted to be seen as independent in their decision making, where this was less apparent for girls. Ultimately, all students in the study saw their lives as filled with more opportunities than their parents.

Gender and influential teachers

sarah mcdonald
Dr Sarah McDonald.

Close relationships with secondary school teachers informed the aspirations of first-in-family students – however, these relationships were gendered as well.  While the participants were able to point to specific teachers from their secondary school who had been pivotal in supporting them to reach their goals of attending university, there were notable differences between boys and girls.  For examples, the young men tended to inhabit an identity centred around effortless achievement – of having a chilled or relaxed disposition – and sought out teachers who were able to push them.  In contrast,  the majority of girls portrayed themselves as ‘work-focused’ and diligent in their studies, and forged relationships with teachers who they perceived to be nurturing.

Gender and mental health

Within research on first-in-family students, there has recently been increased attention to struggles with mental health. Research in Australian higher education has found that these students rated lack of money, time management, lack of sleep, and the demands around assessment as having a significant impact on their mental health. Within Dr Stahl and Dr McDonald’s study, 40.9 per cent of young women spoke about struggling with mental health issues while only 3.8 per cent of young men did.  While the girls were more open about their concerns from the onset, over the course of the research young men began to either experience mental health issues or become more open about their mental health issues.

Improving the first-in-family experience

Drawing on their research, Gendering the First-in-Family Experience:Transitions, Liminality and PerformativityDr Stahl and Dr McDonald seek to make recommendations at the policy level and educators working in higher education.

Highlighting the role of gender, the boys seemed to suffer more from a lack of time management skills, which did not seem as much of a concern for the girls. However, in terms of self-management, the girls did experience concern regarding their ability to succeed when there was less one-on-one help at university than they had experienced in high school. 

Furthermore, in terms of mental health, the girls in the First-in-Family Project were more open about their struggles with mental health. This highlights not only the gendering of mental health but how support services may need to be more attuned to gender differences for students from non-traditional backgrounds.

For those working in higher education it is also important to note that many of the participants struggled to socially integrate with other university students who were mainly from middle-class backgrounds.  They found the experience isolating and they doubted themselves.  There were very few examples of students taking pride in their first-in-family status.  This was compounded by how many of the participants experienced confusion over pragmatics (e.g. timetables, scheduling, commuting) and how to navigate and conduct themselves at university.  Some of this confusion came from misconceptions based on American television shows.  While investments in widening participation are to be commended, the struggles of first-in-family students highlights how more can be done to familiarise students from disadvantaged backgrounds with what university entails.