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Gender, agency and the engagement of sole parent postgraduates in the Australian academy

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posted on 01.03.2017, 00:20 by Hook, Genine Anne
This thesis examines the experiences of sole parents within the institutional conditions of postgraduate education in Australian universities. To investigate how sole parents negotiate the conditions of postgraduate education I undertake a theoretical analysis of gender performativity and accountability drawing primarily on the works of Judith Butler (1997, 2005). Drawing from interviews with 10 sole parents, this research is a collective case study which is attentive to how gender is performed through particular constructions of gendered parenting at an intersecting point with postgraduate education. The distinctive experiences of sole parent postgraduates are significant because as at June 2012, there were 600,892 one parents families with dependent children in Australia, and most (84%) were female lead families, making up 22% of families (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2011 Census). This represents a significant cohort within the Australian community, a group, I suggest, whose educational aspirations, experiences and outcomes remains under-researched. This research is contextualised by the 2008 Bradley Review into Higher Education in Australia, which stated an aim for 20% of university students to come from low socio-economic backgrounds. This 20% target remains un-met reflecting broader concerns in the widening participation agenda that has sought to redress the ongoing under-representation of diverse social groups in universities. This thesis makes an additional contribution to the body of academic literature regarding academic parenting by focusing on sole parent postgraduates, many of whom experience multiplied and intensified responsibilities of everyday parental care-work. The epistemology section of this thesis details my researcher positioning and examines how my experiences of sole parenting in higher education has influenced and informed this study. I consider three critical incidents; my initial assumptions and judgement about sole parents, regulatory exchanges I experienced as un-helpful as I transitioned into postgraduate education and the institutional structures of postgraduate timetabling as regulatory and potentially exclusionary. Drawing on Butler’s theory of performativity, this work acknowledges that sole parent postgraduates are never fully constituted whilst drawing attention to how norms repetitively operate. I have sought to illustrate ways in which participants opened up the possibility of altering and refusing normative patterns associated with gendered parental care to engage with university spaces that are constituted as ‘child-free’. Butler’s theory of recognisability provides a framework for critiquing university policies and practices and enables an exploration of the interrelated negotiations participants undertook in order to re-work their parental and postgraduate work. Theorising recognisability troubles the prescriptive and (re)productive negotiations between the sole parent participants and social welfare policy - the Welfare to Work policy. In this study I explore Butler’s notion of agency to illustrate how sole parent postgraduate participants responded to the enabling constraints of postgraduate education. Agency in this sense is understood as the opening up of alternative possibilities and this is demonstrated through the re-workings of family finances, flexibility of time and the management of childcare responsibilities within the enabling constraints of sole parenting and postgraduate education. This study is therefore a theoretical analysis that illustrates how the sole parent in this study mediated individual and institutional/structural factors which establish their conditions of account as postgraduates.

 Awards: Vice-Chancellor’s Commendation for Doctoral Thesis Excellence in 2015.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Mary Lou Rasmussen

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre



Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Education