Distance learning can help women from poor backgrounds build careers

Many women are trying to juggle existing work and family. They feel distance learning gives them the opportunity to improve their career prospects without dropping any balls. Shutterstock

Women in South Africa are in a far better position economically now than they were at the dawn of democracy two decades ago. This is thanks largely to laws and policies designed to diversify the country’s public and private sectors after apartheid.

Legislation is one way to improve the lot of women in the workplace. The other involves what Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox call “sisters doing it for themselves” – individual women taking their careers into their own hands and mentoring their peers to do the same.

One way in which women can do this is to advance their careers through distance learning, which has been proven to greatly aid individual career development.

It allows people who are already working to study for the first time or to improve on their existing qualifications. My research, which is about to be published in the South African Journal of Human Resources, explored what factors influence the career success of South African women who are enrolled as distance learners. I also wanted to understand what they felt stood in the way of perceived career success.

Women’s stories

According to the South African Department of Education one-third of all South Africans studying in higher education institutions chose distance learning as their preferred mode of study. From this cohort of one-third, 65% to 69% of students in distance learning universities are deemed previously disadvantaged with women forming a substantial bulk of this number.

The 30 women who took part in this study were all distance learners with the University of South Africa (Unisa). They were based in Port Elizabeth in the impoverished Eastern Cape province. All were recognised by South African law as previously disadvantaged either by their race or gender.

I conducted unstructured interviews so that the women felt able to talk freely about their experiences rather than sticking to set questions. One of the issues examined was why they had chosen to study while already working. Most spoke about how becoming more qualified would see them recognised as a professional, with the responsibilities that accompany such a title. They wanted to be considered “experts” at something, and equated this description with being successful.

Jennifer, a 29-year-old black woman, was working as a bank teller while studying for an accounting degree through Unisa. She wanted to become a chartered accountant at the bank. Jennifer said she did not enjoy the “routine” and mundane activities that came with being a teller and saw a further qualification as a way to contribute to her becoming an expert.

It’s about being an expert at what I do and people turning to me because of this expertise. If that happens then I consider myself as successful.

Participants viewed their pursuit of career development as being inextricably linked to career success. They were constantly improving themselves by studying further through Unisa, rather than remaining stagnant in one job or field. Many also made use of internal development programmes offered by their current employers.

The women said that distance learning was the right choice for them because they were hardworking, persistent and able to juggle their existing jobs with studies and family commitments.

Barriers to success

I am from rural Cofimvaba and you can see people in my community are not supportive to the career development of women. This can be due to thinking that our role as women is just to have children, stay in the kitchen and fend for the children. To an extent because of this prevailing attitude, girls like me will never be anything and that is sad and limiting. – Nwabisa, a 30-year-old black accountant and distance learner

Nwambisa was one of several women who talked about society’s traditional views of women as holding them back. Others said the pressure came from themselves: they wanted to be good wives, mothers and successful career women. They saw distance learning as a good way to strike a balance.

I do not want to be a successful person career wise and yet a failure to my family. Distance learning is flexible so I can still be a mother and a wife while also pursuing my own ambitions. – Zama, 38-year-old black teacher

The participants also complained about the glass ceiling in their existing workplaces. They constantly referred to the privileged position of men in society ahead of women and the preferential treatment they said men received at work.

The women interviewed for this study saw distance learning as a means to an end: a way to improve their qualifications and get ahead in their careers. It also tends to be cheaper than full-time study, which the women found useful because many were supporting themselves and their families. Finally, they enjoyed the flexibility of distance learning, as illustrated by Zama’s story.

It would appear that, for these women and probably many others, career success is about more than achievements in study and at work. It is also about seeking a balance between these and their obligations to their families and communities.

Practical applications

Traditional career theories tend not to focus on individual, lived experiences. This produces reductionist, fragmented ideas about what constitutes career success. But this study shows us career development is actually a complex process that doesn’t follow a hierarchical approach.

It also allows for some practical ideas about improving women’s experiences of both distance learning and individual career development. Current policy interventions tend to focus on inclusion and access to education.

Much more needs to be done in offering women the chance to acquire even informal education and training to help their career development. The focus should not just be on formal education, but on making sure that each community is a hub that encourages the development and application of skills.

Distance learning can be a crucial space not just for getting an education – but for moving away from a life of disadvantage that is all too common for many black South African women.

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