How are men and women’s gender roles and gendered capital (experiences) mirrored in older adult education and how can we program engendered, concept-based education for older women? What are the ways of thinking, seeing, and knowing for adult educators?


Gender roles and gender (in) equalities are rarely addressed in educational programmes for older adults. However, older men and women get involved in older adult education because they want to belong, to be socially, politically and psychologically empowered.  They enter education as representatives of their gender. Therefore, their gender capital has to find room in educational programmes. There are important differences between being an older male or an older female learner. Generally speaking, being an older woman is considered a cumulative disadvantage (being a woman and being old, being less well off than men, being dependent on men, etc.). It is important to identify gender capital women bring into education and design empowering educational programmes for and with them.


Module in a nutshell

The module consists of three units followed by Check Your Understanding and References.

  • Unit 1. Approaching women’s issues
  • Unit 2. Why engendered older adult education
  • Unit 3. Programming education for older women
  • Check your understanding. Are the following statements True or False?
  • References

Unit 1. Approaching women’s issues


With these stories, I wanted to open the discourse that makes the reader face taboos related to ageing; to open up the topics such as weakness, sickness, fear of dying, loss of dignity. This book talks about being lost and insecure in everyday life situations that used to be routine situations. I developed this book slowly, with consciousness about my own ageing, especially after my parents died when I began to listen to voices around me, voices of older people I hadn’t heard before. Everything is written in stories, from the irreversibility of the process of becoming invisible, guilt regarding parents, and even stories that aren’t mine, but that have impressed me profoundly.


Slavenka Drakulič, The invisible woman and other stories

Some might argue that not only literature but also the field of adult education have been dealing with gender issues for a long time. Women's participation, or lack thereof, in adult education has been explored for decades. Preferences in women's learning styles have been examined. Different social roles have been in focus from the role of mother and spouse, to their professional roles. Their responsibilities have been in focus as well as the consequences the changes in women's roles have had on women's identities. But women's identities have rarely been examined as such, as being theirs, just theirs and not in relation to men and to their reactions in the same contexts, though, as we have seen before, older women should know who they are and should be aware that they can grow and can become who they feel they can become. Nevertheless, studies about older women and the gender capital they bring into adult education have seldom been explored and taken into account while developing an educational programme. In addition, older women do not overtly require more visibility. They adapt themselves Figuring out how women can overcome this state, struggle for gender equality, and become aware of who they are is a basic task in developing educational programmes for older women.

Focusing on women's situations, you will discover that they are described in relation to men's situations. And you will also discover that women are missing from the data. We can deduce that analyses, theories, research studies or practices are only about half of the population. To illustrate this point, Frederick Gros, a French philosopher, author of the best-selling book Philosophy of walking argues that walking leads to thinking and that many great thinkers in history described their walking as a thinking process (Gros, 2000). He does not mention a single woman, and the reader rightly asks her/himself why there are no women mentioned on the list of great thinkers.  The struggle for equity between women and men would bear more fruit if there were data concerning both.

Adult educators repeat that groups of older people are heterogeneous due to their disparate life experiences and reference frameworks. They forget, however, to stress that the heterogeneity of older people is also due to their gender. If data regarding older people, in general, are not important for statistical studies, data of older women seem to be even less so. In the PIAC study, for instance, people over 65 were not addressed by member States, except Germany, which produced an additional study addressing people over the age of 65 and their needs.

There are numerous approaches of women’s issues in research and education. The most common one is the oppositional approach, based on biological sex distinctions between men and women. Differences between men and women are often presented as a dichotomy—women opposing men and vice versa. Women are frail and powerless; Men are strong. Gender typing starts early with sentiments that boys should not show emotions, and that girls should behave properly.

This oppositional approach has been intensified by different religions that have analysed and separated the role of women and men. Women and men have had different economic roles in the field of production, reproduction and consumption. Women are subjected to men politically, economically, pedagogically, and in virtually all ways in which society reflects its power, power that is, with few or no exceptions, invested in men. In The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes, to "the natural superiority of the husband to the wife in his capacity to promote the common interest of the household," and mentions the lack of all women's fitness to vote. (Mosser, Kant and Feminism by Kurt Mosser, Dayton/Ohio)

Since men and women are not the same, they are defined by many masculine and feminine attributes that need to be acknowledged in older adult education. Women and men should be treated equally. But is it really so? Gender differences are constructed and deconstructed. Men and women’s identities are formed differently. Gender is not stable.

On the contrary, it is rather dynamic, depending on time and space, and the social, political and historic cultural contexts within. Researchers like Hugo, 1990, Lewis, 1988, Stalker, 2005 refer to Belenky et al. (1986) arguing that women are unique but absent from research studies, and attention should be devoted to them. Other research argues that women and men are both complex and diverse categories. Dichotomous approach functions differently in different contexts. In patriarchal contexts, there is a definition of men’s values, abilities and actions and women’s values, abilities and actions as deficient, relative to men. As a result, stories, experiences and knowledge of all women are needed in order to achieve their genuine empowerment.

Unit 2. Why engendered older adult education 


The educational path towards gender equality requires consolidation of women’s identity, and increasing their understanding of themselves. It also involves encouraging them to make their own decisions, alleviating stereotypes about older women, stopping discrimination and dismantling prejudices.

Any type and format of education for older people has its topic, of course. But simultaneously, any type and format of education in later life is education for empowerment since all groups of older people, and particularly groups of older women, tend to be pushed to the edge of society. Therefore, educators and mentors are concerned with achieving a better understanding of what gendered old age in contemporary European society is and could be. Adult educators need knowledge about age-specific and also gender-specific issues.

They will first gain theoretical insight into these issues and will delineate situations in which gender equality is achieved or not. These themes will be at the core of the educational programmes for and about older women. They will include women’s right to explore their identity, and to not be considered as more or less than men, as is the case in patriarchal societies. In general, patriarchy bestows upon men better abilities and qualities than women.

In these societies, women exist as good wives and mothers, as persons taking care of everybody’s comfort, but they do not exist for themselves. Like other socially marginalized groups, women rarely know what they could become and do not consider themselves as rights holders. Their human values are close to basic European values.

Social roles (a concept determining one’s social identity) are taken on, left behind, or lost throughout life. Older women and older men lose many roles, but they can take on some new ones. An increase in women’s social roles means more possibilities for their personal growth. Social roles require older women’s commitment. The greater an older woman’s commitment, the better is her capacity to learn, be independent and active. Her knowledge and abilities grow, her interests widen and she is able to take on more complex responsibilities. A woman with more social roles will also be better ready to help herself and others. And all of this will result in a positive and well-formed identity.

Unit 3. Programming education for older women


Educators/mentors of older learners cannot focus only on their subjects or topics, their disciplinary knowledge, the methods to use, etc., but have to bear in mind that education of older people is also about the empowerment of older people, men and women. Older female learners should change their attitude towards themselves as older women and old age in general by developing relevant standpoints. Older adult education is transformative for both educators and participants. It should also raise awareness in the general public about who older women are, their values and rights, their identity and their gendered experiences they bring with them to the learning process. To be socially transformative, the education of older people is accompanied by public campaigning.


For different reasons, older women are not a homogeneous group. There are vast differences within a group and among groups of older women. To begin with, they are older workers, older women facing retirement, older women after retirement and after the professional working life phase. Hence, from both an individual and societal perspective, it is important to promote educational activities for all groups of older women.


We cannot just adapt older adult education programmes to the perceived needs of older learners. They have to be customized and mostly built from scratch. To be exact, draft programmes are built, the goals are set, and methods are selected. But the contents depend on the needs, interests, wishes, aspirations of the learners. They depend on the time and space and culture of the environment. But there should also be a hidden or less hidden agenda with contents empowering older female learners taking into account the values and gender capital they bring to education. For example, in a group of English learners, grand parenting was discussed based on a compilation of facts from research studies. Grandmothers discovered that they have to put their health first as not to suffer from grandparents’ burnout. The group also discussed the history of Rosa Luxembourg in comparison with Slovenian feminists Danica and Angela Vode.  Other topics included family relationships after retirement, and prejudices concerning older women.  The group visited the Zagreb Women’s Studies Centre, and discussed the Me Too movement. The syllabus also included a showing of Oldies, a Slovenian play, with performances by older people who aren’t professional actors, followed by critical discussion. The insulting declarations of some politicians concerning women were identified and reacted to by writing a collective letter to the editor of a magazine. Stereotypes about older women were identified by the learners and discussed.


How to design an older adult education programme


Planning the implementation and programming the contents of an educational programme are needed to achieve coherence among the various elements of the programme.


(1) In the past, programming was thought of as anticipating the steps to be taken in order to achieve goals. The main programming strategy was goal oriented.

(2) A discussion started on how to adapt the goals in dialogue with the participants. As long as only goals were important, the structure of adult education programmes was clear.

(3) Later adaptation of goals and finding equilibrium of often-opposed needs started taking place.

(4) In the past, focus was on structured contents and methods.

(5) Nowadays, focus has been shifted to identifying the needs.

(6) An educational programme for older adults and older women is understood as a dynamic process dealing with knowledge and skills, of course, but also values, attitudes towards learning, the impact of social and cultural circumstances.


Programming contents and planning delivery does not follow a single methodology with a linear development. Instead, programming contents and planning delivery of an educational programme for older adults is a rather creative, innovative process (where trial and error learning is present as well). Different methods, models and approaches are used.

Drakulič, S. (2018). Nevidljiva žena i druge priče. Zagreb: Fraktura.


Gros, F. (2014). A Philosophy of Walking.


Hugo, J. M. (1990). Adult education history and the issue of gender: Toward a different history of adult education in America. Adult Education Quarterly 41, 1–16.


Johnson-Bailey, J., Cervero, R. (1996). An analysis of the educational narratives of re-entry Black women. Adult Education Quarterly 46(3), 142–157.


Kant, I. (2011). Fundamental Principals of the Metaphysics of Morals. Publishing.


Lewis, L., ed. (1988). Special Issue: Addressing the Needs of Returning Women. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. No. 39. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Rubenson, K., ed. (2011). Adult Learning and Education. Oxford: Elsevier.