Learning in a Social Context and Self-Determination Theory

Motivation: Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory (SDT) is a motivational theory that—along with other important concepts—examines the effect of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Thus, the connection between the concepts of the previous lesson (SRL and SDL) will become immediately obvious. This reading (Sheldon, 2009) is nearly ideal as it examines the theory of SDT in the specific context of adult education. As youcread, pay careful attention to how autonomy may be supported or hindered.


Sheldon, K. M. (2009). Changes in goal-striving across the life span: Do people learn to select more self-concordant goals as they age?. In M. C. Smith (Ed.), Handbook of research on adult learning and development (pp. 553–569). New York: Routledge.

Introduction: Learning in Social Context

Current theory and research about learning is increasingly focused on a sociocultural perspective—that is a perspective that takes into account the fact that learning occurs in a social context. The first two readings for this topic explain this approach and link it to adult learning in different contexts. Bonk & Kim (1998) present and discuss a continuum of levels of adult learning and the ‘cultural tools and artefacts’ that could be used at each level. Stephen Billett (1998) in the second reading (Hodkinson & Hodkinson, 2007), focuses on how knowledge is socially constructed in vocational settings. He
discusses the concept of “communities of practice,” each with their own activity systems and values. Implications for vocational education are discussed.

The final reading for this topic (Palmer, 1998) presents a radical alternative to the conceptualization of community in the adult learning context. Briefly, Parker Palmer is a Quaker (Society of Friends), and this spiritual background has guided much of his educational philosophy.


Bonk, C. J., & Kim, K. A. (1998). Extending sociocultural theory to adult learning. In M. C. Smith & T. Pourchot (Eds.), Adult learning and development: Perspectives from educational psychology (pp. 67–88). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hodkinson, P., & Hodkinson, H. (2007). The complexities of workplace learning: Problems and dangers in trying to measure attainment. In H. Rainbird, A. Fuller & A. Munro (Eds.), Workplace learning in context (pp. 259–275). London: Routledge.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). Knowing in community: Joined by the grace of great things. In The Courage To Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (pp. 89–113). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

We did not have time to explore this question in class today: What is the relationship between ZPD and SE? In particular, what needs to be in place if you are to get at student to work in a "zone" which they essentially can't (at least not on their own)?

In an earlier discussion (from Week 04 - Lesson #3) self-efficacy was defined as type of judgement about one's own capabilities, and that this judgement can be derived from sources such as actual performance and knowledge how others perform (Schunk and Pajares, 2004, p116-117). A challenge in self-efficacy is ensuring that the learner realises tht the purpose is not orientated towards how well they have done in the allocated task (a performance outcome), but rather their confidence in carrying out future tasks of a similar nature as a point of the self-evaluation activity is for accurate estimations future learning capability (op cit, p126).

A specific reading to ZPD is not in the course readings per se., but there is quite a number of papers are similar to to it, especially in reference to scaffolding and coaching (e.g., Collins et.al, 1989, Volet, 1991). Vygotsky himself could not fully elaborate the theory, having only initiated study in it just two year's prior to his death. But give it a nutshell definition, the zone of proximal development refers to an area between an activity a person can undertake without assistance and an activity a person cannot undertake. It refers to an task which a person can undertake only with assistance (Vygotsky, 1978).

Referring back to Vygotsky's (Vygotsky, 1986) original modelling, an essential component in the transformation from the ZPD to what will be called self-efficiacy is the use of language in dialogue. Through dialogue (and coaching and scaffolding), uncertainities, ambiguities, and questions concerning the task are raised by the learner to the "coach", who is able to guide and inform the grounded reasons for success or failure in the given task, propositions which are then able to be tested (and hopefully confirmed), giving the learner a structured knowledge of the situation. This knowledge is clearly an example of self-efficiacy, where the learner is not only aware of their own capabilities, they also know the reasons why they are capable and, perhaps most importantly, they should also know what they don't know.


Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick
(Ed.), Knowing, learning and instruction: Essays in honour of Robert Glaser (pp. 453–494). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Schunk, D.H., Parajes F. (2004). Self-Efficacy in education revisited: Empirical and applied evidence. In D.M. McInerneyt & S.V. Etten (Eds.) "Big Theories Revisited", (pp115-118). Greenwhich, CT: Information Age Publishing

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students’ learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319-336.

Vygotsky, L. (1986) FP 1934. Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[Absolutely superb answer by Julie A., kept for prosperity!]

To me there is a strong linkage between Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development and self efficacy. Specifically that if a teacher is able to effectively use techniques to teach within the ZPD then certainly would be a positive move towards the student building self efficacy.

Self efficacy is defined by Bandura as an individual’s belief of their abilities to succeed in specific types of performance. Bandura stated that sense of self-efficacy can play a major role in how one approaches goals, tasks, and challenges. Simply put students who are confident about their capabilities are expected to work harder and persist longer then students who doubt their capabilities.

Given the simplified description of the ZPD is the difference between the range of things a learner can do independently and those they can only do with assistance a teacher would need to ensure that they are understanding of the leaner’s current stage of development and are able to provide the appropriate level of assistance to not only achieve those goals but also to increase their future potential or in Vygotsky’s words the “tomorrow of development” (Vygotsky, 1978).

Bandura’s work talks about the role of observational learning and social experiences being an important component of a personal psychological development. Self efficacy represents the internalised perception of these external social factors.

Vygotsky also found that social interaction is an important part of a leaner’s psychological development specifically the use of cultural tools or artefacts we use (being from simply items we use pens, utensils, equipment etc to more complex areas such as language, traditions or beliefs) (Cole, 1997; Vygotsky, 1982).

To get a student to work into the new “zone” there would firstly need to be a relationship built between teacher and learner where there is a certain level of credibility and trust. In my view to get the learner to take that step and challenge themselves they need to be able to trust that the teacher will give the right level of support. (While considering this I was also thinking about the Grow reading and the matrix of learner stages and teaching styles).

There also needs to be opportunities presented for collaborative learning. This can occur not just through the individual teacher and student relationship but also through linking the student with more skilled or experienced peers. Interactions that allow for the gradual transfer of skills and information from an ‘expert’ to a ‘novice’ using guidance and coaching would be effective way of teaching within the ZPD.

The concept of the use of scaffolding (Wells, 1999) has been referred to as "a way of operationalizing Vygotsky's (1987) concept of working in the zone of proximal development".
Scaffolding could include direct teaching, offering hints or prompts or modelling actions or behaviours. This would allow students to build an awareness of how and why the approach works and to consider how to engage them on their own. Collaborative learning approaches would expose the learner to diverse social interactions including discussion groups, consideration of multiple perspectives, elaborating on other’s ideas.


Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change, Psychological Review 1977, Vol. 84, No. 2, 191-215

Shabani, K., Khatib., M, Ebadi, S. (2010). Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional Implications and Teachers' Professional Development, appearing in English Language Teaching Vol. 3, No. 4; December 2010 through www.ccsenet.org/elt
Lee, C. D. (2000) Signifying in the Zone of Proximal Development, in C.D.Lee and
P.Smoagorinsky(Eds) Vygostkian Perspective on Literacy Research: Constructing meaning through collaborative inquiry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Schunk, D.H., Parajes F. (2004). Self-Efficacy in education revisited: Empirical and applied evidence. In D.M. McInerneyt & S.V. Etten (Eds.) "Big Theories Revisited", (pp115-118). Greenwhich, CT: Information Age Publishing

Volet, S. E. (1991). Modelling and coaching of relevant metacognitive strategies for enhancing university students’ learning. Learning and Instruction, 1, 319-336.

Grow, G.O. (1991). Teaching learner’s to be self directed. Adult Education Quarterly, 41 (3), 125-149

This question led to an interesting discussion in class. I thought I would present it for online students to explore.

"My learning relies on the interactions with other"

Would you agree or disagree with this statement? Why or why not?

Everything about the experience of learning is social interactions. In the typical setting of being enrolled in an institution, with each person have rights and responsibilities according to the enrolment, is a result of social interactions. The books that are acquired from various institutions such as libraries and book-stores are acquired through social interactions, using procedures of social relations (whether borrowing rights or purchasing rights, or even stealing them, a transgression against the social relation of property rights).

Having acquired our learning material, it can be noted that they were written by their authors for others, another social relation. Having worked our way through the text, we discuss it with our peers and colleagues, engaging in further social relations. We search online for additional material, and participate in even more social interactions; even when we do so alone and without engaging in any online discussions, we still interact with websites and hosting companies.

Perhaps the rugged individual (RI) would argue that they can learn without social interactions. If driven to prove this point, they - like Benjamin Franklin's famous tax-avoiding savage (Henry Smyth, 1905-07) - find themselves building their own house in the woods, built from their own hands, with a bow and skin, likewise from their own work. How did they acquire these skills of builder, bowyer, and fletcher? Being generous, they were acquired by trial and error. Surely now this is an example of one who has learned by themselves, free from social interaction?

Alas it is not the case. The symbolic values that they manipulate in their mind in this process of abstract thought, language itself, is the result of social interactions. Driven now by madness, RI - determined to prove that learning does not rely on interactions with others - steals a young child (after all, to produce one requires an interaction with another) who is sufficiently young not be socialised and engages in the most "forbidden experiment" (Shattuck, 1994); can one learn without any social interaction?

Providing but for the child's biological needs for food and shelter, hoping to minimise interactions with others to the absolute minimum, RI raises the child without teaching it even language. Observing the poor creature from a distance as it grows, a determination is acquired; that without the affirmation from others, without the love offer, without the challenges they raise, that the human spirit has no purpose and is restricted to the base biological functions (Pines, 1981). It is not enough to have just the biological capacity to learn; our species-being requires us to interact with others to learn (Hurford et. al, 1998).


Burling, R. 2005. The Talking Ape. How language evolved. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Albert Henry Smyth (ed), The Writings of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Macmillan Co., 1905-7. The tax avoiding savage is a letter to Robert Morris, December 25, 1783

Hurford, J. R., M. Studdert-Kennedy and C. Knight (eds), 1998. Approaches to the Evolution of Language. Social and cognitive bases. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pines, M., 1981 The Civilizing of Genie. Psychology Today, 15(9), 28.

Shattuck, R., 1994. The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. Kodansha International.

Question proposed by Jaye E.

Admittedly i had to revisit this paper because particular terminology provoked an emotional response for me. Early in his paper Parker Palmer (1998) emphasises that "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced" (p. 90). The more he spoke about 'truth' the more my post-modernist hackles were raised! I decided to dismiss his points and skim lightly...

Then late in the paper he provides his definition of truth as NOT the conclusions made from objects of knowledge but rather the "passionate and disciplined process of inquiry and dialogue itself, as the dynamic convesation of a community that keeps testing old conclusions and coming into new ones" (p. 104). He asserts that "there are no pristine objects of knowledge and no ultimate authorities" (p. 101). I realised that i needed to take another look (and learn more about my response)!

I am still re-reading the paper but a couple of points have really excited me in the second reading...

1. Palmer's deconstruction of a 'hierarchical' model of knowledge that focuses on objects and experts to a portrayal of knowledge as a collective, empowering network of relationships between people and subjects thrilled me to bits...even if i am still trying to get my head around the machinations of it!

2. I was really excited to hear Palmer propose as positive a couple of concepts that would usually be seen as negative, undeseirable or to be avoided in a learning/teaching environment. He states conflict as a positive phenomena! "Conflict is the dynamic by which we test ideas in the open, in a communal effort to stretch each other and make better sense of the world" (p. 103).

He also asserts that "good education may leave students deeply dissatisfied, at least for a while...students who have been served well by good teachers may walk away angry-angry that their prejudices have been challenged and their sense of self shaken. That sort of dissatisfaction may be a sign that real education has happened" (p. 94).

Anyone who has engaged in effective counselling understands that some of the most positive changes/breakthroughs/insights come from immense discomfort - i think learning can be the same. Do you agree? Disagree? Because?

3. Palmer proposes that "to be in the community of truth, we must abide by its norms and procedures, which differ from one field to another" (p. 103). This statement links nicely to the Hodkinson and Hodkinson paper as workplaces are often governed by unwritten and unspoken yet vigorously regulated informal cultures - the 'norms and procedures' of a communities of practice. This offers enormous power to 'existing members' as they can include or exclude. How might 'abiding by the norms and procedures of a community of practice facilitate or hinder learning?

4. Finally, Palmer states that diversity + ambiguity + creative conflict are some of "the virtues that give education its finest form" (p. 107). Considering all four of this weeks readings, how do the 'virtues of education' impact online students? Is it possible have sufficent quantities of these 'virtues' when not having face-to-face discussion with fellow students?


Well, as a stubborn old-fashioned modernist who concurs that there is a category of knowledge called "truth", I has quite a similar reactions, albeit for opposite reasons. But I do grok the postmodernist perspective (and of course, we do find some of this in the reading materials (Parker, 1997)).

This aside, I found that the author's knowledge of particle physics (for example) to be somewhat speculative at best - actually to be honest, it's utterly wrong, reiterating a popular but completely mistaken notion that "[p]hysicists cannot study subatomic particles without altering them in the act of knowing". It is not 'the act of knowing' that changes the object of observation, but the quite objective observational tools required for measurement in quantum mechanics are simply so sensitive to the environment that they are measuring that they alter the measuring process itself. As a trivial example, a standard means to detect an electron is via photonic interaction; however that photonic interaction changes the path of the electron (for an introduction to the subject see D'Espagnat et.al, (1989). This example is just one of the metaphysical presumptions of the author that ran through the entire article. Referring to a "mythical objectivism", the author does not accept the existence of objects of inquiry, only subjects.

Whilst the temptation to rant against the use of scientific illiteracy to propagate mystical nonsense is very high, there is indeed something worth rescuing in Palmer's article, and that is the notion of truth being known through a community of scholars, hence the notion that "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced".

Way back in the day when I did my first degree at Murdoch University, I undertook a foundation course called "Structure, Thought and Reality" (I'm not sure whether the course still exists; and in any case we called them 'Trunk courses' back then). One of the reading texts was a delightful story called "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" which, as the author stated, didn't actually include much of either! What it did include however was a narrative of an inquiry into values. One section - apropos Palmer - was particularly influential on me. I was very pleased when foundation professor Geoffrey Bolton quoted it at the Murdoch graduation ceremony in - I think - 1990).

"The real University ... has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It's a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself."

(Murdoch was in the midst of an amalgamation threat at the time and a lot of people were concerned about the maintenance of our independence and the integrity embodied in the original educational objectives).

So I will elaborate instead that the equation "diversity + ambiguity + creative conflict = truth", to replace "truth" with "reason" (for truth is but one category of knowledge which is rationalisable). It is not a metaphysical proposal, such as one finds implied in Palmer, that objective reality is something that is created by the community of scholars itself, but rather the process by which they acquire this knowledge.

We need diversity, because it provides the opportunity to understand different ways of observing the world; we need ambiguity because it represents that there are still questions to be asked and knowledge to be discovered; we need creative conflict because it is through such challenges that we can overcome our own deeply seated prejudices and develop deeply considered convictions. Good educational theory will cause, as a result, significant discomfort, but with wonderful, exhilarating results (later in the course we will see this again with flow theory (Csikszentmihalyi, 2003).

Finally, in regard to online studies, there is no reason that the virtues of education cannot be obtained by online experiences; although by the way of bias this is my third online degree. There are, of course, some phenomenological issues concerning the experience and as a result people do miss the social cues implicit in face-to-face conversation, hence enhanced levels of both confrontational aggressiveness and honest disclosure, that have been known for a long time (Reid, 1994). But in terms of creating the community of scholars that both Parker and Prisig seemed to hint at, it is certainly possible, probable, and real.

Additional References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2003). Happiness in action. In Good business: Leadership, flow, and the making of meaning (pp. 37–61). London: Penguin Books.

D'Espagnat B.., Eberhard, P., Schommers, W., Selleri F., (1989). Quantum Theory and Pictures of Reality. Springer-Verlag

Parker, S., (1977). The idea of reflective teaching. In 'Reflective teaching in the postmodern world: A manifesto for education in postmodernity", Buckingham, Open University Press.

Prisig, R., (1974), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, William Morrow & Company

Reid, E, (1994), Cultural Formations in Text-Based Virtual Realities, Master of Arts Thesis, Department of English, University of Melbourne.


Hodkinson & Hodkinson's paper rebuts the policy pressure in the UK and USA "for research on education and learning to be conducted scientifically and objectively, to provide robust evidence that certain practices do or do not improve learning" (p. 259), specifically learning in the work place.

My understanding of this paper is that Hodkinson & Hodkinson:
i. question the validity of scientific method to measure learning and;
ii. explain the mechanisms of, and advocate for, recognition of learning from both formal and informal cultures in organisations/disciplines/industries (Communities of Practice).

In the previous reading Bonk & Kim discuss the application of 10 socioculturally based teaching techniques to prepare students for the 'global marketplace'. They assert that "group collaboration is central to this movement because learning is largely a social enterprise and most human labour is performed by teams" (p. 73). To what extent are these 10 techniques compatible with the six categories in Hodkinson & Hodkinson's Typology of Learning matrix? Can you provide any practice examples to highlight your discussion?


As a contrary opinion in regard to the Hodkinson and Hodkinson paper (2007), it is a question whether there's enormous benefit in concentrating on the validity of scientific method to measure learning, or in rebutting the policy pressure for research to be conducted scientifically or objectively. Rather, a more valuable focus valuable in their paper was questioning the use of these methods in "measuring the attainment of such learning". After all, in their first paragraph they specifically that their counter argument is based on empirical evidence as well, a fairly important component to scientific methodology.

The reference to Sfard elucidates where the real dichotomy lies; the model of acquisition of learning skills versus participation in a skilled environment. The focus of Hodkinson and Hodkinson is clearly related to the latter, estabishling a typology based on intentionality and learning requirements. Drawing from other studies, the socialisation of an existing community of practise illustrates that "a new apprentice learned, not primarily being formally taught, but becoming assimilated into an existing community of practise", although it should be noted that the capacity for group novel learning via participative metaphors is more expressed more of a type, rather than one with significant empirical backing.


Hodkinson, P., Hodkinson, H. (2007). The complexities of workplace learning: Problems and dangers in trying to measure attainment. In H. Rainbird, A. Fuller & A. Munro (Eds.), Workplace learning in context (pp. 259–275). London: Routledge.

Topic 6C – Self-Determination Theory
Changes in Goal-Striving Across the Life Span
Cultural Affect on Self Determination

Sheldon and Kasser hypothesised that chronological age is correlated to greater self concordance. Sheldon highlighted a potential floor in the research in relation to the limitations of the survey region. However studies conducted in Singapore provided support for Deci’s and Ryan’s claim that self determination is a universal psychological need.

Do you think that an oppressive culture would limit/slow the migration of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic?

Would this have an affect a person’s sense of autonomy?

Could this affect the results of the self concordance chronological age studies?


Sheldon's argument that as people age they tend towards appropriate goal selection, deriving from humanist, organismic, and epigenetic perspectives on lifetime personality development (e.g., Maslow, Piaget, Erikson). Self-determination theory (from Deci and Ryan) argues that to be self-determined is to "endorse one's actions at the highest level of reflection" (quoted in Sheldon, p554). Specifying five different types of motivation (amotivation. external, introjected, identified, intrinsic), SDT positions the types according to the degree of internalisation with the only the latter, the most self-determined, is both intrinsic and autonomous, where actions are actions are carried out from "inherent interest and enjoyment, rather than to achieve some separable contingency". The only extrinsic motivation that is autonomous is "identified", "when people act to express an important self-identification or value" (p555).

More recently, the motivation continuum has been used to study self-generated personal goal, rather than domain-specific motivation. These represent the extent to which self-generated personal initiatives express underlying values and interests, and are thus described as "self-concordance" which "is thought to represent a state of congruence between one's self-generated goals and depper, growth-relevant aspect of one's personality" (p557).

Sheldon argues that self-concordant goals can only be selected if one is able to "resist social pressures, from both peers and well-meaning authorities, which might prompt one to persue personally inappropriate goals... Not only must one be able to resist problematic goas, one must able be able [sic] to figure out what goals are actually 'right' for one's self." (p558). From this possibility of extrinsic steering and even intrinsic self-motivation that the possibility of not selecting self-concordant goals is reason, and by which the question of a more "oppressive culture" would limit or slow the migratin from the extrinsic to the instrinsic - keeping in mind that a core arguement of Sheldon (et al) is that as one ages one becomes more capable of selecting self-concording goals.

Empirical evidence exists for a modest correlation of age with subjective well-being which, according to Sheldon, implies improvements in self-concordance (p560). When an empirical survey was conducted in Singapore, "[t]he three assessed duties were modified to fix the context" from "paying taxes, tipping service people, and voting" to "helping distant relatives", "obeying authorities", and "staying informed on about political issues". (p561-62). Deci and Ryan claim that self-determination is a universal psychological need, although "[o]nce again, chronological age was not associated with SWB, and thus the mediational hypothesis could not be tested".

The change in this sort of questions fundamentally changes what is being tested. If universal propositions are being identified then the questions must be of qualitative similarity. As it stands, one cannot determine empirically whether or not particular cultures limit or slow the migration of motivation from extrinsic to intrinsic, even it seems intuitively the case (this is regardless of whether or not the culture is collectivist or individualist). Certainly it should be possible for people to acquire self-concordance abilities regardless of the value orientations of a culture; but when a political system (distinct from a culture) imposes a particular model, it seems inevitable that personal development will be retarded. This is various examples of the destruction of a sphere of public life in totalitarian systems, and the reduction of critical education in the same.


Your remark ...

"There were many external forces at work when it came time for me to pursue the goals I had in mind for myself. I had my parents wanting me to pursue the path they had chosen for me (the army/navy), and I had my friends wanting me to pursue the same goals they had chosen for themselves (journalism/psychology)."

... really resonated with me. Too many times in my life I have seen a great number of graduates who have found themselves with a career path marked out for them in a discipline which they actually do not particularly enjoy or have any passion for.

I understand that well-meaning parents and guardians orientate a student towards a profession which they perceive will come with a good income. After all, with the exception of the independently wealthy we all must acquire a skill which others find useful to derive an income. But at the price of an unhappy career, when another - perhaps somewhat poorer - could have brought joy and passion?

The prospect of a personal who is entirely motivated by intrinsic, autonomous, self-determination, seems implausible. Given that meaning is derived from intersubjective agreement, it seems that motivation is likewise acquired from such affirmation in a social context. The examples are rare, but we do know that those who are brought up without a society to interact with do not have the sort of motivation that has been idealised; instead they have instinctual reactions (Rymer, 1993).

Our sense of self motivation is highly dependent on the integrated motivation we receive from others. Whilst there is such as things as deeply considered convictions and motivations, these are not "self generated" as such. As a result, there are serious conceptual problems with the notion of self-determination theory.


Rymer, Russ (1993), Genie: a Scientific Tragedy, New York, NY: Harper Perennial,

I take issue with the claim that "gender issues ... simply don’t exist". The citation from the Australian Bureau of Statistics clearly indicates there are significant disparities in some areas.

Something that it does confirm is your experience that there is an aggregate equivalence in postgraduates among men and women. On that the opinion matches the evidence. Good!

But in many other areas (e.g., male to female ratio in engineering and related vocations, female to male in clerical and administrative trades) there is enormous disparity.

There is an argument, which has some validity, from anthropology and psychology, that men and women are better suited for particular physical tasks. One would certainly expect to see a bias in the sexual division of labour in those cases. There are also cases were there is an enforced sexual division of labour; for example, there are "very few" female priests or "male nuns" in the Roman Catholic Church.

But when it comes to vocational and higher education areas in a post-industrial economy, this is not really the case. We are, at least formally, "free to choose". Or so it seems.

The larger the disparity in knowlegde-base professions, the less the probability that the differences are due to rationalised choices, and more due to the socialisation of gendered roles. Socialisation is a very subtle process and the results are deeply embedded in our unconscious. Which is why they can, on the surface, seem to be "individual choices", but in reality because they were not deeply considered independent of prejudices, they are not "rationalised individual choices".

There is a number of classic excellent evocative studies which illustrate how strong these social pressures can be; this includes the Ash conformity experiments, the Milgram obedience to authority experiments, The Third Wave Cubberley High School experiment, Stanford prison experiment. In a previous discussion in this thread the example of a person brought up "outside" of social interaction ("Genie") was provided, suggesting that autonomous intrinsic motivations are not actually possible, raising a serious question of the validity of the manner that "self-concordance" is being represented by its advocates; perhaps a more fruitful orientation would look at affirmation and integration.

To clarify, the reason that women are not becoming engineers is primarily due to socialisation which is expressed as individual choice. It is the same reason why there is such a large number of women who enrol in clerical and administrative trades compared to men. There is no rational basis for such choices, there are no functional reasons, and there is no laws that prevent or require a sexual division of labour - and yet one has come to exist.

Do people have a feeling of the subtle external pressure of gender roles? Certainly no more that the sense of discomfort that a middle aged man would have wearing a short-hemmed floral dress to work on a summer's day.

In the distant future (week 13) this course will be looking at "Diversity and Cross-Cultural Issues"; there is some gender considerations there (e.g., Davis, 1993., Lou 1994) perhaps in future a closer look would not go astray.

Additional References

Asch, S. E. (1940). Studies in the principles of judgments and attitudes: II. Determination of judgments by group and by ego-standards. Journal of Social Psychology, 12, 433-465.

Asch, S. E. (1948). The doctrine of suggestion, prestige and imitation in social psychology. Psychological Review, 55, 250-276.

Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4102.0 - Australian Social Trends, Sep 2012

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Reviews, 9, 1–17. Washington, DC: Office of Naval Research

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973). Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. International Journal of Criminology and Penology, 1, 69–97.

Milgram, S. (1974), Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, London: Tavistock Publications.

Strasser, T. (1981). The Wave. New York: Dell Publishing Co.