Class of ′78: Wendy Parkin

By Wendy Parkin

| 19 March 2019

Prior to applying for the applied social studies course at the age of 36, I had passed the 11+, done O-levels and then A-levels in chemistry, mathematics and biology, leading to work in a pathology laboratory as a technician specialising in biochemistry.

I left when I got married with was still the norm in 1962 and spent time in the home and bringing up children. In true Educating Rita style I knocked on the door of the university in 1973 saying that I wanted to study. They directed me to applied social studies. I believe I set a bit of a precedent as I was by far the oldest student they had interviewed and the first with children. I subsequently found out that one interviewer made a note on my records that my motivation for applying was to "escape my family responsibilities" - a reflection on how women were seen. I did make it in 1974 after a year of being required to gain some experience of social work in a hospital setting. A not unreasonable request but most of my co-students had no experience as they came straight from school.

My first-class honours was cause for comment at graduation by the Chancellor Harold Wilson, where it was noted that they had had "a mature woman student who had done rather well"!! 

The course was, for us, in two halves with the first two years following their tradition of high-emphasis on psychodynamic principles to be followed by two more years more focused on social policy and where I began to understand issues of racism and other discriminations. It was not enough to say "I am not prejudiced" as it was important to understand structural inequalities. This stood me in good stead when I started working in a northern inner-city social services office serving a deprived and multi-ethnic population where I was also involved in community work and a residential project for homeless women.

There were tensions around class which were then rarely mentioned but I lived in a middle-class area while working in a deprived area. Working with families and children led me to undertake further work in therapeutic work with children when my psychodynamic background was invaluable. At the same time I was following my interest in gender after starting a postgraduate writing relationship with Jeff Hearn after he initiated a sub-group on gender as part of our "Groups and Organisations" course. We were in the 1970s and part of "second wave" feminism which had stated in the 60s.

This led to eight years of joint interest as I worked in a family centre specialising in working with very high-risk families and also at a polytechnic which later became a university where I taught both on social work and on nursing courses. 

At the family centre we worked intensively with a small number of families and I drew on my psychodynamic background in working with adults and children. We were eclectic in our approaches using a range of theoretical perspectives, but my special interest was in working with children where I specialised in using Jungian-based sand play therapy but also using our basic understanding of attachment theories. We were constantly working with issues of loss and also a very high prevalence of sexual abuse.

At the same time, I was able to follow an academic career which eventually became full-time as principal lecturer, writer and researcher. I developed work on children's residential care and had a very successful PhD student who did research on this. My other constant was my interest in gender. Jeff Hearn and I wrote a landmark book, first published in 1987 and revised in 1993 on the relationship between power, gender and sexuality in organisations. (‘Sex' at ‘Work': The Power and Paradox of Organisation Sexuality). We subsequently did further work in 2001 on violence in organisations. (Gender, Sexuality and Violence in Organisations) and currently doing a book on ageing and organisations.  We also published a number of articles and chapters.

Recently a professor of politics nominated our book on sexuality as his key text for studying gender. While gratifying, it was also seen as a negative as it should no longer be an issue. However, and this was discussed at the reunion, women's issues seem to have taken a backward step, with a considerable backlash. Think of all the sexual harassment issues and how they have been dealt with by the press. Think of pay gaps, and still the difficulties of women in politics and business, for example. Still a long way to go.

Since retiring I have been active in bereavement support, a healthy living centre and, more recently, in the health service by chairing and running a patient group at my local surgery and also patient engagement at clinical commissioning group level. I would identify the running of two "end of life" courses as a key achievement - all started in 1974!!

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