Where have all the male teachers gone? Is positive discrimination the answer?

My daughter has been in childcare and school for the last 5 years in Australia and Spain. During that time she’s had two male teachers – a temporary kindergarten teacher and her class teacher for her first year of primary school. (She was very lucky. He was the only male teacher in a school of 400-odd children.) She’s had probably 30 or so female teachers, including music, swimming and language teachers.

There was a time when teaching was a predominantly male profession. However, according to the OECD’ s Education Indicators in Focus – Gender imbalances in education report, in 2014 68% of teachers were female for all levels of education combined, with the highest disparity in education for our youngest students, decreasing to close to parity in tertiary education. The percentage of female teachers is still increasing, because new graduate teachers are even more heavily weighted to female. In other words, the 2014 disparity is set to rise.

While we’ve been overwhelmingly impressed with my daughter’s female teachers, is there any problem with such a gender imbalance?

Male teachers as role models

The argument goes that a lack of male teachers means that our children are not being exposed to positive male role models. Male role models are important not only for boys but also for girls. Tania Aspland, executive dean of education and arts at the Australian Catholic University argues that boys and girls benefit from male teachers being role models and even father figures. While boys need men to relate to and confide in especially as they approach puberty, girls also need to develop skills in interacting with men, which is an important aspect of their self-image. She says:

These roles are critical as our children develop. The trouble is for too long too few young men have been choosing to become a teacher.

The reverse gender gap in educational achievement

The falling proportion of male teachers is coincidental with another worrying statistic: the falling educational achievements of boys. The American National Center for Education Statistics summarises the situation:

For years, women lagged behind men in educational attainment. More boys went to college, and Census data shows that twice as many men as women got bachelor’s degrees in 1960…. By the mid-1980s, women not only caught up but also started to gain on men, not just by inches, but miles. Now, 57 percent of college students are women, and women earn about one-third more bachelor’s degrees than men…

Can falling educational achievement in boys be attributed to lack of male teachers? Probably not in any direct, overt way. But if boys inadvertently experience school as a female domain, it is easy to see how they may become disaffected and disengaged.

Even contemporary women gravitate towards some academic fields rather than others – graduates in engineering and sciences are still dominated by men. The gendered nature of many professions means that in classrooms dominated by women, fields that are traditionally male (and possibly more attractive to boys) could be neglected.

Why don’t young men want to be teachers ?

A number of reasons have been proposed.

  1. Salary – In his analysis of the OECD data, Dirk van Damme concludes:

    …on average across OECD countries, male primary school teachers earn 71% of the wages of other tertiary-educated men. But female teachers earn a significantly higher relative wage…. While men and women doing the same teaching job in public schools earn nearly the same, the relative value of their earnings in the professional labour market is strikingly different.

    Teaching is a really hard job. It is one of the biggest responsibilities a person can have in our society. And yet we don’t replicate this in the wages we pay.

  2. Job insecurity – Short contracts, having little control over the location of your school, the sudden demands that arise from a public system that seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, are all negative factors facing young adults choosing this profession.
  3. Moral panic surrounding pedophilia – The vast majority of male teachers are not pedophiles, but they have been tarred with the pedophile’s brush. As a result of the moral panic, the question always seems to be at the back of minds, is he a teacher for all the wrong reasons?
  4. Problems faced by public education system – educational policies that do not represent best practices, overcrowding, poor facilities, the list goes on.
    Teachers often complain about poor behaviour in class – and while zero tolerance can’t be the answer, if we address some of the other systemic issues, maybe the behaviour will improve.
  5. Perception of teaching as women’s’ work – Philip Riley, associate professor at the Australian Catholic University, suggests that teaching is seen as predominantly female:

    The more a profession is perceived as gendered the more it becomes so. When jobs – such as nursing – are seen as predominantly female they tend to become devalued and low status which affects men more than women.

The first four points are probably why teaching has become women’s work. We need to bear in mind that this was not always the case; nor is it the case when we consider the profession in Asia and Africa. There are systemic and social reasons why the profession has evolved in this way, and they are written in chalk, not ink. With effort they can be erased.

Should we use positive discrimination to attract more male teachers?

As a feminist, I worry about all the professions that seem to deny girls and women an opportunity. There are too few female directors and female engineers. But I think the reasons why few women are successful in these professions are different from the reasons facing male would-be teachers.

Young men lack the incentive to become teachers. They don’t try and fail. They are not stuck at the lower echelons of the profession (indeed, they become more prevalent the higher they go in the school system – 55% of school principles are male). We need to change the perception that teaching is women’s work. This will only occur if policy makers and society address the points listed above, for example:

  • increase the pay rates for teachers.
  • improve teacher-student ratios, job security, classroom facilities and the other systemic factors that make teaching unattractive.
  • bring a more mature perspective to the debate surrounding pedophilia.

This is not positive discrimination, but improving conditions for all teachers. I’m confident that men will then find the profession more attractive.

Jenny Weight
English consultant and graphic novelist
Since leaving the higher education sector I’ve been focussed on thinking about education more holistically – I’m particularly interested in the interface between education and media, but I want to understand better how we can bring our traditional educational institutions to embrace the possibilities that the network and media are opening up. We need to reinvent education to suit the nature of our working lives, and our need to engage in routine lifelong learning. I use my research and writing skills to explore these issues. I consult on education issues and assist postgraduate students with their theses.

As an artist, my new project is Mayor, a graphic novel set in thirteenth century Spain. You can find out more about these activities in my blog: geniwate.com.

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Where have all the male teachers gone? Is positive discrimination the answer?
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Where have all the male teachers gone? Is positive discrimination the answer?
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Article ponders the decreasing percentage of male teachers in primary and secondary education in OECD countries, and proposes solutions.
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Virtually English
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