Is Teaching Undervalued Because It’s “Women’s Work”?
It’s a tale as old as time. (No, not the one where the young woman is held captive by a beast and made to fall in love with him, and we’re told it’s really a feminist narrative.) I’m talking about the one where teachers are perpetually underpaid and undervalued. In cities like San Francisco, teachers are required to live within city limits but struggle to afford the cost of living. In states like North Carolina, low salaries make recruiting great people to the field an ongoing challenge for school districts. So, while teaching is often revered—yes, we love teachers and love to give them apples and hugs on Teacher Appreciation Day—it’s not valued.
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Old biases about our field persist, like that teachers don’t go into it “for the money.” This assumes that teachers don’t care about earning a competitive wage or crave increased challenge and leadership as they progress in their careers. Even the very notion that “we ask too much of teachers” is problematic. Teaching demands a great deal of its practitioners. And while we certainly need to structure teaching roles so that they’re more sustainable, the notion that these high demands are “too much” is condescending. It undermines educators as professionals.
So, what gives? Here’s one possibility: teaching is undervalued because it’s viewed as a female profession. If teaching were dominated by men, would we suggest the work is too demanding? Would we perpetuate the notion of teaching as predominantly a second income, one where professional and financial growth are nice-to-haves rather than prerequisites?
Maybe the problem is that education just can’t escape these familiar gender stereotypes—or their consequences, which are well documented in other fields. McKinsey’s 2016 Women in the Workplace report summed up the state of affairs well. While more than 75 percent of CEOs identify gender equality in their top ten business priorities, for every 100 women promoted to manager, 130 men are. As a result, the higher you look in these companies, the fewer women you see. Less than 5 percent of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. And it’s considerably worse when we look at women of color, who hold just 3 percent of all C-suite roles.
In education—despite its reputation as a bastion of gender parity, and where women were welcomed as professionals long before many other fields were open to them—the situation’s not actually much better. Even as women dominate in lower paid teaching positions, as roles and responsibilities—and therefore salaries—increase, women drop off. In spite of the robust pipeline of female educators coming out of classrooms, just 52 percent of principals are women. A mere 24 percent of district superintendents are women; of the 50 largest districts in the country, 13 are led by women.
You get the picture. Women are underpaid in their roles in the classroom and underrepresented in more senior positions. Our field mirrors so many others, both in the ways women’s capabilities are undervalued and in the reasons women struggle to rise through the ranks.
If we want to make education a more equitable workspace, we have to commit to a lot of the same strategies that are showing some promise in corporate America. We have to, for example, stop making assumptions about what kinds of challenges and responsibilities women want—an especially pronounced issue for working mothers—and start asking our female employees instead. We have to expand networks for women in the workplace, so women at junior levels have more access to mentors who represent them. And we have to improve our evaluation tools, so decisions about promotions and compensation can be based on a consistent and high bar for performance—not who you know or how much face time you get with them.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. But if we want a profession that truly values its practitioners, brings the strongest, most diverse pool of candidates to every role, and pays them what they’re worth, we can’t afford to ignore education’s own entrenched sexism any longer.
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