Opinionista Nuraan Davids 10 August 2020

Gender doesn’t matter in teaching

Merely increasing the number of male teachers is not going to address the label (or stigma) of teaching as ‘women’s work’. Undoing this stigma calls for a disruption of the patriarchal discourses and norms, which perpetuate marginalisation and minimisation of women, in order to centre a male worldview.

Why are there far more women teachers than men? Research confirms that although men and women are often motivated by similar altruistic reasons, they enter the teaching profession for different reasons. Female teachers may be more motivated by the perceived intrinsic aspects of teaching, or value the ability to combine teaching with parenthood, and hence opt for the profession as their first choice.

By contrast, men may be deterred by a low salary, and the associations of teaching, especially at primary level, with mothering, and hence might opt for the profession later in their lives.

Although female teachers outnumber males across primary and high schools in the country, they are under-represented at leadership (principal) levels. In researching this Women’s Day (9 August 2020) article, I looked at enrolment figures for the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University and found that in 2020, we enrolled 809 female and 142 male students into our BEd programme (Foundation and Intermediate phase), and 204 female and 76 male teachers into our PGCE (Senior and FET phase) programmes. 

In both the BEd and PGCE student intakes, the difference between the number of females and males is significant, with a substantial difference between male students opting for teaching at the primary level and those opting for high school teaching.

The dominant presence of females in teaching  ̶  particularly at primary school level   ̶  has raised concerns about the “feminisation” of teaching. These concerns centre on teaching increasingly being seen as “women’s work”; that the absence of male teachers has particular implications for male learners in terms of discipline, motivation and social interaction. In other words, the suggestion is that the poor academic performance of male learners can be ascribed to a predominance of female teachers; and effective teaching requires masculine hegemony.

As a result, there are calls for the masculinising of teaching. Improving the number and presence of male teachers is often   ̶ unquestioningly   ̶  constructed as a positive for male learners. The assumption is that in order for male learners to achieve academically, or excel at sporting codes, to be “disciplined”, or become “men”, they need to have male role models. But is this the correct call?

The argument for masculinising is premised on contested assumptions, underpinned by sex role socialisation theories whereby masculinity and femininity are located solely within male and female bodies respectively. There are a number of major concerns with strategies geared at increasing the number of male teachers, merely for the sake of having male representation.

Firstly, that the idea of a “feminised” teaching profession is seen only as being negative in relation to male learners and not female learners. Secondly, rather than seeking to challenge the ways in which the feminised attributes associated with teaching have been devalued and addressing the consequences of this for women in the teaching profession, the focus has been on making the profession attractive for men, thereby inadvertently feeding into male privilege. In this regard, gender-specific socialisation might constrain both men and women.

On the one hand, women might believe and buy into traditional conceptions of themselves as primary carers, and hence as teachers, and not aspire to occupy positions of leadership or administrators, such as curriculum designers, institutional managers or directors. On the other hand, men might be deterred from pursuing a teaching profession not because of a lack of interest or low pay, but because of stereotypes, which frame teaching as “women’s work”, and instead, assume implicit leadership skills and aptitudes for which they might neither be capacitated, nor desire.

Moreover, if we accept that low salary indeed plays a demotivating role for men in pursuing careers as teachers, then the more pertinent question to ask is why work traditionally associated with women is so consistently poorly paid. Indeed, we would have to ask the same question in relation to all professions which foreground care, compassion and empathy.

Representation in terms of gender, therefore, cannot be conceived in terms of binary constructions between males and females. The low numbers of males in the teaching profession is a matter of concern  ̶  for all learners and not only males  ̶  but not because there is a shortage of males. Rather, the concern pertains to how we understand difference and diversity. To homogenise the shortage of males is to lose sight of these differences and to undermine what representation infers.

There are many reasons  ̶  some more complex than others  ̶  for the low number of male teachers in schools in most liberal democracies. Merely increasing the number of males is not going to address the label (or stigma) of teaching as “women’s work”. 

That teaching is associated with caring, and hence framed as a “woman’s role”, is a commentary on the hegemonies of power which divide the world into only two genders – masculine and feminine. Undoing this stigma calls for a disruption of the patriarchal discourses and norms, which perpetuate marginalisation and minimisation of women, in order to centre a male worldview.

Secondly, increasing the number of male teachers will not lead to an increase in salary, and hence a recognition of the unequivocal value of teachers and teaching. Thirdly, increasing the number of male teachers will not make “men out of boys”, or strengthen their academic potential, or make them more “disciplined”. Learners  ̶  regardless of whether they prescribe to a particular gender construction or not  ̶  are in need of teachers who are committed to teaching and who are committed to those they teach. 

The focus on gender, therefore, is not to make an argument for more male teachers in schools. The focus on gender is to highlight the role of patriarchal hegemonies in relation to the ideological construction and perception of teaching as “women’s work”. The challenge, therefore, is to ensure that teaching transcends framings of “feminisation” and “masculinisation”, and that it is accorded the necessary standing and regard it so clearly deserves in any society. DM

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