Rethinking gender equality in the teaching profession: is secondary school teaching ‘women-friendly’?

In many countries, teaching is constructed as a ‘women-friendly’ profession. By drawing on Les Enseignants et le Genre, a recently published cross-national comparison of men and women teachers based in French and English secondary schools, I want to question this view.

In the doctoral study on which this book is based, I found that four assumptions, whose prominence varies across contexts, underpin this ‘women-friendly’ construction of teaching.

  • In secondary schools, the presence of significant numbers of both women and men can lead to the view that women face no barriers in this profession, or even that they are at an advantage since they represent a slight majority of secondary school teachers.
  • There is an idea that teaching is a ‘feminine’ activity, i.e. an extension of women’s caring nature. While models of teacher professionalism in England are now a far cry from this image of teaching as a caring profession, this idea remains stronger in England, compared with France where secondary school teacher professionalism has been traditionally defined in terms of subject expertise.
  • Teachers’ working conditions are often perceived as ‘family-friendly’, thus ‘women-friendly’ as care work remains largely defined, in normative terms, as a woman’s activity and, in practical terms, is mostly done by them. In England, such views are based on the fact that teaching is relatively open to part-timers and ‘returners’ compared with jobs requiring similar levels of qualification, and on the fact that teachers’ timetables are broadly similar to pupils’. In France, this view is compounded by the fact that secondary school teachers benefit from a high level of autonomy on a spatio-temporal level (they are mostly expected to be in the school during their teaching hours, about 15 or 18 hours a week, depending on the grade).
  • In both countries, most school teachers are public sector employees, a sector seen as less open to discrimination than the private sector. In my study, this argument found particular resonance among French teachers.  In France, entry into the profession is determined by success in the national competitive examinations and the State plays a key role in regulating the conditions of recruitment and promotion. State intervention and the existence of national competitions which are, in principle, the same for all, are often mentioned by French teachers to justify their egalitarian view of teaching and deny the possibility of gender discrimination in this profession.

Yet, a more research-informed analysis questions this common view of teaching as ‘women-friendly’ or as egalitarian. While the statistical data available show that women are present in a significant proportion in this profession, a closer look at their distribution across positions highlights their under-representation in those segments of the labour market associated with the highest levels of economic and symbolic capital (even though these segments are not the same in both countries). This suggests that, if teaching is ‘friendly’ to women, it is not so friendly to their career.

Similarly, this assumption that teaching is ‘friendly’ to women because it facilitates the combination of paid and domestic/care work is problematic. First, this view does not problematise the association between domestic/care work and femininity and fails to acknowledge the diversity of ‘families’ (including the fact that all women are not mothers/carers). Second, a closer look at the experiences of mothers working in secondary schools brings in a more ambiguous reality. Part-time work and long career breaks remain widespread occurrences among mothers teaching in English secondary schools. Moreover, it is not unusual for those returning to teaching to start as classroom teacher again, even when they have previously held a higher level of responsibilities. On top of this, school senior positions are rarely available part-time. In France, becoming a parent does not seem to have such a strong effect on the trajectories of secondary school teachers: it is not rare for a woman with a young family to continue teaching full-time and to take only the statutory career break. The high level of autonomy of secondary school teaching in the French context, combined with an extensive State intervention in family matters, tends to explain this. However, even in that case, French women teachers are still concentrated in the lower paid and less prestigious segments of the labour market. They are also more likely than their male counterparts to use the flexibility of their job to undertake care and domestic work. Indeed, in our study, the only cases of broadly equal division of domestic and care work were found in the English sample.

So, as we see here, the ‘women-friendliness’ of teaching is questionable. While we need to acknowledge that teaching is one of the main sector of employment for women and that many teachers, through their work and lives, disturb the assumptions described above, we need to ask: what do we mean exactly when we say that teaching is women-friendly? What becomes apparent from this project is that this ‘friendliness’ does not express itself in career terms, nor in terms of gender equal arrangements in the home. While raising awareness may not be enough, it is probably a necessary step. This means producing alternative discourses of gender and teaching, discourses which are truly inclusive. This starts with deconstructing the dominant narratives in place, for example those supporting in some parts of the world the view that the ‘feminisation’ of teaching is damaging for children, particularly for boys, and that the redefinition of teaching through its association with some of the attributes of hegemonic masculinity is for the common good.

Marie-Pierre Moreau, University of Bedfordshire

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