Is Gender Bias the Reason Teachers Get Paid So Little?
Jennifer Orr, who teaches kindergarten for the Fairfax County Public School system in Virginia, has grown accustomed to people not taking her profession seriously. “You’ll say, ‘I teach kindergarteners,’ and they say, ‘That’s so cute,’” she says. “You get that sense of, ‘Oh, you think I play all day.”
Orr’s experience is hardly unique. Parents may respect their children’s teachers, but too often, people perceive teachers as a step up above babysitters, especially in the earlier grades. More troublingly still, this perception seems to hold true among the policymakers who could engender real change.
The conversation surrounding how to make the teaching profession more respected has recently been reinvigorated thanks to initiatives coming from Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Education’s proposed 2017 budget provides for $1 billion in funding for a grant competition, called the Best Job in the World,as a way to attract talented teachers to work at high-needs schools. The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, also launched the TeachStrong campaign last fall, to build a coalition of 40 education organizations that will discuss how to make the teaching profession more prestigious, as well as how to provide better support systems for teachers.
But one element is missing in the conversation about why teachers are undervalued: gender. Is it a coincidence that teaching, a mostly female profession, is often perceived as low- to mid-skill work, confers little social status, and pays poorly? Hillary Clinton recently drew this connection when she spoke before the New York State United Teachers Representative Assembly in April, saying, “And while we’re at it—at a time when the majority of teachers are women, we need to stand up and fight for equal pay for women.”
Too often, the media and policymakers choose to ignore gender when discussing why teachers aren’t afforded much respect, but this isn’t a small detail in the conversation. It’s a feature. Why else would we denigrate teachers for protesting when they face the possibility of not getting paid over the summer?
Teaching isn’t charity work. It’s a job. But because it is a profession dominated by women, and teaching is often viewed as a caretaking role, we see teachers who stand up for their labor rights as selfish. And we view the profession itself as unworthy of the value and support it’s always deserved.
You can argue that, regardless of how the teaching profession is perceived, it is a high-skilled occupation—and yet there is ample evidence that it is not compensated as such.
The median teacher salary is $53,000 for elementary school teachers; preschool teachers make even less. Even when you consider the salaries of other professions that require college degrees, teacher salaries are much lower—by about 40%, according to a 2011 paper from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
According to a report from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, the median salary for a person who majored in childhood education is $39,000 per year. To put that in perspective, those who major in studio arts, social work, teacher education, and visual and performing arts earn a median income of $42,000, and even folks who major in theology and religious vocations earn about $43,000.
And overwhelmingly, these educated, skilled professionals earning relatively low pay are women.
As many as 76% of public school teachers are women, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Earlier grade levels are even more dominated by female teachers—87% of primary school teachers are women. The gender makeup of teachers begins to even out in high school, as 42% of high school teachers are male, but the majority are still women.
It’s not hard to connect these figures to a broader societal trend: women working in female-dominated professions earning less than counterparts in male-dominated jobs.
Women working in mid-skilled occupations that are 75% female earn $600 per week, as compared to $735 for mixed-gender occupations and $752 for those in mid-skilled, male-dominated professions, research from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows. For high-skilled occupations, which require higher education, women working in female-dominated professions earn $953 per work, compared to $1,160 per week in mixed-gender occupations and $1,424 in male-dominated fields. Working women are heavily concentrated in education and health services—accounting for 35.7% of female workers, according tothe Bureau of Labor Statistics, showing that a large portion of the female workforce is paid for care and service work, professions that generally pay less.
The way payment changes depending on what grade is being taught further raises questions. Preschool teachers make far lessthan elementary school teachers and elementary school teachers make less than high school teachers, despite the fact that there is absolutely no reason to think that teaching preschool is in any way easier than teaching high school.
Isn’t it interesting that as the profession gets less female-dominated in later grades, the pay goes up?
The roots of a reliance on a mostly female workforce of teachers, coupled with a devaluing of their capabilities as professionals, goes back to the beginning of the popularization of the teaching profession in the United States, as Dana Goldstein writes in The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession. As far back as the 1830s, women made up the majority of teachers because Common School reformers knew they could argue that women (or more specifically, white, middle class women) who were receiving better educations than in past decades could teach a class effectively while costing much less than a man.
For example, in 1894, the Littleton School Committee in Massachusetts wrote about their preference for female teachers:
“God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems . . . very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.”
Around that same time, there were campaigns to convince the public that men had bad temperaments and couldn’t be trusted to teach children—it was more natural for a woman to “develop the infant mind,” as the argument went.
The attitude that men aren’t fit to interact with young children, and that women are better suited to be teachers because of their so-called inherent maternal instincts, still manifests itself today, especially since the percentage of male teachers goes up significantly in middle school and high school. But this is due to bias, as well, and a harmful assumption that teaching gets harderas you teach older children. As with many female-dominated professions, the thinking goes that if caretaking is so natural, easy, and rewarding for women, they wouldn’t demand a high salary to do it.
Christina Torres, a middle school and high school English teacher at University Laboratory High School in Honolulu, Hawaii, says that it is common for students to joke and call their teachers “Mom,” which is why she downplayed her femininity when she first started teaching, never wearing makeup or dresses. She says she didn’t want to be seen as just another caretaker, like a sister or a mother, in that child’s life, because she worried it would make her appear weak. As Torres gets older, however, she feels more bothered by the idea that society devalues caretaking roles in the first place.
“I didn’t want to be just another girl, but in the past year, I have begun to think it’s really annoying that I have to lose my femininity to be considered strong. It’s actually a much bigger problem,” Torres says. “It’s not seeing me as a caretaker and therefore weak. It’s that ‘caretaker’ and ‘weak’ is the connection to begin with, as if my feelings make me weak, as if my ability to empathize makes me weak.”
Orr, the kindergarten teacher from Virginia, says the perception of teachers as caregivers can’t be divorced from the perception that women in the field are either opting for an “easier” job to pay the bills before they have children or are opting for a more convenient schedule because they already have children.
“I do think that’s a huge factor in conversations about pay and expectations of what teachers will and won’t do,” Orr says. “I think there is definitely a perception that it is a job that one does until one has children or after you have children because if you have this job, you have summers off with your kids.”
“There is this perception that this is a job for these women,” she continued, “and it isn’t about whether or not they would be good at it. It isn’t about anything about the job beyond the calendar and the time of day.”
The perception that teaching is a job for mostly privileged white women who treat teaching as more of a side job than a profession, which lingers from the early days of teaching in the United States, also works to dissuade people of color who may want to become teachers, Torres says. And when less than 52% percent of elementary and secondary public school students are white, it is especially striking that only 18% of public school teachers are people of color, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Torres, who is half-Filipino and half-Mexican, says she has to maneuver all kinds of assumptions as a woman of color in a very white profession. Her white colleagues often assume she got “out of the barrio,” and congratulate her on getting an education and becoming a teacher, despite the fact that she is considered the “black sheep” in a family full of people who have high-paying jobs at tech companies. She says representation of teachers on television don’t help attract people of color, citing the all-white cast of the new TV Land show Teachers, which represents teachers as mostly dysfunctional in their personal lives and in their jobs, and perpetuates stereotypes of teachers as people who don’t take their work seriously.
“I get that it’s a stereotype people love—the white savior mom or the white hot mess,” Torres says. “But my students tell me, ‘Being a teacher seems cool but I can’t ever see myself doing it.’ That matters.” Torres continued, “The more we perpetuate a stereotype that only white women who don’t have anything better to do become teachers, the harder it is to change the perception of the profession.”
When policymakers discuss potential avenues to make the teaching profession better for teachers while also changing the perception of teachers, they sometimes suggest making it more difficult to become a teacher. But Orr and Torres say that the most important part of improving the profession for teachers and students is to provide more support for teachers, so that the field is accessible to more people, rather than to raise the barriers to entry.
For example, Orr says a paid internship that fully covers expenses and lasts longer than a semester—allowing teachers to spend more time in the classroom before officially beginning their career—would help teachers gain confidence and much-needed practical skills and support from veteran educators. There are currently internships available, but they are generally unpaid and only last a semester, which does not provide enough time to really learn the ropes.
“In the first year, you’re coming to us with 60% percent of the job you haven’t seen yet. Until we figure out a way to do that, where teachers will be paid for that time, you’re making it a position that is only available to those with privilege, which is going to significantly deter teachers of color,” Orr says. “So we need to figure out a way to do a kind of internship program for people in their first year, where technically they’re teachers but they’re not having to do it completely independently, so they get to have that support in that first year that they really need.”
Campaigns such as TeachStrong are urging universities and school districts to be mindful of the importance of gaining in-classroom experience before taking on an official teaching job. Its second principle is that teacher preparation should be “rooted in classroom practice.” But ultimately, nothing conveys respect for a profession better than a higher salary, and that’s what teachers in large swaths of the country are missing out on.
“I’m lucky to teach in an area where I feel like I don’t need a second job to make it on my salary, but I know that in many parts of this country, that’s not true for teachers,” Orr says. “You can talk about respect for the profession, but if you’re not willing to stand behind that, it’s not going to be very meaningful.”