Women’s Work

Experiment: Analyzing the elephant in the room

(This picture is one half of my family. I’ve realized that in my family, of 8 people trained to be teachers, all but 2 are female. My great grandmother and my grandmother were teachers, they were groundbreaking! . . . but why so few men?)

Discussion of the wage disparity between women and men tends to get caught up in statistics. I love statistics but just looking at numbers does not tell the whole story. Guaranteeing the “same wage for the same work” is not enough. We need to acknowledge the “gendered” nature of professions and how wage disparities occur when we devalue certain types of work.

Teaching is a gendered profession. It is one of the most common professions for women but women tend to occupy the lower paid and lower status spectrum of the profession in “patterns of vertical and horizontal segregation” that keep them out of the roles that influence the nature of the work (Gaskell & Mullen, 2006, pp.453-461).  In most research about education, gender is only mentioned in studies focusing on the gender disparity. In my own research, I hope to find a way to keep the gendered nature of education in the forefront without it being the only topic. I’ll let you know how it goes!

The gendered nature of teaching has a long history, especially in the United States. Teachers were originally taken from the ranks of the church. Clergy were young men with some further education and they fit the need perfectly. As the number of schools increased, young, unmarried women were accepted as teachers, especially in one-room schoolhouses. These young women were often subject to strict behavioral guidelines that required them to be of high moral character (i.e. subservient) because they were overseen by headteachers from the clergy.Teaching was not seen as a full-time, life-long career – women didn’t have those – and men who taught did it as a stepping stone to administrative positions. This relationship embedded a gendered hierarchy into the profession (Hargreaves, 1994; Smulyan, 2006).

The history of women in the teaching force continues to influence the profession today.  While teaching opened up many new opportunities for women, it also created “a segregated and ‘safe’ occupation for women, blending more easily with traditional stereotypes of femininity than many other careers. As women moved into teaching, they were being paid less than men, controlled by strict gender norms, prevented from teaching when they were married or pregnant, and kept out of positions of seniority and management. The result is a continual struggle over the meaning of teaching, its autonomy, power and respect” (Gaskell & Mullen, 2006, p. 463). Although schools have changed a lot since then, we continue to reproduce the gender and power structures of the past.

The most interesting part of this for me is that two very important reactions have occurred to the gendered nature of teaching. One is that a lot of research is being done about how to get women into the ranks of administration. (Some of this research finds that the mechanism for this is female “sexed” but male “gendered” leaders. I can’t remember the citation for this, but if I find it, I’ll add it in here!). The more interesting side to me is that women often accept their gendered role out of a sense of dedication to their work. “They [women] can be accepting of the gendered constructions of teaching – as caring or mothering, as less powerful in the educational bureaucracy, and as relatively low in status – because some of those constructions allow them to do the job they want to do” (Smulyan, 2006, pp. 475-476). This is fascinating to me, especially in the context of the rest of my research. In schools where hierarchy is visible, competition is embraced, and “rising through the ranks” is valued, women may be resisting it and accepting the gendered nature of the profession to maintain their own sense of duty as teachers. I hope to explore this and look more broadly at all teachers, not just women, I promise!!

Gaskell, J., & Mullen, A. L. (2006). Women in Teacing: Participation, Power and Possibility. In C. Skelton, B. Francis, & L. Smulyan (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Education (pp. 453-467). London: SAGE Publications.

Hargreaves, A. (1994). Changing Teacher, Changing Times. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Smulyan, L. (2006). Constructing Teacher Identities. In C. Skelton, B. Francis, & L. Smulyan (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Gender and Education (pp. 469-482).

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