Alarm about the shrinking number of male teachers, particularly in primary schools, is not new. We’ve been talking about it for years. But despite genuine reasons to be concerned, the question no one is asking is why female teachers are staying in a profession that both men and women find frustrating and unfulfilling.
The issues cited by male teachers as the reasons for leaving – stress, low pay, long hours, increasing demands on out of work hours, frustration with bureaucracy and poor leadership – are experienced equally by male and female teachers. But while men are leaving in droves, women are not.
The reason for this, sadly, is based almost entirely on outdated gender stereotypes that leave women with fewer options and lower expectations than their male counterparts.
Paul* is a secondary school teacher in Melbourne. He says the cultural expectations of manliness in Australia have a huge impact on male teachers and their view of their careers.
“A lot of Australian masculinity is wrapped up in identifying through your profession,” he said. “In one group of friends I have, I am the only teacher. My salary is at least half that of my friends. To talk about the profession publicly is to see your skills devalued and thus yourself. Who is an Australian man, if not his job? Teaching is derided as glorified babysitting, as a womanly skill, as looking after kids.
“Pastoral aspects to teaching, dealing with growth, wellbeing, mental health and social skills are not skills that men are keen to identify with,” he said. “How do we measure them? How do we value them? Not in salary, not in professional skills, not in games won on the weekend.”
The flip side of Paul’s comments is that female teachers tend to accept their role as nurturers. The “glorified babysitters” he describes are not expected to be highly paid or prestigious, and women don’t have the learned expectations that such things are inherently their due. Nor do women feel Paul’s existential discomfort in identifying with a profession based on caring for children.
The ongoing debate about gendered school uniforms and teaching kids anything outside traditional gender roles demonstrates the implicit stereotypes expected in education.
Boys wear pants and girls wear dresses and the mere suggestion that gender should not be categorised and clearly identified in such a way is enough to send conservatives into convulsions. The Safe Schools program, which offered very gentle entry into breaking down gender stereotypes, was such anathema that it provoked a parliamentary investigation by the federal government.
Implicitly and explicitly enforcing different expectations of men and women has wide-ranging impacts and must go a long way towards explaining the steadily increasing gender gap of Australian teachers.
A recent report in the Economics of Education Review found that in 2016, fewer than one in five primary school teachers were men – and if the current rate of decline continues, male teachers will be extinct by 2050.
Less than 30 per cent of secondary school teachers are men, and most of those men teach the subjects traditionally seen as the province of men: sport, science and maths.
More than 75 per cent of physics teachers, 60 per cent of IT teachers and nearly 60 per cent of chemistry teachers are men. While more than 70 per cent of English teachers, nearly 80 per cent of LOTE teachers and over 60 per cent of history teachers are women. And those numbers have been getting worse, not better.
One of the reasons men find it easier to leave teaching may be as simple as the options open to them. There’s not a lot of other jobs available to an English or history teacher, but science and IT skills are far more transferable.
The other male-dominated teaching area is physical education. Sports teaching may not have the breadth of options outside teaching that maths and science provides, but it also escapes the derision toxic masculinity imposes on male teachers of academic subjects.
Coaching sport and training physical skills in children is the bedrock of Australian culture. It’s Australian views of fatherhood translated into a profession. Sporting achievements and physical prowess are immediate and obvious measures of manhood that offset the expectations of power, salary and prestige men learn to think of as “proof” of successful masculinity.
While men and women might want better pay, more respect, and opportunities for career advancement in their jobs, men find those things easier to achieve. Perhaps it is as simple as that.
Men have higher expectations and more options than women, so they take them. The results might be good for men, but it’s women and children who pay the price.