Male primary teacher stereotypes, debunked

What’s it like for men in the female-dominated education profession? And do the stereotypes of them taking the lead on PE or quickly climbing the career ladder still apply? Irena Barker finds out
12th February 2021, 12:00am
Male Primary Teacher Stereotypes, Debunked
Irena Barker


Male primary teacher stereotypes, debunked

Before going into teaching, Mike Keys worked in an office. He describes his former self as "quite inhibited". But 12 years into his career as a primary teacher, he is now quite happy to get up on stage and play the pantomime dame in the school show.

Why the change in attitude? Keys believes it is down to working in a profession that is made up mainly of women.

"I've ended up behaving in ways that I probably wouldn't if I wasn't in a female-dominated environment," he says.

Keys may feel comfortable donning a dress to perform on stage but evidence suggests that many men working in primary schools can come under great pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.

Men represent only 14 per cent of the primary workforce, which means that they are often the only man among their immediate colleagues.

As a result, according to research from Australia, they feel pressured to take the lead on PE, deal with disciplinary issues, climb the career ladder and provide a "manly" role model for the boys.

On the other hand, those who do not conform to male stereotypes have expressed concern that people may presume they are somehow "less of a man".

It sounds like a lose-lose situation. So, how much do we know about the impact of being a male primary teacher in a female-dominated work environment?

Ruth Simpson, professor of management at Brunel University of London, summed up the problems that male primary teachers face in a 2009 paper.

"In primary school teaching…men have been found to be in a double bind: their presumed masculine interests in sport and male bonding give them an initial hiring advantage but these same characteristics can alienate them from female staff," she writes.

"Despite this, when men display the required feminine approach, their sexuality becomes questioned."

Men also have to contend with "pressures from male peers, and fathers and brothers who often are disapproving of men entering 'feminised' occupations," she adds.

Motherly men

The way that men often respond to this pressure is by creating and maintaining distance from the aspects of the job that might be considered "feminine" and engaging in "compensatory gendered practices, so as to 'restore' a dominating position".

What do those practices look like? "There is evidence that men create distance from women by emphasising the more 'masculine' parts of the job: by 'relabelling', ie, [calling themselves] 'information scientist' rather than 'librarian', or emphasising sport in primary school teaching," says Simpson.

"They may suggest that they 'care' differently and are less rule-bound than women, and that they have a 'special contribution' to make."

As a result, male teachers may be very professionally ambitious, rising to managerial positions and aligning themselves with others in powerful positions. An example of this might be a male headteacher taking on a role in a school leaders' union or on a local headteacher board.

However, these behaviours are by no means the reactions of all men to being a lone or rare male among women.

Rather than asserting their masculinity and distancing themselves from what are perceived as the "female" aspects of the job, some men will take the opposite approach - distancing themselves from traditionally "masculine" behaviour and traits.

"[Some] men promoted femininity, commenting and placing value on their 'feminine side', dis-identifying with normalised assumptions of what it is to be a man," says Simpson.

She gives the example of a teacher called Keith, who says: "I'm really in touch with my caring side, my feminine side, if you like. Not like other blokes I know." She also mentions another male teacher who claims to be "quite happy in a motherly role".

Far from being ridiculed, the men who take this approach can actually be celebrated.

While women's caring abilities and emotional labour in teaching are often devalued or taken for granted, because they are seen as a natural part of being a woman, in men these same traits are lauded.

"In this way, [male teachers] are able to build a satisfying identity that subverts but also builds on traditional notions of gender and through which men create value," says Simpson.

So far, so interesting. But it's worth pointing out that much of the research available on this subject dates from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Surely, things have moved on a bit in this more gender-fluid, post-MeToo era?

'A real mix'

Current anecdotal evidence indeed suggests that existing research in this area could quickly be going out of date, and that many men - especially the youngest teaching recruits - are perhaps more comfortable "being themselves" rather than adopting either an overtly "masculine" or "feminine" persona in the workplace. "What we're seeing, at the minute, is a real mix and it's really hard to define and box things like you might have been able to do a few years ago," explains Keys, who is co-founder of Men Teach Primary, which runs social media chats with hundreds of male primary teachers around the country.

He recalls the typical scenario of a male teacher feeling that they have to be promoted quickly. While this may have been true 10 or 20 years ago, male teachers are now less afraid to say they want to stay in the classroom rather than climb the greasy pole, Keys says.

"[In the past], you'd get some younger men coming in and they want to be leading something quite quickly or having a big subject. But they're not ready for it at all and they're not qualified for it.

"I really don't see [that] 'masculine' type of teacher anymore.

"[From] all the teachers we have contact with - we have thousands of men who've been involved in conversations over the past few months - I really don't get that impression at all.

"We're definitely developing a better outlook that people can be who they want to be," he says.

Is the pressure off?

Does this mean that the pressure for men to conform to gender expectations is becoming a thing of the past? Keys thinks so.

However, figures from the Education Policy Institute suggest that this is not yet being played out in teaching in terms of the profession becoming less female dominated.

In fact, men are currently leaving teaching at a faster rate than women - although this could be because of numerous factors, from economics to the changing nature of the job, and not necessarily because of reasons related to gender roles.

If what we really want to see is gender parity in teaching, it seems that there is still some way to go on that front.

Nevertheless, according to Keys, male primary teachers are increasingly feeling able to be themselves at work.

And, he adds, there are aspects of being a man in a female-dominated profession that he wouldn't like to see change any time soon - such as the sense of brotherhood that can exist between male colleagues.

Perhaps, then, the situation for men in primary teaching is shifting to become less lose-lose and more win-win.

And when male primary teachers can comfortably play the pantomime dame and show students they care without having to compensate for that with endless football chat and leading the way on discipline, not only could that help to make schools more inclusive workplaces, it will also set an example for male pupils about what it means to be a man.

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist

This article originally appeared in the 12 February 2021 issue under the headline "Tes focus on...Male teachers in primary"

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