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'Education needs to be more female-friendly'

The under-representation of female voice in the education media reflects the inequality in teaching, says Yvonne Williams

Female voice, women, female-friendly, teachers, TAs, schools

The under-representation of female voice in the education media reflects the inequality in teaching, says Yvonne Williams

Ed Dorrell is generous in his admission that Tes, in its publishing of contributors, is under-representing the 74 per cent of the teaching profession who are women.

To be fair, Tes online is rather more representative of women than recent editions of BBC's Question Time, where women have been outnumbered by four to one. Perhaps, as a consequence, their voices become over-confrontational or, sadly, understated. The BBC needs an array of women to provide at least as much variety and nuance as there is amongst the men.

As for Tes, publishing more women’s articles would obviously be a step in the right direction of equality. But the reasons for most women’s apparent silence are much more complicated and deep-rooted.

The most obvious reason, of course, is that women are simply too busy. Domestic chores and child-raising still mostly fall to women; and women constitute the vast majority of the part-time teaching cohort.

But it’s not just a question of making the classroom a more-female friendly place by providing job-shares and reducing the time-serving requirement that so often leads to promotion and more responsibility.

Women in teaching are not just stuck in the mind-numbing practical housework at home; they are enmeshed in a similar type of task at school, where workload has become chore-load. As classroom teachers, they provide the evidence for school self-evaluation and the fodder for inspection bureaucracy.

Women are simply too busy to stop, take stock of what is going on around them and formulate articles on the state of the classroom in the 21st century.

This leaves the field wide open to the male voices at the top of various hierarchies. If Tes is genuinely intending to foster women’s commentaries then the various editors will have to be not only gender-blind but status-blind, too. How often is an opinion given credence simply because of the credentials of the speaker (usually a man)? And how often do reporters actually chase the male in charge for quotation and article substance?

Whilst greater focus on women contributors and teachers might address the gap in reporting, it doesn’t address the gap in the profession whereby so few women occupy high-profile positions.

More daring, radical and creative action is needed to answer the fundamental questions: how could we reshape teaching as a more engaging occupation to retain women in the classroom? And what might a more female-friendly profession look like?

Use tech to reduce chores

It has been argued that the inventions of the vacuum cleaner, the washing machine and similar gadgets were the most liberating force for the 1960s woman. On that principle alone, we should take another look at the AI and IT sales pitch, especially since the intention is to replace the teacher (woman) and relegate her to the pastoral support or “guide by the side” whilst technology takes centre stage.

Too often teachers have had to adapt their practice to the evolving technology, when actually what we need is technology to do the chores so that women can flourish in the classroom. Technology that takes dictation would help us all whizz through emails, data input, lesson-planning, even marking (allowing for the odd attack of laryngitis).

(A rather daring question occurs to me here: Have we ever considered using AI to do the managerial tasks? Or are these regarded as too complex because it’s usually a male who is undertaking them?)

Cut teachers' workload  

We could radically cut marking, data collection and entry, and planning. It could be argued that because it’s mainly women doing the unnecessary work, there’s not much urgency to change practice. It takes a brave woman to address the problem – as Dawn Copping, the chair of the Marking Policy Review Group, has done. Her powers of persuasion, rooted in her school’s practice and increased staff satisfaction – not to mention the impact on actual learning – do much to further the cause of women, who, as a result, have more time to themselves and their families. Some school leaders are taking on the message and implementing the ideas.

Change the education hierarchy

We could change the way in which status is defined in the profession. Academisation has placed a number of administrative layers on top of teachers and entrenched managerial roles in the top layers. Do we really need all these layers?

Restoring trust would cut staffing budgets, as managers would be freed from endless recording of monitoring activity and could share more of the direct work of educating children.

Give more credit to subject specialisms 

Many women are more interested in the intellectual and pastoral aspects of the job. It’s one substantive reason why the middle-management layer is more likely to contain women who have stayed in such posts more long-term. But do they get the recognition and clout that their expertise merits?

More roles such as Advanced Skills Teachers need to be reinstated; and managerial roles need to be cut. These two changes combined would flatten the steep hierarchies, credit the kind of expertise that relates directly to the classroom, and improve retention.

The saddest story I heard recently was of a young NQT, who had just successfully completed her first full year, deciding to leave because she had not come into teaching to be a data-entry clerk. Give more importance to teaching skills and maybe she’d want to stay on.

The macho accountability model

Amanda Spielman is a refreshing antidote to the alpha-male incumbents of the post of chief inspector of schools who dominated Ofsted well beyond their sell-by date. Her expertise derived from her time at Ofqual means she is more interested in the curriculum content and impact in the classroom than “rooting out bad teachers”. She seems actually interested in the kinds of processes that will holistically develop the whole adult by the end of the education process.

Currently what education in the classroom and the education press have in common is a tendency to revere the role and standing of a speaker/contributor over her/his contribution to what really happens in schools.

Change the focus, flatten the hierarchy, cut the chore-load and listen more to those who teach and perhaps the teaching profession might hold on to its new female recruits a little longer.

Sadly, this might also reduce the volume of articles alongside the increased job satisfaction, as it’s human nature to complain more often than to appreciate.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England

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