A classroom of one's own

14th November 2014 at 00:00
Teaching is overwhelmingly female-dominated, yet the top positions still disproportionately go to men. Adi Bloom traces the history of sexism in education and the malign effects on teachers of both genders

Philippa Seago is a teacher married to an engineer. They have two children: a boy and a girl. Every so often, people Seago knows will speculate light-heartedly on their futures.

"Oh, he's going to be an engineer," they say of her son.

Then, of her daughter: "She's going to be a teacher."

"I'm sure if I'd had two boys they'd have said, `They're going to be engineers'," says Seago, who teaches psychology in Derby. "They wouldn't say, `They're going to be teachers.' "

Teaching is, in the most literal sense, women's work: it is work done by women. In 2013, 73.6 per cent of all teachers in England's state schools were female. The split was more pronounced at primary level, where 209,800 of 242,300 teachers were women. But even at secondary, 147,100 of 232,000 teachers were female.

But however literally it is used, "women's work" is not a neutral term.

"Very sadly, it tends to be the case that female-dominated professions are taken less seriously," says Becky Francis, professor of education and social justice at King's College London. "People assume that jobs that women do are of a lower status."

This is echoed by Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, who specialises in the gendered division of labour. He cites a 2001 study in which 65 primary-aged schoolchildren were shown pictures of men and women doing the same jobs. To avoid tapping into pre-existing prejudices, the jobs were fictitious - the person who decides how many disabled spaces there should be in a car park, for example.

The children were then asked to judge how difficult, how important and how well-paid they thought each job was. Without fail, they assumed that the jobs performed by men were harder, more important and better-paid than those performed by women.

"You can never judge the value of something separately from its gender component," Cohen says. "We all know that teaching is dominated by women. So it becomes difficult to separate that from how we see it."

Echoes of another era

The expectation that teachers will be female, particularly in primary schools, is almost as old as teaching itself. In fact, it is exactly as old as the state school system.

Until the 1860s, the split between the sexes in teaching was almost equal, says educational historian Jacob Middleton. In 1870, however, an act of Parliament set up school boards, providing free elementary education for children up to the age of 14 in Britain. The starting salary for a board school teacher was pound;70 a year.

"You were paid week in, week out," Middleton says. "You wouldn't have to buy your clothes second-hand but it wasn't a good wage. The poverty line was about pound;50 a year."

It was a significantly lower wage than that received by a skilled tradesman. Men could go into well-paid trades such as bricklaying or printing. Alternatively, a moderately educated man might get a job in the civil service, where a low-level clerk could earn about pound;500 a year.

Women, by contrast, had few earning opportunities open to them. "Prostitution, maybe," Middleton says. "Telegraphy. Typist. But there weren't many careers where a woman could earn that much money. Teaching and prostitution: it's not much of a contest. You don't get a pension in prostitution."

Teaching was seen as a suitable profession for Victorian women because it was, essentially, an extension of domestic duties. In his 1874 instructive manual The Young Schoolmistress, the Reverend E C Collard describes the teacher as: "Able, like a good housewife, to turn her hand to anything and everything, so that, if necessary, she can teach and do the very commonest household duties.She is not above taking a broom or a duster and cheerfully giving a helping hand, even in sweeping and dusting the schoolroom."

By 1901, therefore, teaching was a profession with a very clear female majority, Middleton says. That same year, London schools ruled that they would not employ married female teachers. Subsequently, school boards around the country also began insisting that their female teachers must be unmarried. Teaching thus became something that a young woman did to occupy her time until she was able to divert her attention to its proper focus: her family.

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