A balanced representation of men and women teachers in the classroom creates a healthy environment, where children and youth have access to the wisdom and guidance of adults with varying experiences, attitudes, and skills. The presence of women teachers in two regions of the world, however, is quite weak. In sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia, more than half of the countries have a secondary school teaching force that comprises less than 20% women.
The underrepresentation of women is problematic. Women teachers are needed for several reasons: (1) They provide accessible and continuous professional role models. (2) Parents feel more comfortable when women teachers are present in schools under the assumption that this reduces sexual harassment and sexual violence. Women teachers themselves experience sexual harassment and violence, yet their presence creates a safer environment. (3) Women are more likely to be sensitive to students’ emotional needs, particularly those of girls.
A group of researchers at the University of Maryland proposed to learn the reasons for the underrepresentation of women teachers. We selected to study four countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Liberia, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda). All four countries confirmed a number of suspected realities and deepened our understanding of the prevalence and intensity of this situation.
For women, rural realities pose a considerable deterrent to both entering the teaching profession and remaining in it. Women teachers, through strong and recurrent gender socialization messages, are inculcated with responsibilities for caring for their families and children. Consequently, they face more intensely than men the harsh environments of rural areas, which are characterized by lack of electricity and water, limited access to health posts, sporadic access to markets, and insufficient housing. Absence of toilets and accessible water (in both rural and to a lesser extent urban schools) challenges hygiene practices and affects both girls and women teachers. Many women teachers (as other women in African society) marry young. Therefore, most women teachers have children by the time they are assigned to their posts. Lack of suitable housing emerges as a foremost obstacle.
Difficulties in accessing payment are felt more among women teachers than men teachers because of the hours it takes to take a bus to the nearest town to cash their check and the frequent need to stay there overnight. In a situation of poor roads and heavy rains, ground travel is time consuming and expensive. As many women teachers have children and family responsibilities, time away from home creates particular difficulties.
The training of women as teachers is negatively affected by the lack of boarding facilities for women with children in teacher training schools. Education authorities tend to think of women teachers as single and without children. Often, the opposite is true. Many young women, therefore, are deprived access to teacher training programs.
Further causing the underrepresentation of women as teachers in the sub-Saharan countries studied is that, when economies do not provide good jobs in the formal sector, men become interested in teaching jobs, which provide civil servant status and such benefits as health insurance, pension plans, and career advancement ladders. Teaching salaries are low for both women and men; however, men find it easier to supplement these wages than women by taking jobs, including tutoring, outside school hours.
We found that women teachers make a difference in schools in these four countries. Because of the roles ascribed to women and men in each of the contexts’ patriarchal cultural practices, women are more likely than men to provide caring attention to students, to be more sensitive to their emotional needs, to be more aware of various forms of material and social deprivation students might experience. The benefits of caring services emerged in our interviews when women teachers spoke of their practices of talking to girls in private or visiting their homes to understand absences or changes in the girls’ behavior. These teachers were aware of domestic conditions in the girls’ lives, ranging from cases of extreme economic hardship to incidents of unwanted pregnancies, rape, and even incest.
Most national education systems remain oblivious to gender-related teacher needs. Two cases in point are the absence of specific allowances for housing and other forms of hardship, and the lack of supportive policies to enroll more women as teachers in teacher training programs.
Global policies for national advancement today make ample reference to education. Documents such as the Incheon Declaration (2015), uphold a new vision of education, one of “inclusive and equitable quality of education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.” Elaborating on its perspective on gender equality, the Incheon Declaration proposes the mainstreaming of gender issues in teacher training and curricula, and the elimination of gender-based discrimination and violence in schools. Concerning teachers, the Declaration states, “We will ensure that teachers and educators are empowered, adequately recruited, well-trained, professionally qualified, motivated and supported within well-resourced, efficient and effectively governed systems” (p. iv). It is to be hoped that such intentions be expanded to recognize the importance of a more balanced representation of women teachers in schools and classrooms.
Stromquist, N.P., Klees, S, and Lin, J. (eds.). Women Teachers in Africa: Challenges and Possibilities. New York: Routledge, 2017.
World Education Forum 2015. Incheon Declaration. Education 2030: Towards inclusive and equitable education and lifelong learning for all. Incheon, Republic of Korea: World Education Forum, 19-22 May.