Software development is but one example of an occupation whose gender composition completely changed over the course of decades. Teaching also experienced a turnover in the gender of its staff, but the direction of the trend was reversed, with women replacing men as educators. And when they did, the salaries and status of the profession dropped sharply.
In the early 1800s, men tended to be in command of classrooms. By the middle of the century, as public education became widespread, teachers were in high demand, and new hires were pulled from a relatively dormant female labor pool. As women entered the profession en masse, a new conception of teaching emerged. Whereas male teachers had been expected to impart knowledge and discipline, female teachers were charged with guiding their pupils’ moral development. As Dana Goldstein points out in her book The Teacher Wars, female educators were expected to be neither authoritarians nor disciplinarians, but rather to uphold a “motherteacher” ideal—that is, to perform the role of mothering, but in the classroom instead of the home.
As in the case of programming, the mere presence of women in teaching did not necessitate revising perceptions of women, but perceptions of the job. Aspects of teaching considered more feminine, like nurturance, became emphasized. Goldstein writes that “during an era of deep bias against women’s intellectual and professional capabilities, the feminization of teaching carried an enormous cost: Teaching became understood less as a career than as a philanthropic vocation or romantic calling.”
Like other labor performed for altruistic reasons, teaching—at least when done by women— pulled in scant wages. Gender and pay were part of the same story. Women were allowed into the profession in large part because they could be compensated less than men for the same labor. For some, paltry pay was even a selling point of hiring female teachers. Catharine Beecher, a prominent 19th-century education advocate, touted the proposed savings to taxpayers as one of the benefits of hiring female teachers. Taxpayers certainly got a bargain: In 1905, male elementary teachers earned double what their female colleagues did.
Beecher, it turns out, foretold the future of the teaching field: It would go on to become a “feminine” and meagerly paid occupation. By 1900, teaching was an overwhelmingly female profession, though men would continue to dominate the leadership roles in the field of education. Now, 76 percent of public-school teachers are women—and teaching remains modestly paid compared to similar jobs.
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Gender-pay-gap skeptics often dismiss the disparity between men’s and women’s average earnings by arguing that women simply choose to work in lower-paid occupations. In a 2014 press release, the Republican National Committee employed this logic to contest the oft-cited statistic that female full-time workers make only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns: “There’s a disparity not because female engineers are making less than male engineers at the same company with comparable experience. The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer … The difference isn’t genders; it’s because of their jobs.”