It’s no coincidence that the African countries that have the smallest percentages of female teachers also tend to report the worst outcomes for women. In the dozen or so African countries where, according to the World Bank, females make up only 30 percent or less of the primary-school teachers—from South Sudan to Guinea—the average life expectancy for women is roughly 54 years. (Globally, the average female life expectancy is 73.)
The countries with few female teachers also have notably high rates of child marriage, according to an analysis by No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, an initiative out of the Clinton and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations. Globally, one in four girls is married before her 18th birthday. The percentage is highest in developing countries—and particularly in the African nations where most teachers are male. In Chad and the Central African Republic, for example, more than two in three girls are married before age 18. “Child marriage is a violation of human rights, and it denies girls control over their health, education, and futures,” the report notes.
While some observers attribute female underrepresentation in teaching to Muslim belief systems, the OECD dataset suggests that many of the African countries where Christianity is the dominant religion have some of the lowest percentages of women in classrooms. In fact, Christianity is the main religion in three of the five countries on the OECD list with the smallest rates of primary-school female teachers: South Sudan, Liberia, and the Central African Republic. Islam is the main religion in just one of them—Chad.
In the U.S., advocates argue that recruiting more male teachers wouldn’t only advance the profession and improve school quality—it would also boost engagement and longer-term outcomes among disadvantaged boys, in part by providing positive male role models for the millions who live in single-mother households. Other research indicates girls would benefit, too. “For the girls, a male teacher can represent a very important opportunity to interact with and build relationships with men outside their family,” wrote the educator-in-training Drew McWeeney in a Hartford Courant op-ed last year. “This increased understanding of male role models serves as an important role in girls’ successful transition into their adult life.” Africa’s education system would likely see comparable advantages for both girls and boys if more women went into the profession.
But Agwu and other educators say that growing Africa’s female teaching forces could have even greater ripple effects, prompting a virtuous cycle in which more and more girls get an education and, in turn, contribute to the economy. Research shows that girls are more likely to remain in and perform well in school when taught by women and more educated women means greater economic productivity and better health and well-being for society as a whole. Uneducated women are more likely to suffer from infant and maternal mortality and to contract HIV, and they’re less likely to immunize their children. And women’s low literacy rates are a key reason they’re often forced into low-skill jobs in the informal sector.