Let Women Teach

Africa is the only continent where education is a male-dominated profession—an imbalance that perpetuates gender-based inequality.

Andreea Campeanu / Reuters

In the United States, the persistence of K-12 teaching as a predominantly female profession is sometimes lamented as a sign that certain workforce gender conventions prevail. In fact, things may be heading backwards: About 76 percent of the country’s teachers today are women, according to federal data, compared to 67 percent of them in the early 1980s.

This phenomenon may in part explain why schools across the country are struggling to recruit and retain effective educators, The New York Times’ Motoko Rich reported last September. “Jobs dominated by women pay less on average than those with higher proportions of men, and studies have shown that these careers tend to enjoy less prestige as well,” she wrote. If more men entered the teaching profession perhaps that would elevate its status and ultimately help solve public education’s staffing issues.

Interestingly, the relatively low status of women in many African countries—coupled with the relatively high status of teaching there—helps explain why the region struggles with the opposite gender-distribution problem. Throughout much of the African continent, and most strikingly in West Africa, females are underrepresented in the teaching profession, accounting for 20 percent or fewer of the primary-school educators in half a dozen countries including Liberia, Togo, and the Central African Republic.

World Bank data from 2011 indicates that Africa is the only continent where female underrepresentation in the teaching force is common; a majority of the 137 countries included in the dataset have majority-female primary-school teaching forces, and virtually all of the 32 nations where that isn’t the case are in Africa. The World Bank lacks such data for dozens of countries overall, so it’s hard to ascertain representative statistics for the entire continent.

Africa’s majority-male teaching forces are just as problematic as the West’s majority-female ones in that they distort public perception of the profession and undermine the educational outcomes of the children they’re supposed to serve. Ultimately, these statistics offer an opportunity to explore imbalances in education—and the role they play in stymieing socioeconomic progress—in developed and developing regions alike.

The shortage of women teachers in Africa is well-established. The percentage of girls who complete primary school is lower in African countries than in any other region in the world, and this greatly constrains the pool of candidates for the profession; one needs to be educated in order to teach. But teaching opportunities can be limited even for educated women, as a 2013 report on the teachers’ situation in Northern Uganda explained, because men have easier access to training opportunities and because of gender bias in job postings and promotion procedures.

The barriers that limit girls’ access to education range from gender stigmas to cultural and social customs to widespread poverty, according to Nkechi Agwu, a Nigerian mathematician who teaches at CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College. Throughout much of the region, public education isn’t free, and families with limited means often have to be selective with which of their children they send to school. Other obstacles have to do with convention: “Even though the world is global,” Agwu said, “some of these cultural things are very entrenched. The female can always find a richer man who can marry her and take care of her—the male needs to be the head of a household.” Safety is also a huge factor, according to Agwu, especially if a child has to travel a long way to get to school. “The consequence is that you are recycling the same issues over and over again if young children keep seeing … males as their teachers, seeing [teaching] as not being a profession for women.”

As Michelle Obama lamented in a recent essay for The Atlantic—“Let Girls Learn”—this troubling  imbalance in education is a reality that affects girls around the world. Globally, 62 million girls aren’t in school, often because of the same kinds of reasons highlighted by Agwu: limited resources (money for tuition, uniforms, and supplies; adequate and safe transportation; restrooms that can properly accommodate them when they have their periods), gender stigmas, and the social circumstances those stigmas create.

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.

This disparity can both restrict an entire country’s GDP and, because women tend to invest more than men in their children and are more responsible with money, perpetuate overall poverty. “Discrimination against women is economically inefficient,” concluded a 2011 report by the International Center for Research on Women. “National economics lose out when a substantial part of the population cannot compete equitably or realize its full potential.”

Boosting the number of females in the profession could also help solve its overall teacher-staffing problems. Seven out of 10 African countries face an “acute shortage of qualified teachers,” reports the UNESCO Institute of Statistics. And this, according to the Africa-America Institute, “is one of the continent’s biggest challenges to achieving education for all.”