How The Education Sector Can Do More to Uplift Women

By Tamara Hiler

For the last decade, I’ve been lucky enough to call the world of education my “professional home.” I got my start as a middle school teacher at Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School in Los Angeles. My belief that education is the great equalizer has since led me to my current role working to impact federal education policy at Third Way in Washington, DC. Making a living in education not only allows me to work in a field that is both personally and professionally fulfilling, but it also gives me the opportunity to surround myself with other females on a daily basis who are smart, driven, and dedicated to improving students’ lives.

That’s because education is one of the rare career sectors dominated by women. Today, the two largest teachers’ unions in the country are led by women, two out of the four most senior ranking positions on congressional education committees are held by women, and three-quarters of all teachers are…you guessed it…women.

But just because education may be subject to less testosterone on average than other issue areas, it doesn’t mean that it’s immune to some of the same systemic barriers that women face in a number of sectors. Even though women disproportionately serve in education-related roles, a number of gender disparities continue to exist in our own backyard. Specifically, our sector has yet to address the following inequities:

Teacher Pay

Few would argue that our country currently pays teachers what they deserve. A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that teachers in the U.S. earn, on average, only 60% of what similarly educated professionals make. Because teaching is a majority-female profession, this kind of “teacher compensation penalty” plays a major role in the unequal pay women face today. Not only does paying teachers less make it harder for the increasing number of female breadwinners to support their families, but recent research from Bellwether Education Partners also finds that the profession’s reliance on pensions means that low salaries on the front end result in lower retirement savings for women, too.

Teachers in the U.S. earn, on average, only 60% of what similarly educated professionals make.

Leadership

Despite women now having a greater presence on college campuses and even outpacing men when it comes to earning college degrees, academia still has gaping holes when it comes to the number of women serving in key leadership roles. For example, there is a well-known “tenure gap” for female professors at research universities, with one study showing that in subjects like sociology and computer science, women are 51% and 55% less likely to earn tenure than their male counterparts. In addition, only a quarter of college presidents today are women — meaning that the leaders who could help reverse these trends on campuses are men who have been less likely to face these inequities in the first place. And it’s important to note that this dearth of female leadership exists at the K-12 level, too. According to data collected by the School Superintendents Association, only 14% of all school district leaders are women even though women make up 72% of the entire teaching profession.

In subjects like sociology and computer science, women are 51% and 55% less likely to earn tenure than their male counterparts.

Representation in STEM

It’s no secret that gender disparities begin for girls before they even exit our education system. Take for example, the disheartening fact that girls made up only 27% of Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science test-takers last year. And that boys are 2x more likely than girls to take AP Physics exams and 1.5x more to take AP Calculus exams. Having low representation in STEM can have major implications for the financial futures of women, as it’s well-documented that graduates of STEM fields have the highest starting salaries compared to other professions. If we want to close the skills gap and increase wages, than there is no doubt teachers must play a crucial role in encouraging more girls to see themselves in science, math, and engineering roles from the start.

Boys are 2x more likely than girls to take AP Physics exams and 1.5x more to take AP Calculus exams.

Education has played a crucial role in closing many of the equity gaps that exist — providing more economic security and stability for women, low-income students, and students of color than in decades’ past. I’m proud to work in a field with so many other talented women who have dedicated their lives to improving the future of so many students’ lives. As women in the field, we must continue to fight for policies that will create safe and high-quality learning environments to close these gaps even further. But it’s clear that it’s also time for us to play an active role in reversing the inequalities that exist within our own field in order to pave a more sustainable path for the next generation of females looking to lead the way.


Tamara Hiler is a senior policy advisor and higher education campaign manager at Third Way.

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