Teachers lie at the heart of every child’s educational journey – from early childhood to higher levels of education. Every day dedicated teachers have a positive impact on young minds in classrooms. Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, especially low-income countries, qualified teachers are in short supply. According to one estimate, the demand for teachers in low- and middle-income countries is projected to rise by 25 percent between 2015 and 2030.
We need to recognise and address gender inequities within the teaching workforce
Teachers play a pivotal role in fulfilling the promise of Sustainable Development Goal 4 – ensuring “equitable and inclusive quality education” for all. They are also central to addressing the global learning crisis of today – whereby an estimated 58 percent (nearly 6 in every 10) of children globally are not achieving minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics.
Filling the teacher gap is not enough to improve the quality of education, of course. The level of knowledge and skills of teachers, and how they teach, is equally important. In addition to these key issues, gender disparities in the teaching workforce also need to be addressed. This is critical because a strong body of evidence, particularly from developing countries, shows that gender parity in the teaching workforce – including staff and school leadership – is positively associated with education outcomes, especially girls’ educational achievements.
Gender inequalities in the teaching workforce are deep-rooted and systemic, but what we know is that the following disparities exist.
- Not enough female teachers at higher levels of education: Globally, females make up 94 percent of pre-primary teachers, but this share dwindles down to 54 per cent at secondary levels – a trend that can reinforce harmful stereotypes of women as adequate teachers at lower levels of education, but unable to teach more complex subjects at higher levels. Across countries, irrespective of income-level, there is a pattern of gradual decrease, from lower to higher education levels, in the representation of female teachers. This gap is most marked in low-income countries.
- Fewer female teachers in rural schools than urban ones: In many countries there is a real scarcity of female teachers in rural areas where they are often most needed. This is due to reasons such as remote location of schools, inability to leave families behind or lack of safe accommodation in rural areas. UNICEF’s analysis of primary schools in a few countries in Africa, for example, shows the clear differences in the share of female teachers between urban and rural schools (see graph below). These disparities are problematic for many reasons, not least because more female teachers can encourage girls (and their parents) to enrol in and stay in school. Their absence also has the unintended effect of depriving children in rural communities from role models that challenge deep-rooted gender stereotypes.
- Lower likelihood of female teachers in mathematics and science subjects in secondary education: The presence of female teachers is important for providing gender-balanced role models in STEM subjects. UNICEF’s analyses further show that mathematics teachers in secondary schools in some countries are almost exclusively male. Women represent only 3.3 % of math teachers in Togo, 3.7 % in Chad and 5.5 % in Cote d’Ivoire, for example. This means that most of the boys and girls in these countries are completing their secondary education without any experience of a female teacher in mathematics. These disparities can engender a cycle of limited or restricted participation of girls in STEM, and potentially impact the supply of female teachers in these subjects well into the future.
As the world makes efforts towards the realisation of SDG 4 and SDG 5 (achieving gender equality and empowerment for girls and women) crucial issues – from increasing the supply of teachers and teacher quality to teaching practices – are rightly being featured in various dialogues among governments and stakeholders. Let us build on these important discussions to also address gender inequalities in education systems.
Robert Jenkins is Chief, Education and Associate Director, Programme Division, UNICEF.