We need to rethink recruitment for men in primary schools

We are experiencing a proportional decline of men in Australian primary schools. from www.shutterstock.com

Across Australia there is a shortage of male teachers, particularly in primary schools, where men make up just 19% of the full-time workforce nationwide.

While in universities, incentives are offered to women to redress gender imbalance in certain subject areas like science, technology, engineering and maths, the law doesn’t allow for the same incentives to be offered to men.

Although the number of male primary school teachers in Australia is not declining – the number of full time male primary teachers in Australia has remained fairly constant over the last 25 years – the number of female primary teachers has increased dramatically, causing a proportional decline of men.

We know why men are reluctant to enter the teaching profession – with low salary, status and the perception that teaching young children is better suited to women being chief among these reasons. So why can’t we do anything about it?

Full time primary school teachers in all Australian schools by gender. Data source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 1991-2015.

The gender imbalance in Australian primary schools is stronger in some areas than others; differing between states and territories and between the public and private sector.

Full time primary school teachers in all Australian schools by gender, state and territory. Data source: Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2015.

The scholarship scandal

In 2004 the federal government announced A$1 million in scholarships for men studying to become primary school teachers. To date, not a single scholarship has been funded. So why can’t Australia deliver?

Tertiary scholarships have been used successfully in Australia to encourage female students to study traditionally male-dominated subjects, like engineering and mathematics.

These scholarships were created to eliminate discrimination against women in male-dominated professions.

Surprisingly, offering male-only scholarships is unlawful. These male-only scholarships would breach the 1984 Sex Discrimination Act – unless, that is, the act is amended or an exemption applied.

A bill to amend the Sex Discrimination Act and allow scholarships for men studying primary education has previously been introduced and rejected three times. The reason being that “there was insufficient evidence that the gender imbalance was adversely affecting children”.

While this is true in an academic sense, we know little about effects on children’s experience of schooling more broadly.

Girls, for example, have expressed anxiety about transitioning to high school because they are unsure of how to relate to male teachers. As one year six girl explained:

If you have a male teacher you have to get used to being around a male person besides someone from your family. You can’t just be around female teachers and then not be around male teachers because I wouldn’t then know how to act or to speak to them because they’re male.

Recent evidence finds that while female primary teachers form closer relationships with girls, male primary teachers form similarly close relationships with boys and girls.

Can we target jobs to men?

Targeting employment opportunities to men or women is OK in particular circumstances.

Exemptions to the Sex Discrimination Act allow employers to discriminate on the grounds of sex if, for example, duties include fitting or searching clothing, or entering a lavatory while it is in use by a person of that sex.

In Western Australia, the Males in Primary program was started to raise awareness of primary teaching as a suitable career for young men. The program includes a short video that high school principals were encouraged to share with male students.

Despite visiting hundreds of schools to promote the program, education minister Peter Collier admitted that he is frustrated that more young men aren’t becoming teachers, stating that it was not surprising when young men can earn more money driving mining trucks.

Advertising women-only jobs

Recently, an Australian university received heavy criticism when they advertised:

We will only consider applications from suitably qualified female candidates.

The position was for a lecturer in mathematics and statistics, where only 30% of associate lecturers were female.

This same statement appeared again last week, when another university announced five ongoing research fellowship positions for female candidates in STEM disciplines, stating:

While women comprise almost half of the nation’s science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) PhD graduates, less than 20% of senior academics in STEM disciplines at Australian universities are women.

It appears that these universities are using the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act - state legislation - to bypass national sex discrimination legislation and target employment opportunities to women.

It is unlikely that we will see schools targeting employment to men any time soon as doing so may prevent the best candidate for the job being considered. After all, the quality of teaching is far more important than the gender of a teacher.

Should schools have more male teachers?

It is true that having more male teachers would not necessarily improve students’ academic outcomes. But this isn’t about academic outcomes at all, it’s about workplace diversity and socialisation.

Recent research tells us that primary school students and their parents want more male teachers. The reasons they give are social, not academic.

Boys and girls want to understand how to interact with men. They want teachers that they can relate to, and they want teachers they can confide in.

The diversity of our teachers should reflect the diversity of society and that of the student population.

Education is not “women’s work”, but it sure seems that way if you’re seven years old.

How to recruit more male teachers

1. Realistic goals

Change takes time and needs direction. We need to know where we are and where we’re going. Setting realistic goals to increase the proportion of male teachers in schools is a start.

2. Incentives

Telling men that primary school students need role models or father figures are hardly incentives.

If scholarships are used to attract women into male-dominated professions, then it makes sense that education providers be allowed to use scholarships to attract men into female-dominated professions too.

Incentives for men to stay in the profession are less concerning. Those men who do enter teaching tend to have a longer average career duration than women.

3. Improve the status of the profession

It is difficult to target recruitment when teaching is regarded as one of the most undervalued and underpaid professions. If we want more male teachers, this needs to change.