Teaching Profession

On Women’s Equality Day, There’s Still No Gender Parity in K-12 Schools

By Madeline Will — August 24, 2023 6 min read
A teacher kicks off a lesson during an AP research class in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 2020.
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Although nearly 77 percent of teachers are female, schools are not always equitable places for women to work.

Pay discrepancies, glass ceilings, and limited workplace accommodations for pregnancy, breastfeeding, and menopause can all be barriers that female educators face. Some of those barriers are starting to lessen with new federal and state laws, while others remain persistent.

Women’s Equality Day, on Aug. 26, celebrates the suffragette movement of the 19th and 20th centuries and the ongoing work to secure and expand equal rights today. It’s also a moment to reflect on what more needs to be done to achieve gender equality in all facets of society.

Here are five challenges facing women in education today—as well as some signs of progress.

1. Female teachers make less than male teachers on average

A study from earlier this year found that female teachers make roughly $2,200 less than their male counterparts when all sources of school-based income—base salary, extra-duty pay, and summer school jobs—are combined.

That’s largely driven by the fact that male teachers are slightly more likely to participate in extra duties at schools. And they are much more likely to be paid for those tasks, especially if their school principal is also a man.

Male coaches and student group sponsors earned $1,647 and $1,009 more, respectively, than their female counterparts with similar characteristics, according to the study by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

The study presents evidence that “female labor in public schools is systematically sidelined or devalued relative to men’s labor,” Michael Hansen, a senior fellow in the Brown Center and the co-author of the report, told Education Week.

The study found that male teachers are more likely to participate in extra duties than female teachers during the ages of 21 to 36, often the ages when women are having babies or caring for young children. But that doesn’t explain the gendered difference in the likelihood of being compensated for extra work, according to the study.

Past research suggests that managers often perceive women who are mothers as less committed to work, while they consider men to be their families’ breadwinners, which can lead to the managers favoring men when determining pay.

2. There’s a glass ceiling keeping women out of the superintendency

Women make up 76.8 percent of teachers and 56 percent of principals, according to the most recent federal data. But they only comprise 27 percent of superintendents, according to a 2023 survey conducted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association.

One study found that districts are just as likely to have a male superintendent with one of 15 first names as they are to have a female superintendent with any name.

“There is something out of balance if it’s OK for women to be the majority of the teachers, and for women to be a good percentage of the principals, and [have some representation] at the district leadership level, and then when you get to that final step there seems to be a glass ceiling that’s keeping women out,” said Barbara Jenkins, the first female superintendent of Florida’s Orange County district, in an interview with Education Week last fall. She now leads the Women in Leadership Initiative at Chiefs for Change, a bipartisan organization that focuses on education leadership at the state and district levels, and was speaking about that project.

See also

"I have never been soft," says New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. "If anything, I know what I want, I know how I want it, but I know that sometimes you take a step backward before you go three steps forward. And how you create the climate to make those difficult decisions is very, very important."
"I have never been soft," says New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña. "If anything, I know what I want, I know how I want it, but I know that sometimes you take a step backward before you go three steps forward. And how you create the climate to make those difficult decisions is very, very important."
Victoria Will for Education Week

The number of women in the top job has increased over the past two decades, but one recent report suggested that the pandemic has eroded some of that progress.

And some female superintendents have said that when they do get the job, they face more scrutiny than their male peers. They’re told to smile more, or their colleagues don’t respond well to their authority.

One former superintendent, an African American woman, told Education Week that she once overheard someone calling her “the B-word” after she rebuked him at a meeting.

“I think [it] was, in part, that I had the audacity to challenge something he was saying,” said Deborah Jewell-Sherman, who formerly led the Richmond, Va., district. “Part of it, I think, is race and gender. I think there is an additional burden for women of color in that role.”

3. Many teachers don’t receive paid parental leave, but that’s starting to change

Research shows that paid parental leave can help close the gender pay gap and boost women’s likelihood of returning to work after having a child, according to an analysis by the progressive think tank New America. Access to paid parental leave can also lead to improved health outcomes for both the infant and the mother.

Yet most educators don’t have access to paid parental leave and have to cobble together sick days. While some can qualify for 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected time off under the Family Medical Leave Act, which applies to employees who have been at their job for at least a year, many can’t afford to take unpaid or partially paid leave and have had to return to the classroom before they’re physically or emotionally ready.

But a growing number of states and districts are starting to enact new policies offering paid parental leave for educators. This spring, at least four states—Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and South Carolina—passed laws granting some form of paid maternity leave for educators.

The Chicago public school system also recently implemented this type of paid leave, joining New York City and the District of Columbia.

4. Educators are now starting to get accommodations for breastfeeding

For many teachers who are new mothers, one of the biggest hurdles to returning to work has long been finding the time and private space to pump breast milk for their babies. Several teachers told Education Week in 2017 that the lack of support at work made pumping exceedingly difficult and caused some to stop breastfeeding before they were ready.

Some teachers also said they missed out on valuable planning time with their colleagues because they had no other options for breaks. Jessica Lee, a senior staff attorney at the Center for WorkLife Law, told Education Week last year that she’s heard from many teachers who have left the profession altogether because they felt like they weren’t able to teach and maintain their milk supply.

But two new federal laws—the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act—require all employers, including schools, to provide breastfeeding workers a private place to pump, as well as reasonable break times.

“This is a big win for educators,” Lee told Education Week.

5. Menopause is still a taboo word in schools

Hundreds of thousands of women working in K-12 schools are experiencing perimenopause—the yearslong transitional period before menopause—or menopause itself. Common symptoms include hot flashes, trouble sleeping, and difficulty concentrating—which can make it difficult for teachers and principals to do their jobs.

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Illustration of an older woman with gray hair sitting and holding a clock with a picture of her fallopian tubes on the face of the clock.
iStock/Getty

Advocates say that educators who are struggling with symptoms might take more sick days, reduce their hours so they’re part-time, or even retire earlier than planned. The advocates say that school and district leaders should remove any stigma by starting an open dialogue about menopause and available supports for women experiencing symptoms.

“We’ve come through a generation of women who’ve been told to just get on with it and not make too much of a fuss about it—we’ve just got to grin and bear it. We’re coming out of that now thankfully into more of an awareness of what actually happens through perimenopause and menopause,” said Sarah Alex Carter, a well-being coach and consultant for schools in South Wales in the United Kingdom. “I firmly believe that it should be something we talk about as part of our lives rather than something we feel we ought to fight for.”

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