When I ask my friends about their best elementary, middle, and high school teachers, I am met with a consistent chorus of names beginning with “Mrs” or “Miss.” Before entering higher education, many of my peers and I predominantly remember our educators as being women. This trend, however, is not simply anecdotal — in the United States, 74.3% of all teachers identify as women, with the remaining 25.7% identifying as men.

Despite this, when we look at the demographics of higher education, we see a slightly opposite trend. Nationwide, 43.3% of employed professors are women, while 56.7% are men. At UC Berkeley in particular, the divide is much more pronounced. A profile from 2023 highlights that, of the 1546 employed faculty members on campus, only 37.1% identify as women, with 62.5% identifying as men.

What drives this gender disparity in the educator workforce? What leads women to pursue careers as educators in primary and secondary schools, more often than in higher education? What historical contexts drive this polarization in gender demographics? 

Historical feminization of primary and secondary education in the U.S.

Beginning in the late 1800s, education became highly feminized. Following the Industrial Revolution, there was a sudden increase in enticing job opportunities—particularly for young men. Teaching was not seen as an alluring job prospect; it was a rather poorly paid profession and, with the academic year only lasting eight to ten months, most qualified young men were not drawn to pursue it as a career path. Few individuals were willing to fill the positions, resulting in a labor shortage.

However, with young girls being educated alongside their male counterparts in classrooms by 1950, there was a growing number of capable, educated young women who were able to fill teaching positions. Gender stereotypes of the era placed women in the role of caregivers, and teaching children is often viewed as a logical extension of that position. As the U.S. population continued to expand in the second half of the 19th century, school districts grew in tandem, requiring an even greater labor force of teachers. By the end of the century—towards the late 1880s—women made up 63% of all the country’s teachers.

However, despite this enduring history of the feminization of education in the U.S., we do not see this pattern carry over to collegiate teaching. If anything, there is a higher proportion of men in academia than women—especially in STEM subjects. Of over 40,000 science professors in the U.S., men make up 71.8% of the workforce, with only 28.2% of all science professors identifying as women.

Women teachers and professors. 

So then, what sets professors apart from teachers, and what are the factors that drive women into primary and secondary education, and men into higher education?

Gender stereotypes also largely contribute to this. Students often misattribute the levels of education of their male and female instructors, placing more confidence in male professors. Because of this, women in higher education typically receive lower student ratings, and can therefore have a harder time becoming tenured faculty. In addition, a 2016 ScienceOpen paper found that students often held female professors to higher standards compared to their male counterparts.

However, these gender stereotypes and their resulting influence on student perception are not the sole driving force propelling women into lower-level education. As explored in an OECD report from 2022, the career path of teaching is often particularly appealing to working mothers. Being a teacher provides working mothers with flexibility regarding school breaks, allowing them time for family and work responsibilities. In the U.S. childcare responsibilities predominantly fall on mothers; a 2015 study found that fathers do about half as much work in raising their children compared to mothers. As a result, working mothers, especially ones with working husbands, are much more likely to seek out employment opportunities that allow them to continue prioritizing child care. Additionally, individuals pursuing a career in academia starting as assistant professors typically take about 7 years to become tenured faculty. This longer timeline may dissuade many working mothers from pursuing a profession in higher academia with the added responsibilities of childcare.  

Considering the barriers that female professors face and the convenience of lower-level education for working mothers, it makes sense that many women who want to pursue careers as educators opt to work as teachers. Working mothers often don’t have the time and resources to immerse themselves in the lengthy process of becoming tenured faculty and may gravitate toward career paths with more immediate stability.

As members of the UC Berkeley community, we have a responsibility to explore how we may better support female faculty members. With our faculty demographics lagging behind the nation’s average in gender distribution, it is vital to encourage and support women — especially working mothers, who face a myriad of socio-economic obstacles — in their pursuit of careers in higher academia.

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Disclaimer: The views published in this journal are those of the individual authors or speakers and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of Berkeley Economic Review staff, the Undergraduate Economics Association, the UC Berkeley Economics Department and faculty, or the University of California, Berkeley in general.

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