The Impact of Female Teachers on Girls’ Education

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Dr. Arshed Iqbal Dar

As the saying goes, If you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.
The recruitment of women teachers is an issue that has become increasingly important to all those supporting educational development. This is particularly so because of the impact women teachers can have on girls’ enrollment and education. The need to increase girls’ enrollment is an important reason for giving greater policy and programming attention to women teachers, but it should not be the only reason. Beyond recruitment strategies, there are other issues which have to be addressed if women are going to be empowered in their roles as teachers. We need to support and encourage women to be effective and inspiring teachers for girls and boys. This means addressing policy and practice to ensure that a feminized education sector can be a high status, respected one in which adequate resources are allocated to ensure the highest professional performance of all teachers – whether they be women or men. There are different reasons for positive relationship between girls’ enrollment and women teachers:
In some communities, parents will not allow their daughters to be taught by a male teacher. The placement of a woman teacher, therefore, can have an immediate impact on access. Even where the presence of male teachers is not necessarily a barrier to girls’ enrollment, parents may prefer women teachers over men. Studies have shown that mothers feel more comfortable talking about their children with a woman teacher.
The presence of women in schools can also impact positively on girls’ retention in school and on their achievement. Studies have shown a positive impact from women teachers on girls (and boys) achievement. A female role model can support and encourage girls to successfully complete their studies and maybe even continue studying to become teachers, themselves. She can also be there to listen to any problem and provide guidance when necessary. In schools where girls are in the minority, especially, the presence of one or more female teacher may also ensure protection for girls from unwanted attention from boys or male teachers, and even from sexual abuse and exploitation.
At the school policy level, women teachers may act as advocates for girls, representing their perspectives and needs, and promoting more girl-friendly learning. For example, women teachers may be able to advocate for better toilet and washing facilities. These are of particular importance to adolescent girls who are menstruating, and whose active participation in school during their monthly periods may depend on access to clean toilets separate from those used by boys and a water supply.
Women teachers provide new and different role models for girls especially those in rural and conservative communities. They point to possibilities for women to be active outside the home and to be agents in community development. They play key roles in educating and socializing children beyond gender stereotypes, and so are crucial agents of change. Another important issue is that women are often marginalized to low status positions within schools, usually teaching the lower grade classes and subjects considered ‘soft.’ This means that men still dominate higher status positions, teaching higher grade classes and subjects with a higher prestige, such as math and science.
These low status positions mean that women teachers voices may be either excluded from policy and decision-making processes, or they may not be taken seriously. It may be impossible for women to influence school policy and therefore, meet the expectations that they can make a positive difference for girls. This is especially so where there are only one or two women on a large male staff. The role model potential of women teachers is compromised if they are seen by girls (and boys) as always subordinate to men and are only assigned to low status roles within the school. Moreover, the assignment of women to roles that are seen to relate to their nurturing and caring abilities and their natural affinities for young children, rather than to their intellectual and pedagogical capacities, may serve to reinforce gender stereotypes.
Another important issue for policy makers to consider is the fact that in some contexts – for example in Central Asia, North America and the Caribbean – some primary schools, especially, are so dominated by women that it is thought that this can have a negative effect, alienating boys from educational activities and impacting on attendance, retention and performance. Researchers describe the way in which women are brought into a teacher training programme that remains exactly the same as it had been for men only. This approach is characteristic of a ‘Women in Development’ (WID) approach. It is quite different to a Gender and Development (GAD) approach, which implies that the programme would acknowledge gender differences, would aim to meet sometimes different needs of men and women, and would explicitly address gender equality issues. A WID approach, for example, might increase the number of women teachers in a teacher education programme, but indicators for success would be a numerical count of women relative to men, rather than any measure of the extent to which male and female teachers are empowered to act as agents of gender equality.
Women are rarely found in positions of authority and leadership in schools, and career development for women teachers is rarely prioritized. Even in countries where the percentage of women teachers is high, there are rarely many women head teachers, education officers and managers at the district, regional and national levels. There are systemic constraints for women wishing to develop their career within the education sector, such as negative attitudes towards women’s ability to manage and lead schools, lack of female role models, long hours, and commitments that are difficult to reconcile with family and child care responsibilities. There are also constraints within families and communities. For example, a study of women teachers in Papua New Guinea reported that women teachers were reluctant to apply for or take up promotions because they feared their husband’s violent reactions. Negative attitudes in the school, family and community inevitably shape women’s beliefs about themselves, their capabilities, aptitudes and appropriate roles. In this way, women’s own attitudes may be a further block to their career development in education.
Reducing gender gaps in education attainment has been an important priority for international education policy, and is explicitly listed as one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This commitment has been reflected in the policies of many developing countries, and substantial progress has been made in the past decade in reducing gender barriers in primary school enrollment. One key policy that is credited with increasing girls’ education is the increased recruitment of female teachers. UNICEF has documented the practice in a variety of countries, including Bangladesh, India, Liberia, Nepal, and Yemen, and the United Nations Task Force for achieving the MDGs has advocated hiring more female teachers as an effective policy mechanism for reaching the goal of universal primary education of girls. While the idea that hiring more female teachers can bridge gender gaps is widely prevalent among policy makers, there is very little empirical evidence on testing this hypothesis in developing countries. India has the largest primary schooling system in the world, catering to over 200 million children. The calls for increased female teachers reflect a belief that through such mechanisms as role model effects, increased safety, reduced prejudices, and greater identification and empathy, female teachers are arguably more effective in increasing girls achievement in primary school relative to their male counterparts.

—The author is an Assistant Professor of Zoology at Government Degree College, Sumbal, Sonawari. He can be reached at: drarshediqbal@gmail.com