Gender Gaps: a Paradox from Learners to Teachers

Designing an Effective Training Program August 15, 2016

The question of women empowerment and gender equality is at the heart of the education debate worldwide: girls should be educated and empowered to have the same opportunities as boys. However, gender gaps are not limited to classrooms. In fact, they are surprisingly accentuated in the education job market. 

Two fields are representative of this disparity: teaching and education technology (edtech). 

The teaching profession is often perceived as a female job. According to the World Bank, women are mainly occupants of teaching positions in many developed and emerging countries. 

However the edtech sector reflects a different trend. I have often observed actors operating in the edtech field are frequently men, most of them white and Caucasian, with limited representation from minorities and transgender people. 

What are the forces behind these gaps and the possible consequences for education and society as a whole?

Historically, teaching has been largely seen as “a woman’s job”. The teaching career continues to be perceived as an extension of motherhood since women are “naturally gifted” to manage children. Even though more men have entered this field, a sexist working culture continues to prevail within school systems. 

Also, lack of good salaries, inadequate incentives and a limited career evolution are believed to be some of the factors that deter men to join the teaching task force. These factors, combined with the general perception that men have to excel in “strong professions” end up reinforcing the existing pattern that this profession is most suited for women. 

That is the state of the teaching profession. Now if we look at professions within the education world, we see a completely different state of affairs. 

The edtech sector, one of the most dynamic fields in the education sector, is primarily a man’s world. The gender gap is notably pronounced in one of its most important hubs: the Silicon Valley. According to a survey by Fortune, women working in tech companies comprise on average about one-third of the workforce. Many women find it daunting to walk into an edtech conference or pitch their projects to a room full of male investors. 

Many tend to relate these disparities to a pipeline problem: not enough men studying to become teachers versus not enough women in math and science to work in the tech field. If the former is certainly true, the latter may no longer be the case. According to UNESCO, there has been an unprecedented growth in women’s enrolment in higher education worldwide. In the United States alone, women earn 57% of bachelor’s degrees in all fields; 50% of science and engineering graduates are women. Hence, the cause of the gender gap is not necessarily linked to the availability of talented men and women, at least not in developed countries where the gap continues to prevail. 

The enduring gender gap is not really about management structures. It is in fact related to a historical division of labor between men and women that has negative consequences on the individual and collective levels. 

On an individual level, women are increasingly stepping into the edtech sector but they continue to lack visibility. Their absence at key conferences, forums and investor pitches is conspicuous, fueling the unbalanced ratio. For instance, the Web Summit recently launched a mail campaign to increase female participation up to 50%. A white western men syndrome reinforces these stereotyped versions and, as a consequence, women are often uncomfortable for not fitting in a rather homogeneous atmosphere.

On a collective level, this inner paradox of the education job market is also highly prejudicial for learners. They tend to assimilate these misconceived role models in their individual constructions of the supposedly right places for men and women to occupy in society, with serious consequences on the way this will affect their own choices and perceptions. 

But how can we encourage more boys to become brillant teachers? How can we incite more girls to launch their edtech startups and get greater exposure? As a historical and embedded stigma in our society, the solution is not a short-term, easy task. However, simple actions can indeed contribute to promote change:

  • Demystify stereotypes and give visibility to women operating in this field help build more equal role models that will encourage others to follow a similar path. At the WISE Accelerator, three out of five entrepreneurs are women, most of them from different parts of the world, such as Diana Al-Dajani, a successful Palestinian woman working in the game sector.
  • Encourage more investment in projects led by women and transgenders to boost a more egalitarian participation in the sector. WOMENA, an angel group for women in the Middle East, AkiraChix, an organization to develop a successful force of African women in technology, and TransTech Social, an organization that empowers the trans community in the tech sector are doing an amazing work to support diversity.
  • Offer incentives to attract more male teachers – training, better working conditions and a culture that values their roles, especially in primary education. These practices are reverberating in some education systems, such as in Canada.
  • Facilitate learners’ connection with these individuals help them envisage similar careers. GirlEng works to create greater awareness around engineering and to increase the rate of girls pursuing studies in this field.

Above all, this comes necessarily from changing the mindsets and the working culture of education professionals. If we don’t engage in this debate, we risk of acknowledging this gender-based division of roles and failing in promoting the equality of opportunities amongst our students and the coming generations.