As more women graduate from college, the teaching profession becomes more female

Kyle Schwartz (C), a 3rd grade teacher, works with students Mckylah Lenkiewicz (L) and Juliana Enquist in her classroom at Doull Elementary School in Denver April 17, 2015. Schwartz, who posted notes from her third grade class online and started a social media whirlwind under the hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew said on Friday the assignment had been a revelation for her.  REUTERS/Rick Wilking - GF10000063458

One of the great accomplishments of the late 20th century was to bring women onto a more equal footing in the labor market. Salaries became more equal. Employers opened up jobs for women. Educational opportunities became more gender-equal. And for college-educated women, all of this meant that careers outside teaching and nursing became possible.

One might think that as more career paths opened—even if not opened all the way—increased alternatives would have meant relatively fewer women in teaching. In fact, that is not what happened. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we look at how one of the very few historically female-dominated professions has become even more so. Here, I briefly describe what did happen and offer my explanation as to why.

Unlike with most jobs, teacher salaries have long been based on a schedule that minimizes opportunities for discrimination. Little matters for salary other than years of experience and level of education. (Oh yeah, and whether you teach in a district with high or low salaries.) So women and men get almost equal pay. In the most recent available data, base pay for female teachers was 96 percent of the pay received by male teachers. Even if you include extra school pay above the base level (for extracurricular activities, coaching, and a few other things), women still earn 93 percent of what men earn. High school teachers get paid somewhat more than elementary school teachers, and men are more likely than women to teach at the secondary level. But women teachers have slightly more education than men do.

While the gender pay gap has not yet been fully eliminated, it is smaller for teachers than in most of the economy. As a rough comparison, in “management, professional, and related occupations,” the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that women earn 73 percent of what men earn. While a large majority of teachers are women, a majority of these management and professional workers are also women. The difference in the wage gap is much smaller in teaching, making teaching especially attractive to women.

What about in the not-so good old days? It’s hard to get exactly comparable data, but reports from the 1970 census suggest the male-to-female earnings ratio for year-round workers with four years of college was 55 percent. (Something else from the old days: the reports are all separated by race. The 55 percentage is for whites only.) In contrast, teaching salaries have been approximately equal by gender, although not perfectly equal. The earliest year for which I was able to track base teaching salaries was 1987, when the salary gender ratio was 0.89.

In other words, women’s and men’s teaching salaries have long been almost equal. Outside teaching, earnings are far less equal—but they’re a lot closer together than they were in past decades. So what would you expect to happen to the relative number of women and men in teaching over this period? It used to be that few opportunities outside of teaching were available and women had equal-ish pay, which incentivized talented women to go into the classroom. Now with a more open world, the incentives for women to teach are lower, so relatively fewer will become teachers and the gender balance in teaching should become somewhat more equal.

At least that’s what I thought. It turns out that I was wrong and, in fact, the opposite has happened. Here’s a picture of the proportion of female teachers over time.

Data from the Current Population survey is from IPUMS USA, University of Minnesota,

The green line tells the real story. The share of teachers who are women rose, not fell, over the past three-plus decades. The proportion rose quite a bit through some time in the 1990s and then has edged up a bit more since.

Now some more explanation about the graph. The solid lines are taken from the Current Population Survey (CPS)—a representative survey of the U.S. population—and look only at full-time teachers. The dots are taken from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), which is a survey of teachers only and does not reach back quite so far. The SASS trend is also upward, but somewhat less dramatically so.

We can split out a few more details using the CPS data. The blue line at the top shows the female share for elementary school teachers: unsurprisingly, heavily female. The percentage moved up some through the 1980s, then back down a little. Overall, it has been pretty flat over time. Elementary school teachers are overwhelmingly women, both historically and today.

The orange line at the bottom tells us the real change in the female share is in secondary school. Teaching secondary school used to be a majority male occupation, and today a solid majority of secondary school teachers are women. Notably, the majority of math and science teachers in grades nine through 12 are women. Probably a small piece of the story as to why women’s share in teaching has risen rather than fallen is that secondary school teaching jobs have become more open to women.

Here’s what I think is going on: While it’s true that the relative attractiveness of teaching versus other careers has declined for women versus men, there has been an enormous increase in the number of women with the basic required education to be a teacher—a bachelor’s degree. The picture below shows what happened over the last 40 years; the ratio of bachelor’s degrees going to women relative to men has risen by 60 percent. In other words, the greatly increased number of women in the qualified labor pool for teaching overwhelms any effects of changed incentives of teaching relative to other professions. (Ingersoll et. al. provide a very readable report on these and other trends in the teacher workforce; also see the nice summary in the Atlantic.) From an economics point of view, it is interesting that the quantity effect dominates the incentive effect.

Data from the Current Population survey is from IPUMS USA, University of Minnesota,

We should also ask whether it matters for the kids if their teachers are women or men. Hopefully, you already have a good idea of the answer, because Michael Hansen and Diana Quintero reviewed the evidence last July right here on the Chalkboard. Here’s the nickel summary:

“It is not clear that the plethora of females in the teacher workforce is worrisome in most circumstances—more female teachers may even be preferred in math and science classrooms.”

But I’d place one big caveat on the conclusion that teacher gender doesn’t matter. Most of what we know about the effects of teacher gender are about what happens in K-12. As you’ve seen in the chart above, there has been a massive change in college attainment of men versus women—and though everyone looks at four-year degrees, the change in associate degrees is just as large.

Interestingly, the large increase in the fraction of college degrees going to women is a worldwide phenomenon. And perhaps not coincidentally, women as a fraction of the teaching force has increased in other developing countries as well.

Fraction of women in teaching force in developed countries
Primary Lower Secondary Upper Secondary general Upper Secondary vocational
OECD 2016 83 69 62 56
OECD 1996 75 57 50 42

The table shows the increase in the fraction of teachers who are women in the OECD. (Note that the comparison is not perfect, as the set of countries included changed a bit over these two decades.) What we see is that the change in the teacher gender ratio—including in secondary school—is not just a U.S. phenomenon.

The “coincidence” of a shift to relatively more women going to college during a period in which students also had relatively fewer male teachers is interesting. One possibility is that high school boys are in need of male role models to keep them on track to college. Another possibility is that it’s the decline in discriminatory barriers that has led to both more women teachers and to more women going to college. Evidence on how much either explanation contributes to the changes we’ve seen will have to await further research.