Breaking the glass ceiling in teacher recruitment

By Nicole Bella and Matthias Eck

Worldwide, many countries lack sufficient numbers of teachers. Those teachers working are often not qualified and trained to ensure quality education and learning. But, while having enough highly qualified teachers is a key issue, the extent to which the education workforce is equitable and inclusive also has important bearing. The gender balance at each level of the teaching body, therefore, is an important marker for equality.


Our 2020 Gender Report is being released tomorrow to coincide with the International Day of the Girl Child. The Report looks at progress made in the 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a blueprint for women’s rights. Two of the strategic objectives set in these documents called upon countries to create gender-sensitive education systems and take positive measures to increase the proportion of women gaining access to education policy and decision-making, and the proportion of female teachers at all levels of education as well as in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines, which are traditionally male-dominated.

Yet, our new forthcoming report shows that, two and a half decades later, this objective is far from realised. Globally, 94% of pre-primary education teachers were female in 2018. Their share falls as the level of education increases, from 66% in primary to 54% in secondary and 43% in tertiary education. The share of female teachers in pre-primary education has remained more or less the same since 1995, while it has increased at other levels of education in almost all regions, except in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the share decreased in secondary (from 32% to 30%) and tertiary education (from 26% to 24%). Even in primary education, women make up less than 30% of teachers in Benin, the Comoros, Djibouti and Sierra Leone, and less than 20% in Togo.

In high-income countries, the lack of male role-models is also an issue. In Germany, an initiative started in 2010 to increase the number of men working in early childhood care and education and to reorient those looking for a career change to work in day care centres. While this helped increase the share of men working in early childhood care and education from 3% in 2006 to 7% in 2019, parity is still far from reach.

Feminization of the teaching workforce is rooted in traditional expectations about women’s roles in society. Teaching is considered a female occupation, allowing women to fulfil their obligations as wives and mothers. Family environments strongly influence women’s education and professional choices. Men do not want to become teachers because the profession is perceived as typically female, underpaid and with low prestige. Women in education face prejudice related to capacity and competence.

Feminization is coupled with glass ceilings in management and leadership positions. In 48 middle- and high-income countries, there is a gender gap of 20 percentage points among teachers and head teachers in lower secondary schools. Their under-representation is also visible in tertiary education, especially as senior faculty and in higher education decision-making bodies, even where women outnumber men as students.

While this reflects the fact that women had historically lower access to education, it is also often a signal of institutional cultures that are not inclusive or geared towards broader social and cultural change for greater gender equality. Conventional faculty recruitment processes that reward linear, full-time, uninterrupted academic trajectories contribute to women’s under-representation in senior academic positions. Women are more likely to be disadvantaged by norms that fail to recognize competing commitments, such as care responsibilities.

Brazil is one of only two among the aforementioned 48 countries where the share of female head teachers exceeds the share of teachers. The share of women among university professors has also increased from 41% in 1999 to 46% in 2018. However, only 28% of federal university presidents were women in 2018. Women hold 72% of education leadership positions at the municipality level but only one-third of state secretaries of education positions. Only men have occupied the federal Minister of Education position for the past 25 years.

In Bulgaria, the share of women as head teachers is among the largest in the world. In tertiary education, women accounted for the majority of academic staff in humanities (60%), medicine (55%) and natural and social sciences (54%) in 2015 but for a minority in engineering and technology (34%) despite an important increase since 2000 (16%). The percentage of women increased from 44.5% to 53% between 1995 and 2018 among assistant professors, from 28% to 47% among associate professors, and from 12.5% to 40% of professors. But the glass-ceiling effect is stronger for decision-making and high leadership positions. Women accounted for 21% of university rector positions in 2018, up from 8% in 2000. In the 140 years since the ministry of education was established, there have been only 5 women ministers of education out of 96. Since 1995, there have been four female ministers, with a total length of service of 2 years and 8 months.

Official EU guidance endorses incentives and legal sanctions to encourage use of gender quotas and targets in universities. In Ireland, under so-called performance  compacts, higher education institutions risk losing up to 10 % of annual state funding if they do not meet certain objectives, including some related to gender equality. Between 2019 and 2021, 45 posts of women-only professorships will be created.

It is time for the glass ceiling in the advancement of women in education careers towards leadership positions to become part of the policy making agenda.



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