Women teachers provide distinct benefits to students, and yet in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa they are underrepresented in the classroom. UMD researchers examined why women in Liberia, Tanzania, Togo, and Uganda are less likely than men to enter the teaching force, as well as how the lack of women teachers negatively affects students.
“Almost half of the countries in Africa don’t have a proportionate number of women teachers, which is a pattern that is unlike most of the rest of the world,” said UMD College of Education Professor Nelly P. Stromquist, noting that in some countries, less than 20 percent of secondary education teachers are women. Dr. Stromquist, along with research team members and UMD COE Professors Steven J. Klees and Jing Lin, conducted the research and served as co-editor for the resulting 2017 book, “Women Teachers in Africa: Challenges and Possibilities.”
The research was funded by a $750,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and the UBS Optimus Foundation, as well as a grant from the Forum on African Women Educationalists (FAWE).
The research team found both cultural and institutional reasons why women in these four sub-Saharan countries—where the overall K-12 teaching forces were less than 50 percent women—were less likely than men to enter the teaching profession, with women’s family obligations posing a major barrier to teaching. Obstacles for women teachers include:
- In rural areas, conditions hinder women’s entry and retention in teaching. As women tend to shoulder family and childcare responsibilities and often have children at a young age, rural areas lack of electricity and water, limited access to health care, sporadic access to markets, and insufficient housing create difficulties for women teachers. The absence of toilets and accessible water make the hygiene needs of girl students and women teachers a significant problem in schools.
- Salaries in teaching are low for both men and women, but men who teach are often able to take a second job, such as tutoring, while women’s family responsibilities preclude pursuing supplemental income.
- Difficulties accessing payment disproportionately affect women, as teachers may have to travel through rough conditions and stay overnight in nearby towns in order to cash checks, which conflicts with women’s family duties.
- Teacher training programs often do not have adequate housing for families, which limits access for women with children.
“Women teachers in these countries make a difference for students, as they demonstrate a greater degree of caring for students and their emotional needs than teachers who are men,” said Dr. Stromquist. “When girls reach adolescence and have problems they can’t discuss with male teachers, women teachers are more likely to be aware of conditions in their lives, such as extreme poverty, unwanted pregnancies, and rape or incest.”
Additionally, the researchers found that parents feel more comfortable with women teachers in the schools, as they assume this reduces sexual harassment and sexual violence. Women teachers also provide accessible role models to students.
“Policymakers don’t pay sufficient attention to to the role of teachers in students’ access to and retention in schools,” said Dr. Stromquist. “The dynamics created within a school matter and as women teachers can play a protective role for students, it’s important that policies facilitate their success in the field.”
The researchers outlined a variety of policy recommendations for governments and international agencies that would support women in sub-Saharan Africa teaching, which range from changing residential teacher training facilities to increasing salaries.
Drs. Stromquist, Klees, and Lin are faculty members in the international education policy program in the College of Education’s Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education.