Women and the Teaching Profession:
Exploring the Feminisation Debate

Fatimah Kelleher (ed.)

Book Review

This edited book, published as a collaboration between the Commonwealth Secretariat and UNESCO, represents an important contribution to scholarship on women and the teaching profession, and indeed to the wider field of gender and education. First, across its two main sections (multi-country analysis and country reports), it offers a comprehensive resource in terms of quantitative data on women teachers not only in the five case study countries, but also internationally (although to a lesser but still valuable extent). Second, it provides (again, at multi-country and five case study levels) excellent critical analyses of the literature on women and the teaching profession. This means we now have a good international summary of the issues, a ‘one-stop-shop’ quantitative data resource on women teachers, and five in-depth and nuanced country studies (on Dominica, Lesotho, India, Samoa, and Sri Lanka), which offer fascinating cross-cultural comparison.

However, what I find particularly valuable and refreshing about this book (aside from its accessible language) is its angle on women and the teaching profession from a women’s rights and gender-based social exclusion perspective. This means that it covers issues, for example, relating to the work place and public-sector employment market, and social status. Unfortunately, far too often in development literature (especially that which is policy-based), the focus on women teachers is purely instrumental. That is, women teachers are viewed simply as a mechanism for achieving Millennium Development Goal (MDG) and Education for All (EFA) targets of numbers of girls in school. In this view, women’s right are, ironically, entirely overlooked. This, of course, mirrors the instrumental arguments (which are, of course, important for leverage purposes) that abound in the field of girls’ education itself (‘educate a girl and you educate a nation’, and so on). In the debate around women teachers, even when there is discussion about working conditions for women’s teachers, the issue is not about ensuring these women have their rights fulfilled, but about what conditions make them more likely to stay in post so that they may fulfil their purpose: getting more girls into school and keeping them there.

This book, however, in both the case study analysis, and the multi-country analysis, directly challenges this approach, and raises and researches important questions around perceptions of teaching as ‘women’s work’, and the implications of this in terms of women’s social status, professional development potential, and the juggling of reproductive and economic responsibilities. In relation to this, it also highlights important issues of men’s role in the teaching profession – although the book’s title does not suggest it covers this. In all country studies (especially India), the book also offers a useful historical perspective (so often neglected in development) on women and the teaching profession, as well a class and ethnicity angle (which is also highlighted in the quantitative data to some extent). The book advances the field in other crucial ways. For example, it incorporates children’s views on the sex of their teachers, thanks to the qualitative research contribution at the country level. Furthermore, the book takes the debate of the feminisation of the teaching profession out of the confines of middle- and high-income countries, but skilfully draws on the work that has been done in these areas, without forcing their research frameworks on to different country contexts.

Inevitably, no study or research ‘product’ is perfect. Two things in particular struck me about this one. First, in some of the country reports there was a little less elaboration and defence of the methodology than I might have liked. When presenting such good data, it is important to be clear how and why these data was obtained. Justification for methods used, and more exploration of the limitations of the chosen approach, would have been useful and made the studies more robust. Connected to this, some of the country-level qualitative data analysis was a little ‘thin’, occasionally drawing conclusions that were not adequately supported by the data. No doubt this was at least in part due to word length constraints. Second (a very minor and subjective point), I feel it is always informative in edited books to have some brief biographical information on the authors – especially in this case as the country profiles form very substantial parts of the book and that much of the in-country research was qualitative and no doubt informed/influenced by author background (on which there was no reflection in the brief methods sections).

Despite these minor points, this is a valuable contribution. Because of its well-structured and signposted layout, this book will be a valuable resource for many, and is easy to dip into if different users (especially those short of time) need it for different purposes. For example, the gender and education Masters student may like to read the excellent international literature review; practitioners and policymakers in various countries can head straight for the five national-level case studies most relevant to their region/country of work; while number crunchers will find the quantitative data sections a useful reference tool. However, I would recommend any of these users read the book in its entirety, and therefore benefit from the mixed-methods approach and cross-country analysis which gives it much of its strength and spice.

Review ©2012 Kate Greany, Gender and Education Consultant and PhD Candidate (Institute of Education, University of London), UK.

Women and the Teaching Profession: Exploring the Feminisation Debate is published by The Commonwealth Secretariat.

Review originally published in Gender & Development 20.2 (2012).