Sexism, the Subsidy

There is a reason that I love teachers. My mom was a schoolteacher. Her mom was a schoolteacher who married the son of a schoolteacher whose sisters were schoolteachers. I married the daughter of a schoolteacher. Today however, nobody in the family — least of all the women — is a schoolteacher (my wife is a professor and a college dean — not remotely the same thing). Talented women now have more choices — which is why the average quality of teachers and nurses h

as gone down during the past 30 years. Can I measure it? Nope, and the best schoolteachers are just as fantastic as ever and probably more so. But it would require heroic assumptions for teacher and nurse quality not to have plummeted as career opportunities for talented women grew.

Alison Wolf, writing in Prospect, notes that the gain in women’s equality has brought three changes:

“the death of sisterhood: an end to the millennia during which women of all classes shared the same major life experiences to a far greater degree than did their men. The second is the erosion of “female altruism,” the service ethos which has been profoundly important to modern industrial societies-particularly in the education of their young, and the care of their old and sick. The third is the impact of employment change on childbearing. We are familiar with the prospect of demographic decline, yet we ignore, sometimes willfully, the extent to which educated women face disincentives to bear children..”

Her data and experience are British, but the major conclusions apply to America (interestingly, however, those concerning religion and volunteerism may not). Wolf notes that the earnings of career women are far closer to male counterparts than is true for women who build their lives around family, with jobs playing an ancillary role.

“In the recent past, women’s earnings over a lifetime were a small fraction of their husbands’, especially if there were children, and even if there were not. This has ceased to be true for the educated but childless in the generation who are now middle-aged. The gender gap for women with children is shrinking rapidly too. Educated younger women are projected to earn as much as men over a lifetime if they have no children, and almost as much even if they do. A female graduate born in 1970 who has two children can expect lifetime earnings that are 88 per cent of her husband’s, whereas for those with middle-level qualifications the figure falls to 57 per cent and for those with no formal qualifications at all to only 34 per cent. This gap mostly reflects part-time work and career breaks: it is these differences, not some male employer conspiracy, that drives the headline figures on the disparity between male and female pay….

Wolf then confirms what my family experience suggests: women are free to pursue professions other than teaching or “helping” professions. Turns out that sexism was a subsidy: restricting career choices for women enabled schools to employ talent that would cost a fortune in today’s market. The good news is that we all benefit today from the increased freedom of talented women to apply their skills anywhere they please. The bad news is that schools, health care, and community organizations are far worse off for the loss of capability and commitment. Wolf:

“From the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, teaching could rely on attracting large numbers of the country’s most academically able women…

The alumni records of Somerville college, Oxford, one of the first and most academic of the women’s colleges, confirm how many brilliant women made their lives in the classroom. In 1888, surveying the first ten years of college life, the annual report found that all working ex-students were teachers, with the exception of three. As late as 1920, we find a (much larger) class matriculating, of whom just two, an art dealer and a director of an iron-founders, made “non-caring” careers. Teaching, at school or university level, remained the majority occupation by far for the 1920 generation, accounting for 80 per cent of those who reported recent or current paid employment. By contrast, just over 10 per cent of the Somerville women who matriculated in 1980 report a teaching career. The government’s Women at Work commission is pushing for school advisers to preach the merits of non-traditional careers to girls. But in this elite Oxford group, there are already more accountants than teachers, and both bankers and marketing managers outnumber university lecturers and librarians.

Schools have been the big losers. Among girls born in Britain in 1970, about one in ten of those scoring in the top academic decile chose teaching as a career. By the early 1990s, American girls in this top 10 per cent were less than one fifth as likely to become teachers as their 1964 counterparts had been. In health, the pattern is more complex. Many of the ambitious women who once became ward sisters and hospital matrons now look elsewhere, but offsetting this are the growing number of women doctors and specialists.

Does any of this matter? The first century of professional paid work for women saw traditional female concerns move into the public sphere. If the able women of 70 or 100 years ago entered classrooms and hospital wards merely because nothing else was available, they would have brought little commitment to their work, and greater choice would clearly have benefited them and society alike. But this is not how it was. These women mostly saw their jobs as a vocation. Many of them lived in a world which took for granted such duty and service to others. They shared an openly expressed idealism, and a belief that their jobs mattered-especially to the future of other women.

Wolf bemoans the peculiar incentives that we now provide women, who are now told clearly that they will enjoy greater financial security if they avoid marriage or childrearing. This historically unprecedented and, one might imagine, not altogether a terrific thing. The decline in teacher quality is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.