By Gabrielle Samson – Featured Contributor 

This Tuesday, March 8th is International Women’s Day. And with women dominating teaching roles, it’s a great time to reflect on gender, mental health and the world of education. According to Stats Canada, 68% of Canadian teachers are women, whereas only 32% are men. But despite the significant representation in schools, female teachers are still subject to certain biases. Let’s talk about why.

Even with so many female teachers in the industry, women and girls still find themselves facing gender biases at work and in classrooms. Female teachers are the norm worldwide, but unfortunately, so is the gender hierarchy. One U.S. study illustrates this by highlighting that female teachers are more likely to be mistrusted and challenged by their students than male teachers. Not to mention, young girls are at higher risk of experiencing sexual harrassment and objectification by their male peers. In other words, the same social challenges that exist outside of schools are just as prevalent within them. 

An unfortunate stereotype contributing to this institution-wide sexism is the belief that women are more emotional than men. With this bias infiltrating young minds at an early age, students are more likely to see their male teachers as rational and strong, and their female teachers emotional and irrational. And if these biases are not challenged in the classroom, chances are many students will unknowingly maintain this belief without question. This includes young women. The same U.S. study from the National Education Union exposed how female students and teachers were taught to be “smaller” and “quieter” to avoid being seen as difficult and emotional. With sexism impacting women and girls, many teachers feel pressure to appear strong in the face of mental health challenges to set a positive example for their students. So how did we get here?

Historically, women have been pushed into the role of educating and caring for children. In the mid 1800s, women were practically barred from working jobs and experiencing valuable independence. Through gender stereotypes and the image of the perfect “stay-at-home wife,” women were discouraged from seeking work – except for when it came to children. Prior to the modern education system, women were commonly employed by wealthy families as nannies, private tutors or a combination of both referred to as governesses (think Maria from Sound of Music). Once the public school system was introduced in Canada, women employment changed drastically.

Since many women were already taught to care for children, women were the primary demographic of school teachers. New school districts hired women in flocks, making a historic change for women in the job market. Suddenly, the education system introduced a new opportunity for female independence and opened the door for thousands of women to make their own income, and exist independently of men…. Well, sort of. 

On the positive side, teaching was a gateway into early feminism in the workforce. But on the other hand, women were hired for lower wages and expected to do the unwanted work that men often overlooked; caring for children. In fact, a huge factor in gender selection in school boards was that women were more likely to work for low wages. This set a low standard for educational institutions, where teachers became expected to overwork, while being underpaid. 

The consequences of sexism in education continue today. Now more than ever, teachers are quitting their jobs in droves, after experiencing burnout from being some of the most unsupported, overworked and underpaid members of society. The pandemic especially exasperated teacher burnout, by adding the stresses of isolation, virtual learning and COVID-related anxiety. And for women, the damaging history of misogyny can still linger over our education system. Discrimination is still a prevelant issue for teachers, despite most of them being women. Especially with the insane pressures of caring for young children and often taking on underpaid and undervalued jobs.

Higher education is dominated by men. An astounding 97% of early childhood educators are women, whereas only 44% of university professors or associate professors are women. Additionally, women earn less on average as educators, especially at the university level. These figures highlight that women are less likely to work in high paying positions. And while education at all levels can be hard on a person’s mental health, female teachers are more likely to take this on at younger levels, which has been especially challenging during the pandemic. 

Research shows that gender has no impact on a child’s ability to learn. However, gender biases can impact a teacher’s ability to teach and thrive in a stressful teaching environment. And not just for women. Gender stereotypes encourage men to appear strong in favour of toxic masculinity and contribute to extreme pressures to suppress mental health problems. When it comes to mental health, sexism hurts everyone.

Understanding the challenges of female teachers is so important for tackling mental health in our schools. All teachers are deserving of support and wellness, but on a day that celebrates women, it’s possible to praise our bold and hardworking female teachers while also acknowledging that the industry they work in has far more room for improvement. So while women make up the majority of teachers, we still need to be careful not to discredit the lived experiences still faced by many female teachers today. After all, for a system built on a patriarchy, it should be no surprise that gender and mental health can play an important role in our educational institutions. 

For all of the female teachers out there celebrating International Women’s Day, just know it is okay to struggle with your mental health. Even if it is not discussed among staff or in your classrooms, other colleagues and students around you could be struggling too. Though many teachers fall into the habit of staying quiet and looking strong, it takes all the more strength to speak up and be strong. By opening up a dialogue around mental health, you are not only advocating for yourself and your colleagues, you also encourage your students to do the same. Especially young girls who are taught to be silent.

Though our history paints an unfavorable picture of misogyny in our schools, we absolutely can and should rewrite that history. And it starts in the classroom.