China has so few male teachers. But is it a problem?

Society & Culture

Women are greatly underrepresented in politics and science in China, but most primary and secondary school teachers are women. But is calling for more men in the profession just a way to avoid dealing with the real issue: the devaluation of ‘feminized’ work?

Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Despite all of the strides made toward greater diversity in the Chinese workplace, significant gender gaps still exist in many sectors. Women routinely face gender-specific challenges when trying to enter certain professions or take up positions of power and influence. To build a more equal society, the priority is to level the playing field for women at work, and properly reward their contributions.

At least that’s what most Chinese people think.

Not so one education researcher who caused fury this week when he called attention to the reverse gender gap in Chinese education, complaining about the lack of men in the teaching force, and proposing ways to balance out the female-dominated profession.

“Objectively speaking, the severe gender imbalance among teachers in elementary and middle schools is to some degree detrimental to regular teaching, collaboration, and management,” Chǔ Cháohuī 储朝晖, a researcher at China’s National Institute of Education Sciences, wrote in an article published on May 31 by Guangming Daily, a Beijing-based state-owned newspaper. “Under these circumstances, it’s reasonable and imperative that schools across the country adopt policies to adjust the gender ratio when hiring teachers.”

He added, “Furthermore, this issue is also affecting how teenagers form their gender identities and develop their character. This is a huge problem concerning not only individuals, but we as a nation. The whole society should reach some consensus on this.”

According to statistics (in Chinese) released by the Chinese Ministry of Education, the share of male teachers in pre-college education has been on a downward trend in recent years, with men accounting for less than 30% of all teachers in primary schools in 2020, compared with 41% in middle schools and 44% in high schools. The gender disparity was particularly pronounced in early childhood education, where women made up nearly 98% of the workforce.

Chu went on to suggest authorities should implement a mix of strategies to tackle the problem, including setting quotas for male representation when schools hire new teachers, encouraging teachers’ colleges to admit more male students, and raising teachers’ salaries to make the profession more appealing to men.

“A form of reverse affirmative action”

Chu’s piece was prompted by a controversy about teacher recruitment in the coastal city of Xiamen, Fujian Province: Last week, internet users discovered an online list of candidates who were considered for available teaching positions in the city.

The 12 people on the list — six men and six women — were selected for the second stage of the hiring process after taking a preliminary written test. The men were ranked separately from the female applicants: One man, who only scored 20 out of 100, was allowed to advance for consideration, whereas his female counterpart, who was placed sixth in her category, had to achieve 56 in the exam to have the same opportunity.

Xiamen’s education bureau later explained that it didn’t mean to give preference to male candidates, but because it was supposed to choose six applicants of both genders for in-person interviews and only six men showed up for the written test, all of them were automatically qualified for the next stage. The bureau assured the public that the man with poor performance in the written exam was unlikely to make the cut, as they planned to hire only two male teachers, adding that the gender quota was only applied to positions where men were severely underrepresented.

The official explanation, however, did little to halt the criticism online, and the outcry only grew louder when Chu weighed in with his article that argued that gender quotas in the hiring of teachers should be encouraged as long as “a baseline of fairness is established.”

“So many industries are male-dominated not because women don’t want to enter the profession but because they are regarded as unfit for the job,” one Weibo user raged (in Chinese). “Every time I go to a job interview, I feel that it would be much easier for me if I were a man. It’s so unfair for employers to give men a leg up in female-dominated sectors.” Another blasted (in Chinese): “I know many female teachers who are extremely good at their job, but so few of them are in senior administrative positions.”

Calling Xiamen’s practice “a form of reverse affirmative action,” Yige Dong, a sociologist at the University at Buffalo who studies Chinese women in the labor force and feminist movements in the country, told SupChina, “One must wonder, in China, there are so many other sectors, usually high-paying, that are male-exclusive. Why does no one bother to question that and call for more women in?”

In a viral post (in Chinese) that has now racked up over 26,000 likes, a Weibo user shared a compilation of photos showing meetings of college professors, IT engineers, and government officials, where the participants are predominantly male. A 2019 report by the National Bureau of Statistics found that among all the delegates to the 13th National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, and members of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — in other words, China’s government from 2017 to 2018 — only about a fifth were women. At the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the top scientific research institute in China, a mere 7% of its employees were women, while the percentage of female scholars at the Chinese Academy of Engineering was less than 5%.

For Chinese parents outraged by the news, there’s the added worry that lowered hiring requirements for men will let unqualified teachers into the classroom. “Do you know that an incompetant teacher can ruin many students’ lives?” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another person said (in Chinese) she wondered “what subject requires a penis to teach.”

Once a male-dominated field

Contrary to the popular assumption that pre-college education has always been a female-dominated profession in China, teaching was actually once considered a desirable career for men. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, a typical teacher in urban areas has been classified as a state employee who enjoys guaranteed job security, income, and benefits.

These perks were particularly attractive in the 1970s and 1980s, when jobs were scarce in the private sector and entrepreneurship was a foreign concept. “This is why by 1997, women only accounted for 48% of all primary school teachers and 38% of all secondary school teachers — both sectors were actually male-dominated until recent years,” said Dong.

But as China’s marketization deepend in the past four decades, an increasing number of Chinese men left the classroom to pursue more lucrative careers in private enterprises, whereas women were expected to fill their shoes, and were taught to favor job security over higher earning power. The assumption for many people was that teaching is more amenable than other occupations to the needs of women, especially after they become wives and mothers.

And once a profession is feminized, “the social and economic value in such work gets underappreciated compared with that predominated by men,” Dong said. “The devaluation of a teacher’s work in return has made more men — who are expected to be the primary breadwinner of a household — leave the job and more women join it.”

“Over time, teaching has been considered suitable for women, who are perceived to be more caring, loving, and good at dealing with children,” she said, adding that by assuming women are naturally good at taking care of children, people tend to underestimate how much skill and knowledge goes into teaching. “This is the vicious cycle in which feminization and devaluation reinforce each other.”

The overrepresentation of women in education is by no means a new phenomenon, but it only became a concern for the central government in the past decade as officials have increasingly worried about “a decline of masculinity” among Chinese schoolboys. This is often blamed on the shortage of male teachers in primary school education. Meanwhile, some education experts attribute the educational underperformance of Chinese boys to the dearth of positive male role models.

Dong says this argument is unpersuasive. “In Chinese families, women still bear the lion’s share of childrearing and caring, whereas men are oftentimes absent in such work. If a man can’t even become his own children’s role model, why do we expect him to do a good job in a classroom for others’ kids?” she said. Dong added that “although it’s a welcomed idea to diversify the classroom,” such initiatives shouldn’t be carried out at the expense of gender equity.

“Having a penis is worth like 96 points”

But still, wanting what they perceive as the best for Chinese schoolboys, education officials across China have been aggressively recruiting male teachers, sometimes through controversial practices that put female candidates at a disadvantage.

The Xiamen case is just the latest example: Last year, education authorities in Changsha, Hunan Province, decided that when competing for teaching positions in a primary school, scoring 4 out of 100 in a written test was enough for a male applicant to move on to the interview phase of the recruitment process, while female candidates had to achieve an average of 90 to be qualified. Angered by what they saw as a preferential treatment toward male candidates, an internet user commented, “Apparently, having a penis is worth like 96 points for that man.”

At a time when awareness of sexism is spreading in Chinese society, Dong believes that the government’s push for more male teachers will continue triggering social grievances. If Chinese officials are determined to increase male representation in the nation’s pre-college teaching force, Dong said, “they should make the society as a whole recognize the true value in teaching, appreciate teachers’ hard work, and pay them well. But in the short run, ‘getting more men in’ shouldn’t be the answer.”