The gender gap: How female teachers are getting left behind

On paper, teaching should be a vocation that is compatible with parenthood. But, as Nadeine Asbali discovers, for new mothers, the inflexibility and little chance of career progression usually means the opposite

Sunday 07 August 2022 06:30 BST
Many people see flexible working as the answer to tackling the career crisis impacting women in teaching
Many people see flexible working as the answer to tackling the career crisis impacting women in teaching (Getty Images)

Nadiya, a modern languages teacher from London, had just been offered a promotion when she found out she was pregnant. Having been at her school for nearly two years, she was eager for professional progress. She’d also always wanted children. But when she got a positive pregnancy result, her heart sank a little at the timing. These two exciting developments in her life suddenly felt incompatible. Something had to give, and she knew it would be her career.

“My school doesn’t offer part-time roles at all,” she says. “Every woman who’s had a baby has ended up leaving after maternity leave for a school that’s more flexible. I feel upset and disappointed that I’ll have to do the same.”

On paper, teaching is a job that should be well-matched to starting a family. There are the long summer holidays. The fixed hours. Knowing how to deal with your future children’s maths homework. But it’s not quite as straightforward. According to employment agency Reed, the average teacher salary is £31,000 a year. With the cost of childcare skyrocketing in line with inflation, a full-time nursery place can now set you back upwards of £1,000 a month – more than many households spend on their rent or mortgage. Clearly, this is simply not feasible for many, and it’s often the careers of women that pay the price.

Across sectors, women with children are facing a crisis when it comes to balancing work with the ever-rising cost of childcare. We are being pushed out of the workforce, our choice to return to work stripped from us by economic factors out of our control. For the first time in modern history, the number of women not returning to work after having a baby has risen – as much as 13 per cent in the last year alone among women aged 25 to 34.

Women in the most inflexible industries like education, healthcare and retail are the hardest hit of all. A recent study found a widening inequality gap among parents who can work remotely and those who cannot – meaning a whole host of women, from teachers to nurses, baristas to waitresses are getting left behind in terms of earnings, wellbeing and career prospects after having a child. It’s no surprise that the industries most impacted are those that disproportionately employ women, exacerbating pre-existing gender pay gaps and motherhood penalties that already mar our chances for progression and stability, especially after having a child.

Of course, some women would choose to take a career break after having a child anyway, but for many this is no longer a free choice and more a financial necessity. I’ve lost count of the number of colleagues I know who’ve had to leave teaching for a few years because the already meagre teacher’s wage cannot cope with the cost of a nursery place. As I approach the end of my maternity leave, I’m left weighing up my options, too.

As the Maternity Teacher Paternity Teacher Project (MTPT) puts it, “flexible working is a really supportive way to temper the negative impact of the motherhood penalty in all sectors, including education”. They highlight that mothers aged 30-39 contribute to the largest group to leave teaching each year, and “quality flexible working arrangements” would be better for everyone – for new parents, for schools who can retain teachers with institutional knowledge, and for students who get to keep experienced teachers.

As I approach the end of my maternity leave, I’m left weighing up my options

Nadeine Asbali

Many people see flexible working as the answer to tackling the career crisis impacting women in teaching, but teachers I’ve spoken to have experienced varying degrees of success when asking their schools for flexibility.

Claire’s English department in the Midlands is now almost exclusively made up of newly qualified teachers as the more experienced ones have found flexible options elsewhere. “When I asked my school to go part time, they claimed that it was too disruptive for the students, which seems like a cop-out to me,” she says. She recalled asking the male headteacher to empathise with the experience of a large chunk of his teaching body. But it felt like an uphill battle against ingrained patriarchy that she knew she’d never win, because so many colleagues before her had failed.

“I’m now having to look for part time roles elsewhere, even though I don’t want to leave the pupils and colleagues that I love,” she adds. “I simply can’t afford to carry on paying for nursery when it’s so expensive, and I want the option of spending a couple of days a week with my son whilst he’s still so little.”

On paper, teaching should be a job that’s perfect for parents
On paper, teaching should be a job that’s perfect for parents (iStock)

This experience echoes that of Laura, a deputy head of maths in Birmingham, who ended up taking a huge demotion after the birth of her daughter. Her school had refused to accommodate her request to work part time. “I was willing to go down to even four days a week but they just wouldn’t budge,” she says. “I ended up taking a job as a standard classroom teacher for three days a week. While it means I get to spend two days with my daughter and save on the cost of childcare, I also feel like I’ve gone back about five steps in my career.” For women like Laura, this impacts their decision to have more children, too. “I just feel like my career won’t recover if I have another child anytime soon, but I’m already over 40, so it feels like a catch-22 situation.”

Being overworked and underpaid is an ongoing concern of many teachers, with teaching unions primed to potentially strike in the autumn unless pay rises in line with inflation. For some women, these conditions make them all the more reluctant to stay in a profession that they see as no longer conducive to motherhood.

Hannah feels that she was pushed out of teaching after having babies due to a lack of flexible opportunities, and had to look for a job training teachers at a university instead. “Although I am now in a career I love that is still in the education sector, I feel angry that the only reason I’m not in the classroom is because there is such a lack of flexible and part-time options in teaching.” She points out that given the growing recruitment crisis in the nation’s schools (just under half of all teachers plan to quit within five years), it is all the more important to retain teachers by offering flexibility.

I feel angry that I’m not in the classroom because there is such a lack of flexible and part-time options in teaching


The reassuring news is that some schools are already getting it right. Esther is a deputy headteacher in Northamptonshire whose employer allowed her to reduce her timetable after coming back from maternity leave with no issues. Later, she made flexi-working non-negotiable while looking for other roles. She was able to secure leadership positions that allowed her to spend enough time at home with her children. “As a senior leader, life is hectic,” she says. “We have late meetings; high volumes of work; busy schedules. I sacrifice a lot Monday to Thursday but I am happy that I have a full day to focus solely on being a mum. I know I will never have any regrets about this; they grow up so fast. Time is precious.”

Introducing better flexible working opportunities in school is key for retention and teacher wellbeing. Schools need to do what the pandemic has already proven possible, so that education doesn’t fall behind other industries and push more female teachers out.

As Esther puts it, “I don’t see being part time as a weakness and I won’t apologise for making all aspects of my life work. I also know that I give my school my absolute commitment, my dedication, my whole heart. They don’t lose out by employing me: they get my full commitment while paying me a part time salary. I think that makes me excellent value for money!”

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