“I tell my own kids to do what they want to do, follow your heart, follow your passions. But would I say teaching’s great? I’d say teaching’s a lot of… unpaid work.”
Georgina Rechner who teaches the three-year-old group at Davis Street Kindergarten. Her colleagues are all women – mostly mothers. She loves the job, but she’s hesitant to recommend it.
“You couldn’t run a family on the salary that we get.”
Women dominate the Australian education sector, with recent Census data showing that they make up 62 per cent of high school teachers, 85 per cent of primary school teachers, and 98 per cent of early childhood educators.
It also showed that the average weekly income of a man in education is $221 more than a woman in education. So why are women in teaching making less money than men, and is anything being done to resolve the pay inequality?
Why women educators are making less money than men
On average, the lower the age of the children, the lower the salary of their educators. According to job aggregator site Jobted, the average salary of high school teachers is $73,800 a year. For primary school teachers, it’s $68,400. But for kindergarten teachers like Rechner, it’s $54,600 – more than $15,000 below the Australian average.
All three positions, however, require a Bachelor of Education. Swinburne academic Dr Adrienne Byrt, who researches in the areas of financial abuse against women, thinks this pay inequality is a more complicated reflection of gender norms, with pay likely decreasing the closer the position resembles the expected caregiving of mothers.
“There’s such a norm that young children are cared for by women,” she said.
I think any caregiving position is undervalued. If you just look at the way mothers are viewed in society – it’s unpaid labour.
“And it’s always denied that it’s a form of labour, because it doesn’t suit policy to recognise that it’s a form of labour that should be valued.”
Rechner similarly believes that her work is rooted in traditional ideals of caring for children being a “lady’s job”.
“I want to use the word ‘lady’ because it’s not even women or girls. It’s so old-fashioned in the way people see it,” she said.
Rechner also says the work of a kindergarten teacher goes beyond simply mothering, and is more intensive than her salary suggests.
“I still have to do parent teacher interviews, have to do a lot of learning journals … and as a three-year-old teacher, I have to have the first difficult conversation with parents if there’s any delays. So that’s really, really hard,” she said.
It’s an emotional thing too. You are caring for someone’s child.
“Some of the mothers – the presents I get for Christmas and birthdays – I can see that they’re very grateful and that they trust me … I work hard on the relationships.”
There’s also limited opportunity for leadership roles and career advancement within early childhood education, meaning the salary of educators tends to stagnate.
“There’s not a lot of progression. You can become a director, but it’s not comparable in the school system to the pay that a principal gets,” Rechner said.
These higher-paying roles within the education sector are also more often going to men. According to the Australian Council for Educational Research, in 2019 40 per cent of Australia’s high school principals were women and 60 per cent were men – another statistic Byrt thinks can be explained by rigid gender roles.
“We’re sort of stuck in these traditional roles, these male leadership positions,” she said.
Why there are so few men in early childhood education
The perceived “acceptability” of men as caregivers, Byrt says, contributes to the gender imbalance of the early childhood education workforce.
“I think it’s also equally quite hard for men to break into early childhood education … because there’s such a norm that young children are cared for by women,” she said.
The Monash Student Association of Training and Professional Development equates men entering the early childhood education workforce with the challenges women face in male-dominated workplaces, with male childcare professional struggling to compete against the same social norm that nurturing roles should be occupied by women.
Changing expectations of gender in Australia
The reinforcement of traditional gender roles of men being providers and women being caregivers begins with children, as gender norms begin to present themselves among young kids, like in Rechner’s three-year-old class.
“Often I’ll ask the children to draw a picture of their dad – ‘what’s your dad good at?’ and they’ll say ‘work’. Which is such a shame,” Rechner said.
The Federal Government estimates that the paid workload of mothers drops by 35 per cent over the five years following childbirth, whereas fathers reduce their paid hours only during the first month after becoming a parent.
The new “gender neutral” paid parental leave scheme revealed in the last budget aims to deconstruct the gendered ideals of women as primary caregivers and men as primary money makers, however Byrt thinks these changes are “short-sighted”.
“I think upping the limit from 18 to 26 weeks – are fathers really going to take that much time off work? Because they’re dealing with another set of ideals that they’re trying to maintain in terms of the male provider, the breadwinner … it’s not changing a lot of corporate Australia,” she said.
She believes where the biggest impact can be made is in an education curriculum that teaches children possibilities to challenge the status quo.
“What I would want a see a change in is more openness to the kinds of curriculum they’re using. Teachers … need to be able to access curriculum that expose more diversity and the way we can be in the world.”
Budget changes towards gender neutral paid parental leave
- The amount of PPL available for families will increase to 26 weeks in total.
- Parents can choose to take their PPL in blocks as small as a single day.
- Both parents will be able to access their PPL at the same time, enabling them to spend time at home with their child together.
- To encourage both parents to access PPL, both parents will be allocated a “use it or lose it” portion of leave.
- Better access to PPL will be provided to parents at the same time as employer-funded parental leave to further encourage fathers and partners to access PPL.
- The current requirement of PPL being primarily claimed by the birth parent will be removed, meaning families can decide which parent initially claims PPL.