Yes, the teacher strikes that have swept states such as Arizona, West Virginia and Kentucky in recent months are a matter of substandard labor conditions. Teachers involved in the protests are seeking higher wages, better classroom funding and improved work conditions.
But underneath the outward fight for these workplace improvements, a more indirect fight for women’s equality is also driving the strikes, say some leaders involved with the walkouts.
An overwhelming majority of teachers are women, and leaders who have participated in the walkouts say they believe many of the reasons they have been forced to protest ― low pay, declining resources, lack of respect from legislators ― might be a function of their gender. It’s no coincidence either that the walkouts are coming at a time when women have been driving conversations about workplace conditions with campaigns like the Me Too movement.
“I think it is absolutely no accident this is happening to an industry, to a field, that is predominantly women. An industry that is seen as serving children, which is ‘women’s work,’” said Dawn Penich-Thacker, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools Arizona, an education advocacy group that has been involved with the protests. “There’s that societal expectation of, like, you don’t need to be compensated, you don’t need to be regarded as a skilled professional, you’re doing this because it’s in your genes, this is what you do.”
In 2015, public school teachers, on average, made about $1,092 per week, compared with the higher weekly wages earned by all college graduates of $1,416, according to an analysis from the liberal Economic Policy Institute. Because the research compares teachers with all college graduates, the pay gap likely differs from what it would be if educators were compared with other graduates working in the public sector, and the gap varies vastly by state. But the analysis does show how much the gap has grown over the years.
Over the past several decades, the weekly wages of teachers have fallen drastically compared with those of other college-educated professional workers. In 1994, the weekly wages of teachers were about 2 percent lower than those of college-educated professional workers, but by 2015, this gap had increased to over 11 percent.
“When a field is associated with women and a task has traditionally been associated with women, whoever is making the decisions about pay seems to have a harder time thinking people deserve more money.”
While there has overall been a downward trend in public sector job growth, gender may explain some of what’s going on for educators.
Paula England, a professor of sociology at New York University, has found that female-filled professions tend to pay lower than other professions that require the same amount of skill and training. She has also found that jobs centered around caregiving tend to pay less than jobs requiring comparable experience. These jobs tend to face a “cultural devaluation” because society is used to the idea of mothers caring for children for free, said England.
“When a field is associated with women and a task has traditionally been associated with women, whoever is making the decisions about pay seems to have a harder time thinking people deserve more money,” she said.
The teacher strikes have largely been in conservative states, where school systems have been starved of resources, though they also took hold this week in Colorado, a state with a Democratic governor.
In West Virginia, teachers went on strike for almost two weeks in late February over low teacher pay, a severe teacher shortage and low levels of school funding. In Kentucky, teachers staged a quasi-strike in late March, after legislators voted to overhaul the state’s pension system in a way that introduces more uncertainty to teachers’ retirement plans. In Oklahoma, teachers shut down schools for nearly two weeks this month over declining classroom resources. In Arizona, teachers walked off the job this week, demanding increased levels of school funding and pay bumps. And in Colorado, thousands of teachers protested this week over low levels of school funding and poor teacher pay.
For Lydia Coffey, a former teacher who protested in Kentucky and is now running for a state House seat, the protests have everything to do with womanhood. Coffey, who has a master’s degree and retired in 2010 after almost 30 years of teaching, never made $50,000. She connects the teacher protests to a rise in female voices addressing politics, amid the Me Too movement and massive women’s marches.
“I think that it’s almost like they don’t think we’re smart enough to see what’s happening to us.”
“I think women are just tired of feeling like we’re second class. We’re tired of white men in power telling all of us what to do,” Coffey said.
She recalls protesting with mostly women, many of whom were worried about what would happen to their livelihood amid the pension changes. She recalls the distinct condescension in the voices of legislators ― mostly men ― who didn’t take the concerns of educators seriously.
“We’re tired of being put under somebody’s thumb that doesn’t have a clue what it’s like,” Coffey recalled of the experience. “I think that it’s almost like they don’t think we’re smart enough to see what’s happening to us.”
Penich-Thacker isn’t a full-time K-12 classroom teacher ― she works with college students during the year and high school kids over the summer. But she is a woman. And to be a woman in 2018 is to understand what it’s like to have to repeatedly respond to disrespect with a smile and nod, before finally having enough, she said.
“In many ways, this is kind of a political embodiment of what many women’s lives can sometimes feel like,” Penich-Thacker said of the reasons behind the teacher protests. “You take it, and you stay silent, you do what you can, and you smile through it. And you take it and take it and finally you just can’t anymore.”