Point of View

In NC politics, women are noticeably absent

February 17, 2014 


N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, N.C. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and N.C. Rep. John Faircloth of Guilford County are recognized by Guilford County Schools Superintendent Maurice Green, right, at Ragsdale High School just before the governor’s announcement of raises for beginning teachers.

HARRY LYNCH — hlynch@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • By the numbers

    51 The percentage of North Carolina residents who are women

    25 The percentage of seats held by women in the General Assembly

    4 The number of the state’s 31 legislative leadership roles held by women

A recent N&O front page featured a photo of a beaming Gov. Pat McCrory surrounded by Rep. Thom Tillis, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, Sen. Phil Berger, Rep. John Faircloth and Guilford Schools’ Superintendent Maurice Green. The photo accompanied an article about the proposed salary increase for teachers with fewer than 10 years’ experience.

Notice something? No women.

Perhaps it was just the angle of the photo. A photo from the event taken from a different angle showed two unidentified women standing behind McCrory. One TV station’s coverage showed a third woman off to the side.

But consider the men: leaders of our state, all of them worthy of identification by name and title. The few women were not afforded the same treatment.

Women make up about 75 percent of public school teachers in North Carolina. Yet when it comes time to announce a proposed salary increase in a profession dominated by women, where are they?

Women may well have been involved in developing the proposal, though I wonder how likely that is: Though 51 percent of North Carolina’s residents are women, they account for 25 percent of the seats in the N.C. General Assembly. Further, between the North Carolina House and Senate, just four of the 31 leadership roles are held by women.

So, yes, it’s more than the angle of the photograph. This photo is emblematic of an attitude in our society.

In the composition courses I teach, my students read and write about domesticity and gender roles. When I ask students what jobs we associate with women, they say “teacher,” “nurse” and “social worker”: supporting-role positions that, considering they require college degrees, are low paying. Even though students don’t necessarily agree that these jobs are women’s jobs, they know that many people think so. And they’re often surprised when they learn that women still earn less than men do for comparable jobs.

Though women are the breadwinners in 40 percent of American households, according to the Pew Research Center, on average, full-time female workers earn 81 percent of what men earn.

Ostensibly, the teaching profession should be immune from wage gaps: Public school teachers are paid based on years of experience, education and other certifications and with local supplements. Yet a 2012 report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows that women are 81 percent of U.S. elementary and middle school teachers and earn 91 percent of the salaries their male counterparts do.

What’s more, we still consider teaching to be a woman’s job, an attitude that’s not going away. The mere fact that nationally 84 percent of public school teachers are women suggests the persistent nature of this attitude, conscious or not. In fact, according to a 2011 Education Week report, the teaching profession in the U.S. is getting more female: In 1986, 69 percent of teachers were women.

The result of our attitudes about gender roles is that we do not pay teachers a bread-winner’s salary. McCrory himself was quoted as saying that a beginning teacher’s salary is not enough to “raise a family.” That’s true, but it’s not true just for beginning teachers, and it’s not something that a raise for teachers with fewer than 10 years’ experience will fix. It’s a pervasive problem caused by our stagnated perceptions of gender roles.

While this photograph may be representative of out-of-date ideas about gender roles, it could also be what leads us to change: to change our approach to gender and pay and to change our perceptions of whom teachers can be.

Leslie Maxwell of Durham is a writer and adjunct professor of English.

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