The Research Files Episode 35: The decline in male teachers

Thank you for downloading this podcast from Teacher – I'm Jo Earp. Macquarie University colleagues Dr Kevin McGrath and Dr Penny Van Bergen have carried out the first ever study tracking the trajectory of male participation in the teaching profession. The results and possible future scenarios in Australia, published in the Economics of Education Review this month, make for worrying reading. Dr Kevin McGrath joined me on the line from Sydney to explain more.

Jo Earp: Kevin, welcome to The Research Files. I mentioned in the intro there that you've recently published the results of your study. The title of that journal paper is Are male teachers headed for extinction? That seems a great place to start – are they?

Kevin McGrath: Hi Jo, thanks for having me on. Are male teachers headed for extinction? It's not just a catchy title, but based on our research findings in Australia they are. Looking at the data available we see a decline in the representation of male teachers over the last 50 years, and what's alarming is the rate of this decline. Following a brief period of variation, we see a sharp, very stable, consistent decline. And, because that decline is so consistent we can use that data to predict what might happen in the future. This tells us two things: That the representation of male teachers in Australia may never be as high as it currently is; and, that without intervention the representation of male teachers will continue to decline, and that would mean eventually reaching an extinction point. In government primary schools, this extinction point comes in less than 40 years' time – the year 2054.

JE: One of the research questions that your study addresses is: Does the representation of male teachers in Australia differ by education level (primary, secondary – obviously this is in a school context) or by sector (government, Catholic and independent) over time? What exactly did you find there?

KM: I was a primary school teacher, my brother still is a high school teacher. So, like most people, I know that there are more male teachers in high schools. But what really surprised me is the rate of decline is actually the same in both high schools and primary schools in Australia. This data was first split by education level and sector in 1977. Between 1977 and 2016 we see a drop in male representation from 28.5 per cent to 18 per cent in primary schools and from 54 per cent to 40 per cent in high schools, Australia-wide.

When we look at the data separated by sector – so, government, Catholic and independent – we can see a number of really interesting things.

First, the rate of decline in both primary schools and high schools is sharpest in the largest of these sectors – Australian government schools – and, just as when looking at all school providers, the rate of decline is matched in both primary and high schools. So, this is important because 65 per cent of school students – which is around 2.5 million students – attend a government school.

In the independent sector, the representation of male teachers in secondary schools declined more sharply than in the independent primary schools. The rate of this decline however shows a slight deceleration from around 2006 to 2016.

In Australian Catholic primary and high schools the representation of male teachers actually rose briefly to a peak in around the 1980s and then fell. It's continued to decline since then, but in [Catholic] primary schools that decline is much more subtle, in Catholic high schools it looks more similar to the decline in say the government sector.

JE: Okay, now just a little bit about the data then. You mentioned there that when the data was split – so, between primary and high and by sector – that was 1977. But your analysis actually covers a period of 50 years, what data did you draw on?

KM: Yes, we must acknowledge that the data we analysed comes from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, so we're really grateful to them. The data comes from national workplace data that's collected in full-time equivalent units. So, this might mean, given that women are still more likely in Australia to work part-time, that our calculations based on full-time equivalent units might produce higher estimates of male participation than if we were to use raw numbers instead. Our findings might actually overestimate male participation in the teaching workforce. What's important to mention is that data includes classroom teachers, head teachers and principals.

JE: We've discussed some of the key findings there in relation to Australia. Did you look at the situation in other countries? Is this an issue that [school] education systems around the world are facing? Is there a country that's doing particularly well in terms of gender balance?

KM: It's tricky to make international comparisons, but the underrepresentation of male teachers does seem to be an international issue. But it's not necessarily always cause for alarm.

It does seem common when we're looking at other countries for there to be more male teachers in high school settings than in primary schools. In some countries though the representation of male primary school teachers is close to, or above, 40 per cent – that includes China, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. So, if you're looking for the countries that are doing particularly well, those would be it. In other countries though, male representation in primary schools is less than 5 per cent – countries like Hungary, Italy and Russia.

There are lots of reasons though for those sorts of differences, so making international comparisons is really quite complex. In some countries though the low representation of men has been relatively stable over time. So, what's important for Australia is to note that we have a situation where it's less and less likely that students will be taught by both male and female teachers.

JE: Just to go back to some of the figures then, you mentioned there some of the countries are above 40 per cent representation. Just to remind people, earlier you said that primary Australia-wide now is about 18 per cent, is that right?

KM: That's correct yes.

JE: So, that's quite a big gap. Now, what about the reasons for the decline in Australia? There's a nice easy question for you. Are there any indications in this, or other studies, as to why men are maybe turning away from the teaching profession?

KM: Well, we don't really know that men are turning away from the profession per se, evidence from New South Wales government schools actually suggests that men have a longer average career duration than women in teaching. But certainly the number of men entering the profession is of concern, and there are multiple competing reasons as to why men are underrepresented in the teaching profession.

Because the decline that we've found in our research is very stable and has existed over 50 years, the clearest explanation is that the decline is probably self-perpetuating. So, as male representation declines, fewer boys will see teaching as a possible career choice and it becomes more and more likely that teaching will be seen as ‘women's work', and the place of male teachers in that work might be questioned or criticised more often.

The things that deter men from teaching could also be different for older and younger men. So, for younger men and particularly male students finishing up high school, recent research published in the Economics of Education Review (Rapoport & Thibout, 2017) last month shows that boys' educational choices are more strongly driven by expected earnings than are girls', and boys are also more likely to choose more competitive career pathways. So, the perceived low salary and status of the teaching profession, together with low tertiary entry requirements, which essentially means that it isn't really competitive, is probably a great way to deter young men from the profession. In addition, we know that young men face social pressures to conform to particular masculine ideals – because there are few male teachers teaching, it's not really perceived as something that's masculine to do and young men might be more likely to choose career paths like, say, becoming a personal trainer or entering business.

For older men though, who might consider transitioning into teaching, the reasons could be a little different. For older men who might be considering becoming a teacher, things like physical contact with students, income and job security might actually deter them. So, to enter the teaching profession later in life means about four years of full-time study, a change in annual income and possibly one to three years of casual work. So, it's not really set up to encourage younger men, or they don't really see it as something that's of interest to them, and for older men who might be really interested and keen in becoming a teacher there are several barriers there that could actually deter them or make it just not a practical sort of choice.

JE: So, there are quite a few reasons then why there may be this decline. The big question I suppose is what can we do about it?

KM: Yeah, and it is a really big question. I wish I had all the answers but, in short, there's no single quick fix to solve this problem. There are four key things that we think need to be done which could increase male representation, but also that might benefit the profession more broadly.

First, increasing teaching salaries and permanent teaching positions would help lift the status of the profession and also make it more viable, particularly for older men and women who might have worked in other professions and then want to transition into teaching.

Second, we identify that we need a government review of workforce diversity policies in schools. The government has committed to ensuring that the teaching workforce reflects the broader community and we have policies and plans in place to increase the representation of various groups – including religious and ethnic minority groups, and also for women in leadership positions – but there are no workforce diversity policies in Australia that aim to address the declining representation of male teachers.

Third, universities can already offer female-only scholarships to women studying things like Engineering, Mathematics and Science, but offering male-only scholarships to men studying Education is actually unlawful. This needs to be addressed if universities are to stand any chance of incentivising enrolments in teaching degrees for male students.

Lastly, a large-scale campaign is probably needed to address some of those misconceptions or fears that surround the teaching profession. So, interacting with children in a professional workplace is not as risky as some people seem to think, and teaching is suitable for both men and women. The profession faces a lot of criticism from both the public and the government, but teachers, I feel, deserve as much respect as other leading and critically important professions.

JE: Well, that's excellent. It's been fascinating speaking with you today – Dr Kevin McGrath, thank you very much for sharing your research with Teacher magazine.

KM: No worries, thanks very much Jo.

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McGrath, K. F., & Van Bergen, P. (2017). Are male teachers headed for extinction? The 50-year decline of male teachers in Australia. Economics of Education Review, 60, 159-167.

Rapoport, B., & Thibout, C. (2017). Why do boys and girls make different educational choices? The influence of expected earnings and test scores. Economics of Education Review.

The full paper is available to download for free from the Economics of Education Review until the end of the month.