Teachers and Feminism: Changes in College Major Distribution Over Time

We looked at data showing how different generations have chosen undergraduate college majors, from the 70s to today.

It's tough to be a teacher.

Day in and day out, you have to walk into a room full of people who may or may not even want to hear you talk and do your best to not just make them hear you, but to make them actually, you know, learn something.

It takes a special kind of person to be a teacher — a genuine mastery of whatever craft you're teaching, combined with a unique blend of insight and patience required to explain what you understand instinctively to someone who has no idea what you're talking about. But as rare as those traits can be, historically speaking, people have lined up to enter the ranks of educators.

So when we here at Zippia were looking independently at the distribution of majors across different age groups, we were surprised at first with the results. The rate of people entering the field of education starts off at a decent clip, but drops dramatically as the data moves into the present day.

We were stumped. So we took a closer look at the data, and did some thinking. Here's what we found.

What We Learned From the Data: Young People Are Pretty Much Over Teaching

First, let's look at the map showing the distribution of all majors over time, which we made using 2015 PUMS data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Click here for a downloadable image of the chart

So, what's important here?

The first thing that stood out to me was just how much hadn't changed. Between 1975 and 2015, there are a surprising number of majors that have either stayed the same or else later dropped back down to their original distribution.

Health and Nursing, Social Sciences, and Engineering have all remained within roughly a percentage point of 6-7%, despite the rapid technological changes within all of those fields. And after a big bump in the 1980s, Business and Accounting Majors have since returned to their pre-Gordon Gekko numbers of around 16-17%.

Meanwhile, a lot of what's actually changed is pretty expected. Communications Majors have doubled — which makes sense, given the advent of social media — while Science Majors have increased by about half.

Computer Science, meanwhile, has gone from essentially not existing to making up 3.2% of all majors, which is down slightly from the 2005 dotcom boom highs of 4.8%.

But the biggest change that's occurred has been perhaps the quietest: Education Majors have shrunk from 21.6% of all majors down to a measly 7.6%.

On a surface level, it can be tough to tell where some of these changes are occurring, and you'd be forgiven for assuming that the majority of these changes are occurring across gender lines. But when this graph is broken down by gender, the numbers tell a different story.

Click here for a downloadable image of the chart

As we can see, for men, the distribution of various majors has hardly changed at all. Business and Accounting goes from 21.7% to 20.6%. Engineering: 12.6% to 14.2%. Sciences: 11.2% to 12.7%.

Across the board, almost every single major has remained with the same level of distribution, and the major changes that have occurred have been fairly minor (you had to know that pun was going to be in here at some point).

Fine Arts and Communications have both doubled, but each only holds around 4-5% of the distribution. Computer Science is a thing at all now. And, of course, male Education Majors have shrunk from 11.1% to 3.4%.

So, since the changes in Major Distribution overall probably aren't coming from men's side of things, you can probably see where this is going.

Click here for a downloadable image of the chart

Women Education Majors have dropped from a whopping 32.4% of the distribution down to a more even 10.7%, and they're experiencing growth in just about everything else. Business Majors are up from 10.5% in the 70s to 14.6% now. Science is up from 5.2% to 12.2%, Psychology from 5.4% to 8.6%, Communications from 5.1% to 6.2%. The drop in Education Majors hasn't led to a rush to any particular new major over another, but lots of small increases across the map. Women aren't leaving Education majors for any other major, but they are leaving it for basically every other one.

What's That Bob Dylan Song About Times Being a Lot Different Than They Were Before?

So we can see three major things happening here.

  1. Education is dropping off dramatically in college major distribution across genders.
  2. The major distribution for men is barely changing at all, or changing in smaller, less significant ways.
  3. The major distribution for women is changing dramatically, with gains being made in nearly every major.

The fact that education jobs are dropping off is no big news — as this TribLIVE article by Debra Erdley points out, this is a trend we've been seeing for some time now. And while the reasons for it are pretty varied, at this point they're still mostly speculative.

For one thing, the public perception of teachers has shifted somewhat as the already-changing public safety standards of the 80s/90s evolved within the information age. Teachers are under a lot more scrutiny, which is good, but culturally they're also the subject of considerably more scapegoating when it comes to the state of public education.

This is to say that implicit trust in authority figures such as teachers, if it ever truly existed, has fallen significantly in the modern era, and the effect of this on the public perception of educators is difficult to measure precisely.

Educator salaries and job opportunities are also both issues insofar as choosing an Education Major goes. Anyone considering an Education Major is already likely to be well aware of this stigma associated with the degree, and if they're unaware, there's certainly going to be some relative or friend around to remind them.

There's only so many times a student can hear a teacher make self-deprecating jokes about how “the pay's not great” or “you won't get rich teaching” before they start to worry — and rightly so — about the state of the industry itself.

All of the above issues are important factors to consider, but I think the biggest takeaway is the fact that fewer and fewer women are going to college for Education Degrees. While the overall percentage of male education majors has technically dropped faster — roughly a 70% drop versus women's 60% drop — there were never very many male Education Majors in the first place.

The field of education has for a long time been viewed as a traditionally feminine profession, and this (among other factors) has had a huge effect on men and women's likelihood of becoming educators.

What Do We Mean When We Say Teaching is Feminized?

When we refer to teaching as a “traditionally feminine” position, that doesn't mean that there's anything in the term “teaching” itself that makes it seem feminine. When a position is called traditionally masculine or feminine, it simply means that position was historically thought to be done entirely by either men or women. If this was a strongly enough held belief, it had the potential to affect the entire culture's attitude toward a particular field.

The reasons why any field might come to be seen as feminine or masculine are varied, but with teaching, we have a pretty solid idea of how it happened.

As this PBS article describes in detail, it all started with public school.

In the early 1800s, a reformer named Horace Mann brought up the idea of a “common school” that was public, free, and totally secular — this last part was significant because, up to this point, a significant amount of schooling had been carried out by churches and religious ministries.

However, the introduction of common schools required an amount of professional teachers that previously had never existed in this country. Teachers who were educators first and foremost, not teachers who usually were innkeepers or reverends but just happened to be teaching school on any given day.

The issue that Mann ran into when looking for this new legion of teachers he needed was that men on the whole just weren't really interested in doing the job themselves. The things pulling them away were basically the same ones that do so today — other professions seemed more prestigious and paid more money, and everyone was trying to move to California for some reason (it was the 1830s, after all).

This is where women entered the picture.

Younger women were becoming much better educated at this point, and the fact that child-rearing had always been seen as part of the domestic sphere made it pretty easy to associate children's education with women. But the kicker for Horace Mann was that, on top of his newfound belief that women were “peculiarly suited” to teaching, they could also be paid a third of what men would have been paid for the same job.

By the late 1800s to early 1900s, 75% of the teacher workforce was made up of women, hardly any of whom were in administrative positions. Suffrage and progressive values — not to mention a hearty amount of protests — gradually led to things as they are now, with more women in administrative positions than ever before and with women in teaching now making (almost) the same as men.

So all things being (somewhat but not quite) equal, it makes sense that women would be dropping off from the education field like flies.

In Conclusion: It's the Future's Problem

It's obviously not the responsibility of women, as a demographic, to go into the field of Education simply because overall percentages are dropping off — the fact that the College Major distribution of women is finally starting to even out is, if anything, proof that certain gender barriers are successfully being broken down. Smaller overall percentages of women are going into what are traditionally thought of as feminine fields, like Education, and are now moving into traditionally masculine STEM fields.

Still, teachers are dropping fast. If the trends continue — if educators continue to be undervalued, young people across gender lines continue to ignore the teaching profession in larger numbers, and men continue their plummeting interest in the teaching profession whatsoever — then the profession might be in real trouble in the coming years.

The only clear solution here is to somehow find a way to make the teaching profession more valued and attractive to young people across genders, assuming that we want to continue to have teachers in the future. But this would take not only a series of shifts in the way that teachers are taught and compensated, but also a significant shift in the way society at large views teachers.

As it stands, we're currently looking at a sort of Education Apocalypse, and years from now when we're all out hunting elk and huddling for warmth in the jungle ruins of Old New York, we'll be kicking ourselves for not valuing teachers a little bit more.

But hey, that's all pretty far off, right? It's like climate change — it probably won't affect us during our lifetimes.

About Zippia

Zippia is the career expert site, where recent college graduates can study the pathways of previous graduates to learn about which career routes they want to pursue. Career job data can be found on https://www.zippia.com/colleges-and-majors/.