26 Sep

Gender Behind the Picket Line

Posted By Politybooks

As we write this blog, the Chicago Teachers Union has just voted to call off its strike, the first one in 25 years. Chicago is our hometown, so we witnessed firsthand the struggle between Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago Board of Education, and the Chicago Teachers Union throughout the city. The strike was not just a local story because Chicago is President Obama’s hometown, and what happens here could influence not only the 2012 presidential election but also what happens with teachers and education across the US. Nationally, workers in the public-sector are more likely to be union members (37%) than those in the private sector (6.9%), with teachers having a high rate—by contemporary US standards—of union membership (36.8%) (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2012).


Gender issues were not prominent in news about the strike, but as you know, silence is not an indicator of the absence or lack of importance of an issue. A good starting point for analyzing gender is to ask: what is the gender breakdown among teachers? Are you surprised to learn that the majority of Chicago teachers are women (76.9%) and that women have been in the majority for the last 25 years (Catalyst Chicago n.d.)? This is consistent with national statistics (National Center for Educational Statistics n.d.). If we apply lessons learned about occupational gender segregation in Chapter 5 on work, then we see that teaching K-12 is one of the female-dominated occupations which generally are less valued, have lower pay, and offer fewer benefits than male-dominated occupations.

Another question to ask is: how are teachers distributed by gender and race/ethnicity? In Chapter 5, we showed that not only are women and men funneled into different levels within the same occupation, but that race and ethnicity also affect people’s occupational standing. Intersectional data were not available by gender and race, but we did find data that reveal that Chicago teachers are more likely to be white (42.4%) than any other racial group (Black, 19.5%; Hispanic, 14.2%; Asian, 3.3%; and Other, 20.7%). That is a change from 25 years ago when Chicago teachers were as likely to be black (47.7%) as white (44.9%) and other racial/ethnic groups were almost invisible (Catalyst Chicago n.d.). Although we do not have data on the intersections of gender and race, there is evidence that gender and race are part of the landscape. For instance, in 2010, some of the leaders of the current Chicago Teachers Union won a lawsuit that had charged that experienced African American female teachers were replaced by young White teachers (Dixon 2010). 

As noted in Chapter 5, a unionized group of workers are generally more likely to have better pay, benefits, and working conditions than non-union workers. So even though teaching is a female-dominated occupation, unionized teachers are generally better off than those not in unions. The issues highlighted in the struggle here in Chicago—length of the school day, assessment of teachers, and job security—are issues of decent work. Some writers have characterized this struggle for decent work as “greedy” with teachers putting their needs before their students (Vidal 2012). One of the themes we addressed in Chapters 6 and 9 was the distinction between “good” and “bad” girls/women, with those characterized as “good” fitting gender expectations and those characterized as “bad” not. We see this theme playing out here as well. A female-dominated union demanding decent wages and decent work challenges idealized notions of femininity that are romanticized in imagery of teachers who place the needs of others before their own.

Even though teachers in Chicago are more likely to be White than any other race, the fact that they serve children from racial/ethnic- and class-marginalized communities is also relevant to the struggle. The teachers are not only fighting for conditions that bring them closer to “decent work,” but they are also fighting for the most marginalized students in Chicago.



Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2012. Union members-2011. www.bls.gov

Catalyst Chicago. n.d. Data central: Teachers by Gender. www.catalyst-chicago.org

Dixon, Bruce A. 2010. Black Chicago teachers win discrimination lawsuit against Arne Duncan’s mass firings. Black Agenda Report. October 6. blackagendareport.com

National Center for Education Statistics. n.d. Fast facts. nces.ed.gov

Vidal, Charlie. 2012. Chicago Teachers Unions proves it is a greedy interest group that does not care about its students. PolicyMic. September 10. policymic.com