Six-year-old Nguyen Khanh Linh is astonished to see a television cartoon of a male bear teaching a class.
And it’s not because the teacher is a large furry animal.
“Why is it a he-teacher? Teachers must be female,” she says.
In Viet Nam, where female teachers vastly outnumber their male colleagues, the little girl has enunciated a truth not a prejudice.
The imbalance is seen as harmless by a lot of Vietnamese, but educational and gender experts think the shortage of male role models in education is detrimental to the development of a rounded personality.
Tran Thi Hao, the principal of Vien Thanh Primary School in Yen Thanh District, central Nghe An Province, says there are only two male teachers out of a teaching staff of 32 at her school, and one of those is going to retire shortly.
Phan Hoang Duong, a sixth-grade student at Ha Noi-based Dong Da Junior Secondary School, says she had just two male teachers last term.
According to Ministry of Education and Training statistics, in the 2006-2007 school year, there were 780,600 Vietnamese general education teachers. Of that number, 547,000, or 70 per cent, were female.
The gender imbalance is even more pronounced in primary schools, where female teachers accounted for 78 per cent of the total.
The situation seems no brighter for future generations of teachers as no effort have been made to specifically attract men, say education experts.
Only one fifth of the students at Ha Noi Teachers’ College are male, according to the college’s Student Management Department.
“At the primary education faculty, 100 per cent of the students are female,” says the department director.
Raquel D Castillo, Global Campaign for Education’s Asia Advocacy and Campaigns Co-ordinator, says this shortage of male teachers means sexual stereotyping is being instilled in children at an early age.
Thinking outside the box
However, Hoang Hoai Nhon, a teacher at Ha Noi’s Khuong Thuong Primary School, says there are more female than male teachers because the profession allows women to juggle work and home life.
“[The fact that there are] more female than male teachers shows a social sharing of jobs. Teaching itself is not hard work, therefore women will have more time for their family,” says Nhon.
Plan International’s gender consultant, Nguyen Thi Thuy, says, despite gender equality laws, domestic chores are still seen as women’s work. Thus parents and friends encourage girls to go into teaching.
“My mother wanted me to become a teacher since I was a little girl,” says Nguyen Thu Trang, a teacher at Tran Hung Dao Senior Secondary School in northern Nam Dinh Province.
Stereotypical images in school textbooks make matters worse, says Thuy.
“Children always see images of men working as pilots or engineers, while women work as teachers or tailors,” she says.
“Moreover, teaching is not a high-income job, so men, who aspire to be the family breadwinner are not attracted to the profession,” says Thuy.
Furthermore, “Primary school is not a place that suits men because teaching such little pupils means playing the role of mother,” says Vien Thanh Primary School principal Hao.
Although mathematics teacher Nguyen Duc Dac loves his job at Nam Dinh City’s Nguyen Hue Senior Secondary School, he admits he only went to study at Ha Noi National University of Education because it was free.
“I still think that women are better at persuading naughty students [to behave],” he says.
But UNESCO’s Ha Noi representative, Vibeke Jensen, says it is precisely this stereotype that needs to be addressed.
“It’s true that it requires a lot of patience, but I don’t think it’s true that men have not got the patience or can’t cultivate patience.
“I think it’s totally wrong to think that teaching is a simple task. It’s one of the most complex jobs you can find,” she says.
Jensen says Viet Nam needs to raise the status of primary school teachers to attract the best staff.
“Records show that once men get involved and start teaching at this level, they can be very good at it…. Sometimes we have to lose our preconceived notions, think outside the box and do things differently,” says Jensen.
The reason UNESCO advocates more balance between male and female teachers is that boys and girls need male and female role models, says Jensen.
“It’s important for primary schoolboys to have male teachers, girls to have female teachers. It’s also important for the opposite sex to see that boys can see female teachers in this role and vice versa,” says Jensen.
“From a gender perspective, boys will be put at a disadvantage if they only learn from female teachers. There are a lot of things, especially at puberty, that boys will have difficulties with and dare not to ask or share with their female teachers,” says Plan International’s Thuy.
Education experts say gender disparities in teaching need to be addressed. “It’s an important issue that has been neglected,” says Ha Noi National University of Education’s educational psychologist Vu Kim Thanh.
Research has been carried out in other countries that indicates gender inequality in education has a profound effect on child development.
UNESCO’s Jensen takes Mongolia as an extreme example. She says boys never get to see a male teacher.
“The school environment is so dominated by women that boys cannot get a foothold.”
Jensen says the shortage of male teachers is being blamed for the high drop out rate among schoolboys.
It’s a similar story in Denmark where girls now do far better than boys in school.
“Forty years ago, we talked about how to promote girls, but now we’re talking about how to get boys to stay because they are dropping out,” says Jensen.
The Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2008 shows that Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are in a similar position to Viet Nam, although the gender imbalance is more or less serious.
“Although there are generally more female teachers in the world, there are quite a number of countries where male teachers dominate,” says Jensen.
In Cambodia, for instance, women account for only 41 per cent of all teachers at primary school level, 33 per cent at junior secondary and 26 per cent at senior secondary. She says part of the reason is culture.
“It is related to socio-cultural issues where women cannot go out of the house, or go far from the house. It’s difficult in Pakistan or Afghanistan, for instance, to hire female teachers in remote rural areas because for a woman, to move from her home to the school is a challenge,” she says.