A friend recently told me how thrilled she is that 7 out of the 20 teachers at her son’s primary school are male. The reason for her excitement is that she wants her son to have male role models.
In one way that’s fair enough: there are not many male teachers in Australian schools. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported in 2011 women account for 70 per cent of all full time teaching staff in Australia. The underrepresentation of male teachers is particularly acute in primary schools, where men account for only 19.3 per cent of full time teachers.
Despite all the excellent female teachers in our schools, having a man in front of a class conjures up visions of a life-changing teacher who will inspire kids to climb onto their desks and say ‘O’ Captain, My Captain’ a la Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society.
But in reality, these male teachers might be decent blokes who turn up, run through the set exercises prescribed in the curriculum and head home. Or they may be terrible teachers, with questionable values who don’t seem to even like kids.
My friend knows next to nothing about most of these male teachers — other than the fact that they’re men. And that’s the point: aren’t we setting the bar a little too low for male role models if all they have to do to qualify is to pee standing up?
This applies more broadly than male teachers or men in other female-dominated professions.
Take footballers for example. There are 18 teams in the AFL and 16 NRL teams and every one of the players is deemed to be a role model. Even those who come across like chauvinist pigs, or are in trouble with the law are considered role models.
Of course, there are one or two who lose their role model licence — Ben Cousins and Alan Didak spring to mind — and instead move into the category labelled ‘Troubled’. But getting to ‘Troubled’ can take an alarmingly long time and many run-ins with the law and officialdom. It also doesn’t preclude the possibility of being later re-born as a ‘Good Bloke’ and given their own TV show. Monday Nights with Matty Johns anyone?
By contrast, a woman needs to meet much higher standards than having a vagina if she’s to be taken seriously as a role model.
In sport, a female athlete not only has to be the best in her field — or near the top — but articulate, charismatic, wholesome, and easy on the eye. Much of the conversation about women and role models focuses on those women who fall short of the rigorous standards required to be a role model for girls.
And unlike the male teachers at my local primary school, there has been no discussion or rejoicing amongst my friends about the 13 female teachers being role models.
This double standard in role models isn’t just a problem about the lack of recognition of influential and outstanding women in children’s lives. It’s also demeaning to men.
Having such a low standard for being considered a male role model sends the message that good men are so hard to find that any bloke with a pulse and vertical will do. And given the record of male sports role models, the vertical bit may be optional.
To be clear, the problem isn’t with the male teachers or sports people or any other man who’s held up to be a role model. The problem rather, is the automatic assumption that any man in a position of authority or in the public eye is automatically taken to be a role model for boys and young men.
We need to stop simply assuming that men are role models simply because they’re a bloke and they showed up.
That’s not to say that there aren’t worthy male role models. There certainly are. Tim Flannery, Tim Costello and Adam Goodes are examples. And there are no doubt plenty of male teachers and authority figure who do go the extra mile and are worthy of the honour and the responsibility of being a role model.
They’re not role models because they’re men. They’re role models because they have been active in their communities and worked to improve other people’s lives. In short, they embody the kinds of values, attributes and behaviours that you would want your kids to emulate.
Unless it takes more than turning up to work, kicking a ball well or swimming laps quickly to be considered a role model, we are doing a disservice to men and the kids who look up to them.