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Does Gender Representation Improve Learning Outcomes? Only Sometimes

In 44-country study, SPA professor finds that national political context affects the benefits of same-sex teachers on student math performance.

The theory of representative bureaucracy suggests that a public workforce that shares characteristics with its people, like gender or race, will lead to better individual and societal outcomes. While many U.S. studies have borne up this relationship, new findings from SPA Distinguished Professor Kenneth Meier suggest that such positive outcomes are not guaranteed, but are in fact heavily dependent on the context of governance and equality in a given country.

In “Representative Bureaucracy and the Policy Environment: Gender Representation in Forty-Four Countries,” published this month in Public Administration, Meier and coauthors Seung-ho An (University of Arizona) and Miyeon Song (Rutgers University) used cross-national education data from 44 countries to track the effects of gender representation on student math performance, finding that the benefits only materialize in nations with the conducive policy and political environments.

“The big news here is that the expectation that increased diversity automatically leads to better outcomes is probably not the case,” said Meier. “We've spent a lot of time learning about such things in the United States or other favorable places. The concern has always been that maybe we're being too optimistic.”

Meier, a pioneer in the field of representative bureaucracy, feels some complicity in this optimism. In 2002, he coauthored a piece (with SPA Dean Vicky Wilkins, Lael Kaiser, and Catherine Holland) testing the effects of gender representation in schools.

“That's actually the paper that started it all,” he recalled. “It was the first paper to show that gender mattered in these situations. The theoretical part was repurposed for work in other areas, so now this is conventional wisdom. I think we convinced too many people it always works, because we've been really good at finding it. Now we need to step back and catch the conditions under which it is actually effective.”

With that in mind, Meier saw the comparison of international test scores as a useful exercise. Using data from three international sources, he measured the impact of female math teachers on the math grades of middle school-aged girls. The relationship varied significantly across countries, from very positive to very negative, indicating the importance of the political context.

“In a country uninterested in gender equity, even assigning a female math teacher is a sign that they don't care,” said Meier. “The key takeaway is representative bureaucracy is an effective instrument when the political system wants it to be. If not, it has little impact, or may even be detrimental.”

Society-wide gender equity efforts, he continued, signal to teachers and students the importance of investing in girls. If a girl knows that options exist besides early marriage, and sees role models to that effect in the form of female teachers, then she may commit more to the education process.

“We know that there are differences in lived experiences across racial and gender groups, which generate different attitudes or understandings,” said Meier. “When teachers interact with students, these values come forward. They see someone that reminds them of themselves, somebody that could use a little extra help or an extra challenge, and they respond and take action. We think this also works on the symbolic sense for the student herself: she sees someone who looks like her and is, quite frankly, good at math.”

Teacher gender representation offers the most advantages to democratic countries, in which bureaucrats exercise some discretion, and the fewest to those with autocratic systems. For example, several Middle Eastern countries did not see improved outcomes for female students with female teachers.

“Places like Syria have got multiple problems,” he explained. “They've got massive ongoing conflict. The period of education is relatively small. The options for a little girl in school aren't very many, or very good. There are not going to be a lot of jobs available to them if they finish. They're not probably even going to be allowed to graduate. Schools are just a place to warehouse them for a while until their family decides to do something with them.”

Teachers in these situations may take great risks, fighting the political and religious norms of their society to achieve a relatively small impact.

“As a teacher, it's a frustrating situation,” Meier said. “Maybe what you're trying to do is just keep the girl in school another year, or convince the parents that, no, she shouldn't be married next year. This is a lot different from what we would see in a Western societal context, because that may be all that is feasible.”
Meier distinguishes policy recommendations for nations on both ends of this spectrum. To reap the societal benefits of gender representation, some countries must first reform their political systems to allow women to own property, vote, and run for office.

Relatively democratic Western nations, he added, also have work to do. The importance of context also exists at the organizational level: diversity itself will not lead to better outcomes, even in these societies, if agencies do not prioritize equity and equality.

“[For example,] I don't believe that diversifying a police force will lead to change unless the police department wants it,” he said. “The context of the organization, the profession, and the country all matter a great deal.”

Nations that enjoy the improved outcomes of gender representation have an obligation to apply international pressure to encourage such reform in other countries.

“It's less and less possible, with today's media and communications, that minorities can be oppressed without people noticing,” he said. “Further policy reform should push that internationalism, push that process by which we recognize equality and adopt education reforms, by changing curriculum or making certain curriculum mandatory.”

Meier and his coauthors have expanded the data set to cover 1991-2019, allowing them to track these outcomes over time and parse their relationship to democracy. They also plan to test contagion effects (the impact on male teachers as a result of interacting with female teachers), compare outcomes across race and citizenship, and study how representation affects parental attitudes and behavior.

He hopes to include current and future SPA students in this line of research.

“I'm always looking for the next student who's interested in these sorts of things. If somebody sees [my work] and says, ‘Boy, that's where I'd like to go to graduate school,’ then they should just send me an email.”