General/liberal non-formal adult education is a sector that is dominated by women. Take, for example, the Volkshochschulen (adult education centres) in Germany and Austria in which 75% of participants are women. And the pattern among liberal education trainers is similar. There are other sectors that are mainly dominated by women (both as participants and trainers): foreign languages, for example, or health. The gender challenge in adult education in Europe, therefore, is not so much to get women into learning, but to get men involved, and especially in areas like health.
On a more abstract level, the formal sectors, especially higher education, fulfil a narrative of organised, theoretical and academic research, whose teaching is perceived as important – you can call this narrative masculine. If you go into the courtyard of my old university (Vienna), you will be confronted with lots of male heads on pedestals.
Adult education is a feminine sector
At a recent meeting of the Interest Group for Lifelong Learning, we chose the topic of education for personal development and well-being, which is quite difficult to present at a policy level. We all agreed that one of the reasons why this is difficult is that thinking about personal development and well-being is something middle-aged women do. It’s seen as feminine, not masculine.
Also, the more ‘basic’ the level of teaching and learning is, the more feminine it becomes. Interestingly enough, this is something we share with the early childhood sector, which is almost exclusively female in its staff structure. There, the wage levels also tend to be very low. There seems to be an underlying assumption that taking care of children is either very easy or something that women do anyway and therefore can’t require appropriate training and pay. The same seems to be true of basic skills teaching for adults – it must be easy, it’s mostly done by women, right?
Non-formal adult education tends to be fragmented and targets skills that are basic, concrete and effective. This makes general/adult education a feminine sector, in binary opposition to the monolithic, abstract, masculine sector of higher education. (Schools and VET move between these two depending on the circumstances).
A sectoral gender pay gap
And now – let’s talk money, resources and recognition. For decades now, feminists and their friends have challenged the gender segregation of sectors and the corresponding difference in wages. On a practical level, this has meant, for example, the move from ‘equal pay for equal work’ (which was already a tough fight) to ‘equal pay for work of equal value’ (still ongoing). In the lifelong learning sector, we have also experienced many changes: we still value academic and technical skills and competences highly, but there have been many attempts to put equal value on other forms of learning. UNESCO’s four pillars of learning remain a key development as they talk about learning to be, learning to do, learning to know and learning to live together.
Nevertheless, a bias remains: the more theoretical and ‘masculine’, the more money a sector tends to get. And as adult and basic skills educators in a feminine sector, we’re not getting enough. And is it a coincidence that the countries that have made the most progress in gender equality are also the countries that have the most sophisticated adult education systems? I don’t think so.
Closing the gap
My modest proposals therefore:
- Let us have a wide debate about the skills, competences and knowledge that we need in the 21st century. Is science necessary? Absolutely, I’d even suggest that we need an initiative that tackles science literacy considering the nonsense that people believe about vaccinations etc. But we also need to focus on personal development, (mental) health, for men. And if we look at the burning asylum centres, we have a lot to learn about living together, too.
- Let’s also discuss how much this teaching and training is worth. Do we want quality? Do we want to make sure that the people (women!) doing these jobs also can make a decent living? Is the man who teaches chemistry really worth more than the woman teaching adult literacy?
And maybe we should finally ask the key question: how come women contribute so much to society (all that family and care work, volunteering, working in low-paid sectors, getting smaller pensions, paying more for ‘gendered products’, etc.) and all the benefits go to rich men? So, to take just one very obvious, and current, example in which men give each other lots of money for no good reason at all - let’s reallocate some of FIFA’s money to adult education, and then we’ll see a change.
Gina Ebner is the Secretary-General of the European Association for the Education of Adults (EAEA).