Research Findings

Teachers’ unions reduce gender pay gap among U.S. public school teachers


April 29, 2021

The gender pay gap has decreased substantially over the past decades in the U.S. However, women still earn 18% less than their male counterparts. Even after adjusting for basic pay-related factors, such as education, experience, industry, and occupation, women earn 91.6 cents for every dollar earned by comparable men.

Despite the fact that gender pay gaps have been well-documented, few studies have examined the earning difference by gender in the U.S. educational sector. This may be because one might expect to find gender parity in public schools, as most school districts use fixed salary schedules based on years of experience and educational attainment.

However, our public schools overwhelmingly employ women (approximately 70%), so there may exist “occupational crowding effects.” This means that when women are crowded into a small number of occupations, an oversupply of female workers in those occupations results, reducing their wages. In addition, if the leadership positions in the teaching sector are mostly occupied by males, a gender pay gap can certainly occur.

What Teachers’ Unions do for the Teacher Gender Pay Gap

In my recent study, female teachers earned about $1,800 less base salary than male teachers during the 2011-2012 school year. On average, the gender pay gap is more than twice as large for mid-career teachers (total experience of more than five years but less than 20 years) and senior teachers (with at least 20 years of experience) than for novice teachers (with five years or less of teaching experience). Female teachers face a gender pay gap of $2,200 in primary schools and $1,490 in secondary schools. The gender pay gap is substantially greater for STEM teachers than for non-STEM teachers ($2,350 vs. $1,660).

Given these findings, the natural follow-up question is: which factors can help close this gender pay gap in the education sector? In my study, I examine the effect of teachers’ unions on the gender pay gap in U.S. public schools under various legal environments and explore the mechanism through which unions affect the gender pay gap.

I find that the relationship between teacher pay and teachers’ unions is appreciably stronger for female teachers than for male teachers, suggesting that unions are able to reduce the gender pay gap partly because their impact on base salaries is greater for female teachers than for male teachers.

I show that teachers’ unions are associated with a smaller gender pay gap. The gender pay gap is $790 lower in districts that are covered by collective bargaining relative to that in districts without collective bargaining. A 10-percentage point increase in union density is predicted to reduce the gender pay gap by $154. 

I also find that the overall union effect on the gender pay gap is greater in union-friendly states than states with a more hostile legal environment for teachers’ unions. For instance, the effect of teachers’ unions on the gender pay gap is the greatest in states that have duty-to-bargain laws and allow agency fees (union dues that non-union members pay). In these states, collective bargaining reduces the gender pay gap by $590, and a 10-percentage-point increase in union density decreases the gender pay gap by $140. In states that do not have bargaining laws or that prohibit collective bargaining of public school teachers, the union effects on the gender pay gap are much smaller.

How Teachers’ Unions Influence the Teacher Gender Pay Gap

In sum, teachers’ unions contribute to reducing the gender pay gap. How, then, do unions influence the gender pay gap?

One of the potential channels through which unions are able to raise the salaries of female teachers relative to those of male teachers is teacher attrition, where teachers voluntarily leave the teaching sector. This study shows that teachers’ unions are linked with lower attrition of female teachers but not of male teachers. On average, collective bargaining is associated with 1.9% lower attrition of female teachers, and a 10-percentage point increase in union density is predicted to reduce the attrition rate of female teachers by 2.6%.

The relationship between unions and teacher attrition is generally stronger in pro-union states. This finding suggests that female teachers in districts with strong teachers’ unions are more likely to accumulate work experience and/or obtain tenure than female teachers with similar qualifications in less-unionized districts.

Teachers’ unions often foster gender-specific content for women, such as helping members obtain more favorable maternity leave, achieve work and family balance, and reduce workplace discrimination. This may be the reason why female teachers show a low level of attrition in unionized districts, whereas male teachers do not experience a reduction in attrition.

What the Role of Teachers’ Unions Ultimately Implies for US Public Education

In the recent decade, public-sector unions have experienced significant legal changes that reduced union strength. In the early 2010s, new state legislation in Indiana, Idaho, Tennessee, and Wisconsin substantially restricted the collective bargaining rights of public school teachers. Since then, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Kentucky became right-to-work states. The 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) further decreased the strength of public-sector unions by banning their collection of agency fees from non-union members. The results of this study suggest that a weakening of teachers’ unions is likely to worsen the gender pay gap in our public schools.

Moreover, because female teachers in highly unionized districts are more likely to have greater work experience and obtain tenure faster than female teachers with similar qualifications in districts with weak unions, high-quality female teachers have a strong motivation to work in pro-union districts where the gender pay gap is smaller. Considering that teachers are paid considerably less than other comparable non-teachers, the higher gender pay gap in less unionized districts may be an additional push factor that drives high-quality female teachers to seek better opportunities out of the teaching profession altogether.

Ultimately, therefore, the gender pay gap among teachers may result in a performance gap among students, contributing to a widening educational inequality of students across districts. This new study suggests that teachers’ unions could be a possible solution in mitigating inequalities in educational access.

Read more

Eunice S. Han. “The Effects of Teachers’ Unions on Gender Pay Gap among U.S. Public School Teachers” in Industrial Relations 2020.

Image: kting via Wikimedia (CC0 1.0)

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