On Gender and Labor

By Dr. Arielle Levites

Joseph Epstein’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed suggesting that Dr. Jill Biden drop her title, prompted many objections. Some wrote about Epstein’s condescending tone and his misunderstanding of the history of the word ‘doctor’. Others offered views about the op-ed through the lens of gender and titles. I want to add that Epstein’s op-ed is not only about gender and titles; it’s about gender and labor – or more specifically the feminization of certain professions. Is Epstein’s problem simply with any doctoral degree or is it with a doctorate in education?

Epstein writes that “no one should call himself “Dr.” unless he has delivered a child.” This is a most apt example (if not to his point). The work of delivering babies – the very criteria which Epstein uses to distinguish between those who deserve the title of doctors and those who do not – has not historically been a high prestige position. For most of human history across time and space, the labor of assisting laboring women was accomplished almost entirely by women without degrees. They were called midwives. Elsewhere in the western world midwives (now highly trained professionals) continue to deliver the majority of babies. (In 2016 in the UK 53% of babies were delivered via midwife, in a similar period in the US it was 8%.) Many have called for increased access to midwives to improve maternal mortality rates in the US.

In the United States, over the course of last century and a half the gender of people doing the work of delivering babies shifted. Delivering babies became an act that happened in a hospital not a home and the people who presided over a birth became men with the title of doctor and not women without any title at all. Midwifery, a female coded profession, was overtaken by obstetrics, a male coded profession.

[And indeed it would seem that as women increasingly enter medicine the position is losing prestige. In 2019 the number of women enrolled in medical school exceeded the number of men for the first time. But don’t worry; there is still plenty of gender segregation within the field of medicine. 82% of neurosurgeons are male, and 72% of pediatricians female. And in 2019 starting salaries for male medical doctors were on average $17,000 higher than for female medical doctors.]

The degree to which a profession is seen as demanding high intelligence and specialized training is directly related to whether or not it is believed to be a job for men or for women. As another example, at the dawn of computing, coding was classified as a rote task and done by women. Real men built hardware. Today, as we well know, coding is seen as the domain of lone male geniuses who dropped out of Stanford.

That Dr. Biden’s doctorate is in education seems an important part of the calculus. Like delivering babies, education is a profession that underwent a profound shift in its gender makeup in the last century and a half. As access to public schooling increased and industrialization opened up more job opportunities for men, what had once been a profession dominated by men (in 1800 90% of teachers in the United States were male) became a female coded profession. (It’s one American Jewish women flocked to as it was seen as an opportunity for upward mobility among many Ashkenazi Jews in the early 20th century). As teachers became women, the prestige of the profession plummeted. Today about 76% of teachers in K-12 American schooling are women.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, of all the major fields conferring doctorates in the US, the doctorate in education is the most heavily skewed toward women. In 2017-2018 68% of recipients of a doctoral degree in education were women. (By way of comparison 26% of doctorates in engineering went to women in that same year.)

Would Epstein have penned the same essay if Biden’s doctorate was in engineering? Or astrophysics? Would he have assumed in those cases that it represented intellectual work that was lacking in gravitas? Would he have so easily discounted her expertise?

But even as we can discern the misogyny that undergirds Epstein’s op-ed, we also identify a larger more subtle undercurrent in our society; the labor of education is undervalued and the academic study of education is not seen as a subject worthy of serious study or rigorous analysis. If we are told those who can’t do, teach, then do those who can’t teach… study teaching? An attack on Dr Biden’s doctorate is also an attack on the credibility and authority of a female dominated sector of the academy that produces research to guide the practice of a female professional workforce.

If Jewish education matters (and at least to the readers of these pages it does) then how will we hold ourselves accountable to take seriously the professionalism of our (overwhelmingly female) Jewish education workforce? How will we invest in Jewish educators’ ongoing professional learning? And how will we ensure their work can be guided by knowledge produced by the systematic disciplined inquiry that a doctorate like Dr. Jill Biden’s exemplifies.  

Dr. Arielle Levites is the Managing Director of CASJE (Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) housed at George Washington University.