Early childhood education and care: no boys allowed?

According to the latest statistics from the Productivity Commission, the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector collectively employs around 140,000 people, of which only 3 per cent are male.

That’s just 4,200 men across the whole country. Practically an endangered species.

I’ve worked in the ECEC sector in Canberra for over 10 years, as a trainee, a room leader and a director. It’s challenging, frustrating and exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, fulfilling and a privilege.

Throughout that time, children, families, colleagues and friends have often asked the same question: “Why aren’t there more men?”

It’s an interesting question, with lots of connotations. The ECEC sector is 97 per cent female and beset by poor wages, poor conditions and a lack of professional respect in the wider community. Despite some basic reforms, the role is still primarily seen as ‘women’s work’.

After 10 years experience, I still don’t really know how to answer that question—I’m not even sure if there is a single answer. All I can do is tell my own personal and professional story and try to deconstruct some of the ‘myths’ that have shaped my own journey, and shed some light on the experience of men in the sector.

MYTH 1: Children need men in ECEC

This is the most common comment I get about men in ECEC environments: ‘It’s so great to have you here! The children, particularly the boys, just need that male influence.’ Without wanting to sound ungrateful, I find that sentence (and the variations on it) unsettling.

It’s problematic for a couple of reasons. Although it’s always intended as a compliment, it actually has the opposite meaning. I’m being complimented not on my knowledge, or my skills, or my positive engagement with children, but purely on my gender.

The implication is that the simple fact of my biology is enough to make me a wonderful Early Childhood educator.

My years of study and my on-going professional development are secondary to my gender. It positions men as tokens, leading to intense scrutiny and constant evaluation.

It also implicitly brings down the rest of the team that were not ‘blessed’ with my gender, and had to instead work hard to become skilled and knowledgeable in early childhood education. By raising me up for simply being male and showing up for work in the morning, it disparages the talented, passionate and skilled women who also work in that team.

I would also challenge anyone to provide evidence to me showing outcomes for children are improved purely on the basis a male is employed at a service.

Outcomes for children in early childhood spaces are surely driven from qualified, committed and reflective educators, regardless of their gender.

There are certainly men out there positively influencing children’s education and wellbeing, but is it purely because of their gender, or because they have studied, grown professionally and work within a supportive and innovative team?

MYTH 2: Families are happier with a female educator, particularly for infants

A colleague of mine tells the story of a young male educator she employed to work in an infants’ environment within her centre. Several families at the centre expressed concern about this educator changing their child’s nappy.

My colleague, the director, told me: ‘This was difficult for the educator and for me.

We did not want him to feel as though he shouldn’t be doing the job he wants to do, and leave for somewhere that he would be accepted.’

Luckily for this educator, the director stood her ground and worked to educate families about the policies of the centre organisation and the need to support all educators in the service. The educator remained with the infants and thrived.

I had a similar experience in my first year in the sector, and I imagine a lot of the ‘three per cent’ could tell the same story. It is demoralising and deeply denigrating to the individual, and a perfect example of the challenges still to be overcome by men choosing to educate and care for young children.

As ECEC professionals, we expect ourselves to work collaboratively with families and to respect and understand their needs. I know that directors may choose to put practices in place that meet families’ wishes on these kinds of issues, but I believe such perspectives need to be respectfully challenged.

The best way to challenge preconceptions is to embody change in practice. The ‘fear’ of male educators working with young children may come from a lack of images and experiences in our society that showcase men positively engaging with children.

Directors or managers can perpetuate that cycle when they choose the path of least resistance and either move a male educator into a different, more ‘suitable’, room or suggest that other (female) educators provide direct support to certain children.

This leads to fewer males working directly with young children, which means fewer families seeing it as part of normal practice in the sector, and more families are troubled when it does occur.

MYTH 3: Men don’t want to work in ECEC—it’s still seen as ‘women’s work’

Occasionally, I’ve had people ask if my friends joke or tease me for working in ECEC. I can categorically state that this has never been the case. When I first began working in the sector at 18 years of age, my mates didn’t seem to care that much. But I do know that it certainly is a wider issue for many of the men in our ECEC centres.

The ‘women’s work’ myth is deeply embedded. The label implies that it is something only women have done, or are equipped to do, or should do.

For the men who choose to work in the profession, it creates a powerful incentive to self-regulate your behaviour and your engagement with children.

It’s hard to describe to someone who hasn’t faced being part of a tiny minority, but the single most challenging aspect of my work in the sector has been knowing that I am under constant scrutiny. It is less pleasantly described in some of the research literature as suspicion. As a society, we are flooded with images of women as nurturing and loving with children. Men are more often viewed as a danger to children, especially men who display nurturing or loving relationships with children outside the norm of the ‘masculinity’ stereotype.

I have often been asked to discuss my experience working as a male ECEC educator, and I usually refuse or deflect the questions. This is because it is incredibly hard for me to discuss the often unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, scrutiny that accompanies every aspect of my work with young children. I am constantly aware that suspicion can fall on a male educator incredibly easily.

Paul Sargent’s research into men into ECEC settings highlights powerful individual stories from men about “performing” gendered roles. When the dominant discourse demands that only women are nurturing and loving, that kind of behaviour when practiced by men can be seen as confusing at best, and dangerous at worst. This creates a deeply embedded and, after a certain amount of time, even automatic, selfregulation of behaviour to ensure that suspicions are not aroused.

Raising the percentage

So why aren’t there more men in ECEC? There isn’t one simple answer.

I’m professionally and personally committed to the sector, and love the work that I do. I think for those with a love of teaching, it’s one of the most challenging and rewarding teaching roles you can have.

For men like myself who have overcome the initial challenges of starting out in the sector, it becomes easier. The challenges never disappear, but they can be positively managed through developing skills, knowledge and experience. But we are still faced with the issue of encouraging men to face those challenges in the first place.

I think the answer still lies in how the work is viewed by society and, more importantly, how men who work in the sector are viewed. Changing those views is a long and complex task, but I believe a key place to start is in leadership within the ECEC sector. The dominant perception of women as mothering and nurturing creates problems for men who attempt to reflect that perception in their behaviour, or enact their work with children in a ‘different’ way.

Leaders in the sector need to challenge those dominant perceptions.

Individual services need to reflect on their learning community and whether it embodies multiple ways of engagement with children. When issues with families arise, they need to be sensitively and respectfully challenged.

There are obviously issues of career pathways, wages and family dynamics that could not be discussed in this short article. But I firmly believe that a good place to start answering the question, ‘Why aren’t there more men in ECEC?’ is to ask ourselves, as a sector, ‘Are we welcoming them?’

This article was first published in the Spring 2012 issue of Rattler Magazine.

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