Advocacy Blog

What do the low numbers of men in ECEC really mean?

Once a year or so, another report, research document or news article appears that highlights the low numbers of male teachers working in early childhood and primary schools. Another was released in the past month, and tells familiar stories of isolation and suspicion.

The problem is tricky to solve, and has been for decades. It’s tricky because the problem isn’t really “the problem”. It’s a symptom of a number of inter-connected and entrenched issues, which are particularly thorny in early childhood.

The issues are now well known. Early childhood education and care (ECEC) is still often viewed as “women’s work”. This is borne out in the statistics that, at last count, 97% of the sector was female. Because there are so few men in the sector, the ones that are there are often viewed with either suspicion or outright hostility. Which means that fewer men will want to work in ECEC… which means that the men that do will be viewed with suspicion… and so it goes on.

I’ve always been generally pretty optimistic about change in this area. As I’ve written about before, my experience has not been as negative as many other men working in the sector. I had always felt that things would change – slowly, as things tend to do. I don’t know if I’m getting more cynical as I get older, but I’m actually starting to worry that things are not even slowly improving.

The numbers of male primary school teachers rose in the second half of last century as the sector became more professionalised, and wages rose alongside that shift. Even primary teaching used to be viewed as something women did for little-to-no money. That view has significantly changed, and so the gender imbalance lessened slightly (but still remains large in that sector).

ECEC is in a different stage on that journey. The National Quality Framework reforms, designed in no small part to ensure a rigorous and professional approach to early learning, are only in their fourth year. We’re still far more often referred to as childcare and day care. We’re nowhere near the level of professional recognition that primary teachers receive from the community.

Thinking about low male representation in ECEC through the lens of professional identity means we may need to ask ourselves some tough questions. How do we represent ourselves in the community? Do we refer to ourselves as “childcare workers”, and use old-fashioned marketing and branding that suggests colourful, happy, fun places rather than serious places of early learning?

There are a number of great organisations out there that provide networks and mentoring for men in the sector – these fill a need and are of great help to many working in ECEC. But on their own, they’re not going to resolve the issue. Because the problem isn’t low numbers of men, it’s what those low numbers represent – that ECEC is still not viewed seriously as a profession.

Which is hugely disappointing – because it obscures the real issue. Low numbers of men in the sector isn’t a sad story about men. It’s a sad story about women. Because it means as a community we’ve decided that ECEC is work for women, and therefore shouldn’t be recognised and paid as a profession. If women are doing it, it can’t be that important.

That isn’t going to change with a marketing campaign, or scholarships, or incentives. Changing how we are viewed is a process that can only start from within the sector itself. For many working in ECEC, this will be a challenging and concerning process. For many, not taking childcare too seriously and just “having fun” with children in a safe space is still good enough for ECEC.

The research, which was the driving force for the NQF, is clear. High-quality, well-planned early education delivered by qualified professionals can improve life outcomes for all children – particularly those experiencing vulnerability. Once we win that battle – both in the sector and in the community – we’ll find that the battle to raise the numbers of men in the sector is already halfway won.

This article originally appeared in the April 12 edition of the newsletter.

By Liam McNicholas

I am an experienced early childhood teacher, writer and advocate. As well as managing community not-for-profit early childhood operations in a variety of roles, I have advocated for children's human rights; the need for investment in early childhood education; and for professional recognition and wages for those working in early childhood education and care.

I am available to be commissioned for freelance writing, editing, event speaking and consulting work.

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