“Men just bring something different to the centre”: Neurosexism and early education

Back in 2016, I sat in a room in Canberra as part of a panel on men in early education. I used to do that sort of thing a little bit, and this one was of the usual standard. I heard the same sort of words from the other panellists (all men, by the way) that I’d heard before. “Diversity is important”. “Children, especially boys, need strong male role models”.

The phrase “reverse sexism” was never uttered during that panel, but it was the unspoken undercurrent of a handful of the comments.

I wrote a little while ago on this blog that I wouldn’t be involved in advocacy for men in early education again. What I didn’t explain in that blog was when the event that made that decision something I had to do – it was this event in Canberra in 2016. I can vividly remember looking around the room of almost entirely female participants, and just realising that I couldn’t continue to ask them to devote their time to this issue when there are so many pressing issues facing every one of them.

The experience on that panel was uncomfortable and challenging for me, and I was not a great participant. But there was an exchange between myself and another panellist that really stuck with me, and a new book released this week brought the whole thing back to me.

The panellist said something to the effect of “men just bring something different to a Centre”. The sentence really jarred with me. I questioned the panellist – “what exactly? What fundamental things can men provide that women can’t?”

After some discussions around this issue, the panellist said that “men and women’s brains are physically different”.

This really took me aback. I’m not an expert in biology, was pretty abysmal in Science at school, but this just did not sit well with me at all. The panellist was certain in his knowledge, and while I can’t speak to what others thought, this seemed to be taken as a fact at the time.

I mumbled something pretty inarticulate about not being sure that was the case, and that no-one in the room was a scientific expert on the brain. The whole thing made me incredibly uncomfortable, and I left that room feeling very unsettled.

As a teacher, I really could not process the idea that the brains of the young girls I would be working with had any fundamental physical differences to the young boys’. It would be like thinking their lungs were different, or their kidneys.

And underlying it all was the unspoken reasoning that “well, if their brains are different, maybe that explains a lot of other things…”

Since that day in 2016 that specific conversation has often come back to me, and I’d always wished that I’d known more to challenge or reflect on that assumption in the room.

It all came back even stronger this week, when I read two reviews of what seems like an incredible book (that is now loaded up on my e-reader as I type): “The Gendered Brain by Gina Rippon review – exposing a myth“, reviewed by Katy Guest for The Guardian; and “Neurosexism: the myth that men and women have different brains“, reviewed by Lise Eliot for Nature.

The reviews highlight the work of cognitive neuroscientist Gina Rippon in her new book The Gendered Brain, who combs the evidence from brain research and finds that despite there being a broad “understanding” that women and men have differently-built and wired brains, there is no evidence whatsoever that is true.

“Modern neuroscientists have identified no decisive, category-defining differences between the brains of men and women”, says Eliot in her review.

That myth is everywhere, even on that panel back in 2016. I can’t wait to read the book, but the reviews themselves confirmed what I’d always felt was right.

Rippon use the great term “neurosexism” – as Eliot says: “The history of sex-difference research is rife with innumeracy, misinterpretation, publication bias, weak statistical power, inadequate controls and worse.”

Rippon’s research is clear that boys and girls don’t have different brains, but from birth (and even before) they are soaked in cultural approaches to gender which inform how boys and girls are expected to act. Blue for boys, pink for girls, and then far more insidiously and invisibly from then on.

What does this have to do with advocacy for men in early education? For me, it means that the fundamental question remains unanswered. What do men bring specifically to a centre that women can’t?

The answer can no longer be that “men have different brains, and therefore bring different approaches”. Is there anything we can do that women can’t do as well? We need to be very careful that in advocating for men, we don’t by default make the argument that we are filling in gaps in practice that women can’t do.

The best argument is of course that diversity in all its forms is good, full stop. But having said that, why isn’t there a proliferation of “Chinese Educators in Early Education” Groups, or “Bangladeshi Educators in Early Education”? I don’t see a formal group for “Intersex Educators in Early Education”. If diversity is important, why are “Men in Early Education” groups privileged?

Men are, of course, used to being privileged, which probably provides at least some of the answer.

In some ways this all comes down to semantics, and it’s at this point of the conversation that I lose or frustrate many who read it (mostly men). Of course I think the 97% – 3% split in gender in the early education profession is ridiculous, and I want that to change. I don’t think advocacy groups are bad.

Where I differ is that many see the statistics as an injustice against men and themselves, while I see it as part of the broader injustice faced by women.

My earlier blog post goes into a lot more detail, but in summary the reason there are so few men in the sector is the sector has been feminised by our society, which means low pay, law status and low professional recognition.

Does anyone seriously think if the role of early education was seen as critically important and serious work, paid incredibly well and with a huge amount of social status, men wouldn’t suddenly come running, applications and resumes in hand?

This is where I disagree with many, and will continue to do so. I’d like to see more men in the sector, but not because they offer something that women can’t or don’t. I’d like to see more men in the sector because it would mean society is finally valuing the work of early education, and other sectors like it. Sectors that were left to low-paying women to undertake for ages because “they’re just better at caring and empathy”.

More men in the sector means we’re breaking down those stupid, sexist attitudes and barriers. And this is why my advocacy in this area is around systemic sexism and inequity for women.

It comes down to this. It’s fact that the only differences in women and men’s brains are culturally-imposed. We’ve made them up, and then soaked children in them from their very first breath. At a biological level, men are no better or worse as early childhood educators and teachers than women. We’re not making up for a defecit, or offering anything that can’t done by someone else.

What we do have is the strongest, most privileged positions in our culture. We can play a huge part in that broader societal change. That’s the true advocacy for all professionals working in early education. That’s what I will continue to commit myself to.

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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