The most recent figures from the Australian Productivity Commission put the percentage of male educators working in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector at 3 per cent.
This is obviously an incredibly small amount, and is similar to other countries around the world. Why do so few men choose to work in early education?
There is no one simple answer to this question. Working with young children has traditionally been seen in society as a women’s role. The “traditional” roles of men and women were as “breadwinners” and “nurturers” respectively.
As child care and early education developed in Australia, there was a common societal understanding that the work would be performed primarily by women.
But as gender attitudes and preconceptions change, this is increasingly seen as the wrong way to look at the roles of men and women in early education.
Women have, and still are, fighting the battle to be seen as equally able to have a successful career and take powerful leadership roles in the business community.
This means that expectations around fathers have also slowly changed. Men can now expect to share the work of raising children, where once it was solely the women’s domain.
This cultural shift does not seem to have extended to early education though. The low percentage of male educators is evidence that the profession is still regarded in society as women’s work.
This, when combined with a national shortage of qualified educators and high rates of turnover, constitutes a serious problem for the ECEC sector.
Low wages and lack of professional recognition are a problem for all educators, male and female. The low wage is often given as a significant reason for the inability to recruit male educators. While this is certainly a factor, it is surely not the only reason.
The underlying problem lies in the perception of the work. When it is seen primarily as women’s work, men who choose to begin a career in ECEC can be viewed with suspicion by families and even by fellow educators.
Paul Sargent, a US-based education researcher, has collected many stories of male educators suffering prejudice and suspicion. He notes that even if they manage to avoid the worst of this, they are often expected to perform their roles in particularly “masculine” ways – for instance, focusing on outdoor play and physical development activities.
This can be problematic for men who work with children in different ways, such as being nurturing and caring. Men who act outside “the way men should act” are likely to be viewed as “different”, if not viewed with outright suspicion.
Anecdotally however, there are many examples of services wishing for more male educators. They are often described as a bringing a different perspective to the work environment, particularly among teams that have always been completely staffed by women.
Research has also shown that positive male role models in the early years can deliver benefits to children and families in disadvantage.
Yet this has not translated into higher numbers of men entering the ECEC sector as educators and teachers.
With the staffing crisis currently in evidence around the country, it is clear that breaking down the barriers to men choosing a career in the sector can only be of positive benefit to ECEC centres.
If the percentage could be raised even slightly, to 10 or 15 per cent, this would constitute a large number of new educators and teachers working with children.
So what can ECEC organisations, managers and directors do to encourage more men to apply for one of the vacancies in their centres?
A good place to start is in the centre itself. How are male role models portrayed in your learning environments? Is there evidence of fathers and male teachers and educators positively engaging in the lives of children? Do men feel welcomed into your space?
Make a decision to include a positive male image in all centre marketing and published materials. This works to reinforce in the minds of potential applicants that they have a place in your organisation. It also actively counteracts negative and damaging prejudices in society about men working with young children.
A great example of this is with the NSW-based organisation Big Fat Smile, which clearly sets out in its marketing that men are encouraged to work in their ECEC centres. This is a very inclusive approach to marketing a career in the sector.
Get involved with local schools, colleges and careers fairs and talk to young men about the rewarding career opportunities that come from working in ECEC.
Include positive stories from men already working in your organisation in newsletters and updates to families and the wider community.
Retaining men in the sector is just as important as recruitment, so it is important that men (as with all educators) are supported during induction and probation periods.
Issues that may arise with families (usually in the Infants rooms) need to be sensitively and respectfully managed. Leaders in the ECEC organisation need to take a proactive role in working with families to challenge bias and prejudice, and not simply move a male educator out of an Infants room.
It is also important that organisations, leaders and educators reflect on diverse ways of working with children, and ensure that men feel comfortable teaching and educating children in a way that works for them.
This is also important to share with children. The Early Years Learning Framework encourages us to work with children on challenging gender bias and assumptions. We need to remind children that boys can play with dolls, and girls can engage in construction activities (to use two simple examples).
Breaking down gender stereotypes with young children can give them a positive attitude to their own potential and those of their peers, and work to change the broader views of society.
Just as we are still working to embed the idea in society that girls can grow up to be and do anything they choose, in ECEC settings we need to see organisations demonstrating and advocating that teaching and educating is not “women’s work”, but a rewarding profession for all.
This article was originally published April 16 2013 on the website careforkids.com.au.