Recent figures show that there is still a large gender gap in recruitment to the teaching profession – only 38% of secondary school teachers are male, and 26% in primaries. In preschools – or nursery – it’s even worse. Here, men make up just 2% of the workforce.
This gender divide can be found all across the globe, and not just in the UK. We even see it in Scandinavian countries which have made gender equality a national priority. In Norway, for example, there has been an ambitious target set to try and have 20% of men working in childcare, with 10% achieved in 2008. But that figure is now falling. The reasons for this are unclear but are likely to be due to persisting and deeply held gendered attitudes.
But to understand what we can learn from the men who do make this unusual career choice, I have been undertaking research in Swedish and UK nurseries. I have also been listening to their ideas about what puts most men off.
I was particularly struck by the story of Craig, an experienced nursery classroom leader in England, who was forced to relocate to a new town.
I used to live in quite a rough area. It wasn’t seen as a manly thing to do. I lost contact with my partner at the time because it wasn’t a socially admired job, and her friends would take the mick. I lost contact with my dad who would have nothing to do with me and questioned my sexuality. It’s one of the biggest reasons I moved away.
When it comes to nursery work, men may also have to confront suspicion from children’s parents about their motives, working hard to establish trust and demonstrate that they are not dangerous to children. Sometimes we get a sharp reminder about society’s strong prejudices against men doing what’s seen as “women’s work”.
And it’s not as if these disincentives are compensated for by a good salary either. Starter salaries for nursery workers are £10,000 to £14,000. So given these economic and emotional obstacles, why would any man choose a career caring for young children?
Everyone as equal
A good place to find the answer is a rather unusual English nursery called Oaktrees. It employs five men who work with the three- to four-year-olds, and the two- to three-year-olds. The men I spoke to at this nursery expressed a tremendous enthusiasm for their work and described their pleasure in “making a difference” to children’s lives and witnessing their development.
It was clear their presence was especially helpful in engaging more fathers to come into the nursery and talk with staff. And parents were appreciative of the gender balanced workforce – pointing out that this represents wider society. They also liked how it helps children to understand that “both genders can be carers” and that “everyone is equal in terms of the jobs they can grow up and do”.
The nursery’s management also gave strong support to the male practitioners – and occasionally they had to intervene and explain to suspicious parents the men’s rights and abilities to take on intimate care jobs such as nappy changing.
The men thought they had particular value in helping children engage in outdoor activities and take risks in adventurous play on climbing frames and balancing beams – as they felt their female colleagues were more cautious. However, most of the female staff I spoke to insisted that men did not bring any extra special contribution to the job – but they did very much appreciate the high morale of the gender balanced staff team.
In this way, the men’s presence created a unique opportunity to challenge children’s gender stereotypical ideas. And occasionally the men made a deliberate choice to wear pink, put on a Tutu, or let children plait their hair.
However, they made an interesting contrast with the Swedish male preschool teachers that I interviewed in an earlier study. The Swedish men were much more sensitive to gender issues, and had received training on this. They were more conscious about the need to counteract young children’s gender stereotypes because it is clearly stated in their early years’ national curriculum.
What all this research shows is that the gender gap does matter. We need to recruit, train and retain more men to care for and educate our youngest children. Because this is one easy way to break down gender stereotypes and work towards a more gender equal society.