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A recently-published book by David Wright and Simon Brownhill, entitled “Men in Early Years Settings: Building a Mixed Gender Workforce” has highlighted the problem of the gender imbalance in the early years workforce.

In the UK, nursery staff are predominantly female: less than 2% are male, despite 84% of parents saying they wanted to see childcare settings employing male workers.

International experience suggests that change is possible, although each country has its own cultural, work and social differences. In 2005, Denmark had the greatest percentage of male childcare workers at 8%. However, in Norway in 2008, their figure had risen to 10% (up from 3%). In addition, Norway was able to increase the proportion of kindergartens with at least one male teacher from 16% to 22% due to a legal responsibility to increase men employed in pre-schools.

Benefits

There are many benefits to encouraging more men to work in early years settings, including:

  • A more diverse workforce which better reflects our society at large, creating positive male role models. This is especially important if a child’s own father is absent. Research suggests that significant contact time with a male adult was lacking in 17% of children from lone-parent families, who experienced less than two hours a week. And one third had under six hours a week, so men in early years settings are vital in redressing this balance
  • A larger pool of male applicants to recruit staff from
  • A reduction in the attainment gap between boys and girls aged 16. Although more research is needed, it would seem logical to assume that more positive male role models at all stages of a child’s education, would be helpful
  • Children can benefit from the different approaches and caring styles that men can bring, including challenging behaviour, and risk-taking
  • Men can often bring more active movement, or ‘rough-and-tumble’ play in their interaction with children which can be positive
  • Male practitioners can help challenge stereotypes related to professions, household duties, toys and activities. If children see men in different roles in their childcare and educational settings, these roles can be accepted more readily by society at large.

Barriers to entry

Despite these advantages, statistics prove there are still many barriers preventing men from working in nurseries including:

  • A prevailing attitude that caring for the young is ‘women’s work’, despite improvements in men sharing childcare duties for their own children
  • Men can feel unwelcome in a predominantly female environment
  • Men can still be viewed with suspicion in early years settings or face an uphill struggle to challenge stereotypes
  • Negative generalisations about men – such as ‘men don’t talk much’ or ‘men always play rough’ or ‘men are not as emotionally-connected as women’
  • Low wages and the perceived lack of career opportunities or progression.

What can be done?

Solutions for tackling the problem are needed at both government and local levels.

In 2012, the UK Government published targets for increasing the number of men working in childcare settings, saying they wanted “a greater gender balance in the early years workforce.”

In 2017, the Department of Education also published the “Early Years Workforce Strategy” setting out “how the department plans to support the early years sector to remove barriers to attracting, retaining and developing the early years workforce.” It identified the problem of gender balance, and whilst the results of this strategy have yet to be realised, things are moving in the right direction.

The recent book by Wright and Brownhill, is one step forward offering guidance on attracting, recruiting, retaining and developing male members of staff.

Suggested ways to tackle the problem

  1. A strategic approach. Settings could come together to create a steering group to offer advice and direction. These groups should commit to action rather than just talking though. Other ways include creating networks to support male staff. The Fatherhood Institute ran a campaign to attract more men into the sector and in 2016, held the first conference concerning men in early years settings.
  2. Review educational courses. Training courses need to ensure that they are relevant and supportive for male trainees and that obstacles to recruitment are overcome.
  3. Improved career advice. Careers advice is compulsory in schools so adequate provision should be made to ensure that jobs showing males working in early education and childcare, are shown as fulfilling, challenging, and rewarding careers with good career prospects.
  4. The use of male staff in adverts and posters. Images used to advertise roles for permanent or volunteer staff in early years settings, should include both male and female staff.
  5. Retainment of male staff. Recruiting male staff is only part of the problem. Settings need to ensure ongoing support and practices that tackle pressures, prejudices or isolation felt by male staff.
  6. Reduced stereotyping. This means tackling the often ingrained, unspoken ideas that men are particularly ‘dangerous’ or ‘undesirable’ in early years settings.

In a joint statement promoting their new book, the authors said: “The thinking behind “Men in Early Years Settings: Building a Mixed Gender Workforce” is to keep children at the centre of the discourse.”

Accordingly, the authors underline the principle of ‘the best person for the job’ rather than employing anyone based purely on their gender.

Expectations, fears, perceptions and pressures to conform to stereotypes are all discussed in the book. The authors conducted empirical research, analysing examples of settings where mixed-gender teams exist that help to illustrate key characteristics of successful organisations.

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