It is essential for children to have both men and women working together in their care and education. Men have something to offer that is different to what females have to offer. Both men and women together can make fundamental contributions to the care and education of young children.
However, there is still a long way to go to increase the numbers of men in early childhood education. This requires acceptance within early childhood services of the vital role of male staff, preventing men’s professional isolation, encouraging and supporting males to enter and stay in the field, and enhancing the early childhood profession as a whole.
So what are the challenges, and what can be done?
Challenges for employers
There are some challenges for employers in encouraging acceptance. When families (who are engaged in a partnership with the service) express fear or negative attitudes towards male workers the employer may come to the view that to employ a male is fraught with too many difficulties.
Some female workers also still view the field as a “women’s place”, and so employing a male in an all female staff team can present difficulties. There are two sides to this challenge for employers. The male worker could receive well-intentioned and protective behaviour from their women colleagues, therefore not allowing him to develop professionally to grow into a respected team member. On the other hand, a male worker in this environment could be ostracised and made to feel isolated, therefore causing frustration and perhaps his resignation.
To encourage acceptance employers can examine their policies and practices to ensure the service is male-friendly. Included in these considerations are a service’s attitude towards male educators, the environment, the communication methods the service uses (including advertising for new staff) and what is in place to help men feel comfortable.
Men as potential employees
Working or studying in isolation from other men is a difficult situation to be placed in, as a male. It has been found that males can be made to feel invisible or unimportant through social, physical or professional isolation. Compounding this isolation is the apathy in the profession towards males and their concerns. This is especially true when considering the barriers to involvement, for example the fear of being branded a child abuser.
Another real challenge is the status of the profession. Entering the early childhood profession often means accepting low pay, low prestige job. This is a problem for all educators, but if a male worker has a family and is in a breadwinner role, then in most cases his wage would not be sufficient to support a family. There is a challenge here to weigh up the sustainability of earning less than in other careers.
Many men also have to deal with the attitude that males are seen as “transient” workers. It has been found that men are viewed as wanting to use the early childhood area as a stepping-stone to other careers so therefore their commitment is questioned. There is some general resentment that men will aim only to go into a management role.
Once a male educator has started working in the profession it also takes a great deal of experience and support for a male educator to interact with children within his own particular male identity. The environment in early childhood services is female dominated, so men may suffer conflict and stress when they try to live up to the expectations of playing this role.
Educators / training institutions
Educators and training institutions wanting to engage men can develop an explicit approach through advertising materials and course information that specifically targets men as potential students.
Teaching staff can also make sure that when a male is in a course, often by himself or with one other, that the female students are not given the impression that the male students receive preferential treatment.
To further support a male student, it is important to consider adapting course materials to take into account learning styles of male students and also the male perspective on children and families. Seeking mentoring opportunities can also help to decrease the isolation of male students by placing them with experienced male workers on practical placements.
Challenges for policy makers
There are significant challenges for policy makers in supporting greater support for men in the early childhood field.
Recruitment or employment policy strategies have traditionally been geared towards groups that are under-represented in the broader labour market, including people with a disability, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders and women.
The early childhood workforce is facing very high turnover rates with shortages of staff. There are policies in place that aim to increase the number and diversity of potential recruits, but men are not specifically mentioned within the documents, despite the opportunities.
Previous attempts to actively recruit and support men into teaching, including scholarships, have been met with claims of inequity towards women. Nonetheless there is a strong case for the early childhood sector to ensure that males are better represented. This will not only help address the gender pay gap, but improve equity for all.
The challenges outlined above are vast, but with courage not impossible to address – and ultimately good for children.