“We’re not looking for men to come in to save the day,” David Wright tells TEY, “but they have different character types, and that’s what we’re missing out on…”
The issue of men in early years – or, rather, the lack of them – is nothing new. It’s existed for as long as TEY has, certainly (read nursery manager David Steven’s article for some of our earliest coverage).
Despite the work of organisations such as the London Early Years Foundation, which published its insightful Men in Childcare report way back in 2012, and the likes of Kathy Brodie, whose podcast of the same name featured some fantastic role models for men considering a career in the sector, moving beyond the oft-quoted 2% figure for male involvement remains an uphill struggle.
So why is this, why does it matter, and what can early years settings do to help change the status quo?
David Wright, an early years teacher and director of Paint Pot Nurseries, is another high-profile advocate for raising the proportion of men working in childcare, having, to date, led two national conferences on the subject, represented men in childcare on the World Forum and co-authored, with Simon Brownhill, Men in Early Years Settings (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £18.99).
When asked to identify the barriers preventing an uptick in the number of male practitioners, he points first and foremost to our prevailing cultural beliefs.
“As a nation,” he explains, “we don’t believe that early years is an appropriate job for men – the typical phrase that’s used is ‘this is women’s work’, and it’s to do with our notions of femininity, of maternal instincts, of caring and nurturing, and of men being the breadwinners, going out to work while the women provide the domestic support. Associated with that is the fact it’s therefore a ‘low-status’ role, and so is poorly paid. So in the traditional view of a family in which the man is the main breadwinner, men can’t afford to work in our sector.”
These ingrained beliefs and the financial realities, David says, result both in few men applying for early years roles and few nurseries actively seeking to recruit them.
It’s a combination that’s challenging to overcome – and it’s made even harder by the resistance to male practitioners expressed by some parents, and the shock headlines that occasionally appear in the media.
It would be pointless to pretend that such hurdles don’t exist, but there are compelling reasons to try to leap them. For David, it’s foremost an issue of gender diversity.
“The people who are educating and caring for young children should reflect the society those children are living in and being brought up in,” he argues.
“It’s a non-representative workforce where the vast majority are female. It isn’t that men bring something that women can’t do – one stereotype is that all men are outdoorsy types and into football, and that isn’t true; there are equally lots of women who like football and being outdoors, and lots of men who don’t. But if all you’re experiencing as a child is women, you’re not getting the opportunity to interact with men.”
Such a state of affairs can have lasting implications for children’s development, given that 85% of the neural pathways in growing brains are formed in the early years.
“If children are not coming into contact with men, then they’re not going to be creating their own mental map of what a relationship with a man looks like,” David says.
“Maybe they’re being raised in a single-parent family, maybe their only experience of men is that they’re absent or abusive – my point is that they should be coming into contact with caring, empathetic, funny, supportive men while at nursery; learning how to create healthy and good relationships with them, as well as with women; and seeing role models of men and women working together in a professional capacity.”
There’s evidence, too, that men and women interact with children in subtly different and complementary ways.
“Women tend to be more nurturing and more protective of children while men can be more supportive of children developing their independence,” David explains.
“A balance of those two things provides for a better experience for children in terms of what activities are laid on for them, the types of interactions they have, and the language that they use.”
For settings, recruiting men can be easier said than done. Paint Pots Nurseries employs six men at present, David tells us, but admits that few apply for advertised positions. It’s true, too, that nursery owners and managers must always remain conscious of parents’ feelings.
“I’ve had incidences where someone has said to us, ‘I don’t want a man to change my child’s nappy’, particularly in the case of young girls,” David says.
“What you tend to find, though, is when people know the individual and have built a trusting relationship with them, the issue goes away – because it’s not any man, it’s Paul or John who’s working with my child, and my child thinks he’s a superhero and he’s okay.”
But David has no doubt that it’s worth persevering and putting the effort in, for all the reasons above and more.
“If you look at the general issues we’ve got over recruitment in early years at the moment, there’s an opportunity there, an untapped resource,” he says.
“It’s just a case of selling that to men. My view is that we should move away from job descriptions such ‘childcarers’ or ‘nursery nurses’, both of which have female connotations, and create a professional identity for early years teachers, both men and women.”
1 | Take action
“Put yourself out there as an ‘equal opportunities employer’, and build that culture within your organisation. It must come from the top – have the conversation with your team, talk to parents and actively pursue it; things won’t change unless people take action. Ask local schools and colleges to send you boys in work opportunity situations who they think might be suitable.”
2 | Reach out
“Ensure your advertising states that you’re looking for applications from men as well as women. Under equal opportunities legislation it’s possible to positively discriminate to get more men because they’re an underrepresented group. You’ve got to be cautious about the way you word these things – we tend to say, ‘Open to men and women’.”
3 | Be welcoming
“Think about the imagery you put out. Images of men already working in your organisation will make it more attractive to others who might want to apply. Also, consider what sort of reception applicants get when visiting your setting – does it look like somewhere men will be welcomed? It can be challenging for a man to come into a setting if everyone that works there is female.”
Men in Early Years Settings is available now.
Follow David on Twitter at @Mr_PaintPots.