New figures from the Department for Education show that most parents (79%) support the idea of male staff working in early years settings. But the reality in the settings we have interviewed for our case studies is that male staff remain a rarity, high staff turnover is a problem, and gender-diversification strategies are thin on the ground, writes Dr Joann Wilkinson.
Our early findings suggest that there are few strategies in places for this, and it is often down to individual managers invested in creating gender diverse early years teams to look for ways to recruit men. On a general level, although settings are aware of the absence of men in early years, they are unsure about how to move this forward or navigate the legal or ethical frameworks for attracting minority groups.
Support seems to be key to retaining men in early years education. This was available to practitioners through peer support, mentoring, support from managers, or external support groups. However, we have identified an element of ‘gender blindness’, as many staff felt that support should the same for all genders, arguing that male and female practitioners were no different and therefore should be treated equally. There was less acknowledgement of the gendered challenges that men in early years education face, for example, when parents disapprove of male practitioners changing their children’s nappies.
It is important therefore to consider gender when developing levels of support for practitioners. In particular, greater levels of support were required at key moments within male practitioners’ trajectories, such as when moving to a new nursery or when encountering negative reactions from parents or the general public. In these moments, external (sometimes all male) support groups, which addressed key issues around gender, were perceived to be valuable. Furthermore, such groups had an impact on individual early years settings as the practitioners that attended them continued to discuss key gender issues with their work colleagues.
Pay is often cited as a reason for male practitioners leaving the early years profession, supported by the understanding that men more frequently occupy a ‘breadwinner’ role. Our findings would suggest that although pay was a serious concern for both male and female practitioners, it did not automatically result in practitioners leaving the sector. In contrast, our findings indicated that some men who qualified as better paid primary school teachers take up positions in early years settings, accepting less pay in exchange for greater job satisfaction. Furthermore, for a number of practitioners in this study, early years emerged as a stepping stone to other careers in the care sector, such as social work. Thus, when discussing men’s early years careers and educational training, we need to consider more broadly their trajectories within caring work.
In order to create gender diverse workforces, we observed that gender-sensitive and gender-aware managers are key. In the settings with higher numbers of male practitioners, managers were aware of the challenges faced by male practitioners and initiated strategies to address these. However, not all of these actions filtered into everyday practice. Strategies for creating and supporting diverse gender teams need to be embedded in early years policies and systems. In particular, there is a need for a clear ‘gender agenda’ and the creation of spaces to discuss and explore some of the (often everyday) gender issues and concerns that arise in settings.
Finally, in relation to the value of men in early years education, it would appear that male and female practitioners are very much interchangeable in terms of the work they do, although this may vary according to interests and skills. For example, some male practitioners enjoyed outdoor activities whereas others focused more on cooking or crafts. We observed both male and female practitioners changing nappies, comforting and cuddling, and helping young children to sleep. One could ask, if male and female practitioners do the same then why all the fuss?
Importantly, the presence of male practitioners within early years education ‘de-genders’ care; it enables children to see from a very early age that care is an activity carried out by both men and women, allowing them to create and perform new scripts about the ‘roles’ of men and women in society, and ultimately about their own roles as they grow older.
A longer version of this blog appears in Discover Society here.