What stops early years employers recruiting men?

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.

A Welsh perspective on GenderEYE

In April 2019 our lead researcher, Dr Joann Wilkinson, spoke at an event organised by Mudiad Meithrin; a voluntary organisation which provides Welsh-medium early years care and education. Here is her blog about the event.

Mudiad Meithrin, which translates as ‘nursery organisation’, aims to give every young child in Wales the opportunity to benefit from early years care and education experiences through the medium of Welsh.

Although Mudiad Meithrin has a small number of its own nurseries, it has a key role in providing support and guidance to the 500 Cylchoedd Meithrin (Welsh-medium playgroups) located throughout Wales. These groups are often set up by parents looking for reliable, good quality childcare for children from two years of age.  The Welsh-medium playgroups are assisted by Supporting Officers, who are located in each county and offer guidance and practical advice to staff, volunteers and parents at each setting.

What is particularly interesting about the Cylchoedd Meithrin is that although the children who attend learn through the medium of Welsh, the majority of their parents/carers are non-Welsh speaking. Furthermore, many of the children are learning other languages at home such as Arabic, Somali or Urdu.

The event I attended was Mudiad Meithrin’s annual conference and took place at Gregynog, a beautiful historic house in rural Montgomeryshire.The speakers addressed a range of important themes within early years education including mental health and intergenerational play – as well as, through my own talk, the recruitment of men in early years.

Mudiad Meithrin hopes to create opportunities within and beyond its own organisation, to challenge gender stereotypes and support more gender-diverse early years environments. We look forward to reading more about their work in the future!

What’s the one question you most want to answer through the GenderEYE study?

For me it’s the question of what is the value of mixed-gender workforces. I know there are a lot of questions in our study – why aren’t men taking up this career, what are the obstacles that stand in the way of progress and so on. But for me the bigger picture is to get a better sense of the benefits of a more fluid workforce.

I want us to get a better understanding of the benefits of having different genders working together. There seems to be a focus on achieving a 50/50 male/female workforce, or on men filling a gap, but I think there are lots of gaps filled by lots of different men and women. By answering this question, the study will allow us to bring in more diversity. I think it’s about moving the emphasis away from equality, and more towards diversity.


How have you chosen the case study sites?

We’ve got our four designated research hubs (London, Southampton, Bristol and Bradford), so that defines where we’re working. We will produce two case studies in each area. We are trying to get a range of settings – some with a high number of men, some with just one man, and perhaps some with 3-4 men.

Sometimes settings say they have a high number of male staff, but in fact they don’t have many working full-time and/or on the payroll – or the men in question might not be working directly with children. They might have a male chef or people volunteering, for example.

There are other criteria too. We want some individual settings, and some that are part of a larger nursery chain. We would like some to be in more affluent areas, and some in more socio-economically deprived locations; some urban, some rural. It would be interesting to think about cultural differences, so things like having high numbers of different languages spoken.

We want to see whether different areas might react differently to having male practitioners, and what kind of influence the local culture has on recruitment. Are people in some areas more receptive to early years practitioners from diverse backgrounds, for example, and how does that play out with respect to gender? In more affluent areas are men doing more fathering, and does that make the families more receptive to male staff?

The aim of the case studies is really to look at what conditions make a mixed/diverse workforce work well. Even if there are only small numbers of men, what is it that makes things gel, and allows the mixed-gender debate to take place? We spoke to one woman who told us that in her previous setting, female staff had to wear pink shirts and men blue, and there was no dialogue about gender. Now she works in a setting where staff can talk about it, and that’s important as a basis for change.


What are the key factors in producing a successful case study, in a study like this?

Communication with the setting must be good. The researcher has to understand well the constraints that affect staff. The relationship rests on us defining what we’re looking for and what they can give us. It’s always a balance and a negotiation. It’s a bit fragile and needs a lot of flexibility on our part.

It’s very important to have buy-in from the manager. We’re asking quite a lot of these settings – we spend three days there and sometimes staff may need  to give up their lunchtimes, or take part in interviews after work and so on. As a general rule we do eight interviews with members of staff – 1 or 2 from management level and then the other practitioners. We also do two focus groups.

The setting needs to believe in what we’re doing, and that it’s going to make a difference to them in the long run. A couple of settings we approached to be case studies said they can’t ask their staff to give up their time. It’s a challenge.

Interestingly, settings with male staff may not always be advanced in their thinking on gender. It might be that when we come to them, our study helps them start thinking about it, and when they’re working on their own and not connected to others around this agenda, they’re ripe for these kind of connections.

Trust between the researcher and the manager and staff is also important. They’re sharing their world with me, and for some people that might be difficult. Managers have to be quite confident about what they are doing, and the potential for staff to be negative about a setting. Also, female staff might feel aggrieved that there’s this focus on men, as if they offer something  special, something women can’t. It might sound a bit naff, but we all bring something special and different, which brings us back to the focus on diversity rather than equality.


What’s the biggest ethical challenge you face?

There are two big ones.

The first is how to observe staff without them feeling uncomfortable, or changing their behaviour in any way. As a researcher I need to think when do I make my notes, for example. Should I do it at the time of observing, or afterwards – the latter makes the observation feel more natural, but then I risk not remembering something important. It’s important that the people I’m observing feel reassured that this is not about anyone picking them up for good or bad practice.

The other one is the danger of reproducing the special status of men, and devaluing the work the women do. The challenge is to make sure everyone is aware that this is a project about gender, and  about producing a better workforce. It’s also about the children,  and for me it’s about getting the people into this work who are the best at it, and most interested in it.

Men are the catalyst to moving gender diversification forward, but there is a risk of alienating the 98%. What about the women who have drifted into this sector because they are seen to be better at caring or better with children? I bet there are a few who would quite fancy doing a bit of lorry driving or learning to be a plumber!


Dr Joann Wilkinson is Research associate on the GenderEYE project. She was interviewed by Jeremy Davies.

Why do so few men work in the UK early years sector…and why should we care?

By Dr Jo Warin, Principal Investigator and Dr Jeremy Davies, Co-Investigator 

This week, just ahead of International Men’s Day (19 November) we are delighted to be launching our two-year study, GenderEYE (Gender Diversification in Early Years Education), to explore, both internationally and in the UK, how men are recruited, supported and retained (or not) in the early years education workforce.

The aims of the study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, are:

  • to identify what barriers to male recruitment there are, and how they might be overcome;
  • to consider what theories (explicit and implicit) are articulated to support, refute or undermine male recruitment;
  • to develop a workable framework to rationalise the value of including men in the workforce; and
  • to create evidence-based training and resources to strengthen efforts to make the sector more gender-diverse and gender-sensitive.

Read more about our study here.

Learning from Norway

To kick things off, we are heading to Norway – one of the most successful countries at attracting men to early childhood education, thanks in part to its national gender equality action plan, which includes a target of 20% men in the kindergarten workforce. Latest figures show they are currently at just over 10%.

A group of seven – ourselves, lead researcher Joann Wilkinson and four ‘hub leaders’ (one each from London, Bristol, Bradford and Southampton) are attending a ‘knowledge exchange event’ at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, hearing from Norwegian academics and practitioners about their achievements, challenges and plans for the future.

What we learn will help shape our 2-year collaboration with the four English hubs that are central to our research, to find out what is and isn’t working here, and whether new, more fruitful approaches might be feasible. By the end of the project we hope to be in a position to support the wider UK early years sector to progress confidently towards a more gender-diverse, gender-sensitive future, supported by an evidence-based toolkit and training package.

But…what’s the point?

But ‘why?’, you may ask: ‘what’s the point?’ There are lots of answers one might give to this question. ‘Children need more male role models’; ‘Men are better at rough and tumble’; ‘Children benefit from being exposed to complementary male and female approaches to learning’; ‘Having more men around will help the problem of boys underperforming at school’.

None of these reflect our thinking. Our interest in attracting men into the workforce is not motivated by the possibility that they might bring some idealised model of masculinity to bear on the nation’s children. Nor do we aim to improve boys’ or girls’ academic performance: that would be a great by-product of what we’re doing, but there is no evidence that having more men in the workforce would, per se, result in better educational outcomes.

Rather our motivation derives from an understanding that the children’s workforce ought to reflect the population it serves, in terms of gender as well as other ‘protected characteristics’ such as ethnicity, sexuality and disability. – and that this should bring benefits to children, parents and wider society, as well as to professionals themselves.

The sector has a long way to go. At home, mothers and fathers are sharing the care of young children more than ever before (see the Fatherhood Institute’s Cash or Carry (2018): pp36-9). There is a growing understanding that gender is constructed rather than innate, and can have a constraining effect on children’s choices (see for example Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex). Calls for a ‘de-gendering’ of young children’s toys and clothes are getting louder (see the Let Toys Be Toys campaign, for example).

Yet just 2% of the UK early years workforce is male – the same as 20 years ago; and gender-stereotypical expectations about women’s and men’s suitability as professional carers and educators of young children remain rife – and go largely unchallenged.

So we want our research to explore how the early years sector ‘does’ gender and how it might do it better: what obstacles stand in the way of men putting themselves forward for such work? Where men are employed, how is their presence used to challenge gender stereotypes, rather than to entrench them?

The theory that underpins our research – ‘gender-flexible pedagogy’ (for more on this, see Jo Warin’s book Men in Early Childcare Education & Care and/or her 2017 paper in Gender & Education) – could, we believe, help lay the foundations for the development of a more resilient, gender-savvy early years sector: one that can cope with having more men around, and hopefully help all staff, regardless of their gender, do a better job for our children.

We look forward to reporting back on our progress as the study moves forward. Look out for future blogs and updates to this website; you can also follow us on Twitter, and if you are a professional with an interest in what we’re doing, you could ask to join the GenderEYE Facebook closed group.