I'm obsessed with lager, football, and bacon sandwiches, and need coaxing with at least one of the above to take an active interest in anything.
In fact, none of that is true, but as one of the 2 per cent of male employees within a large chain of nurseries it’s held as an axiomatic and firmly-held perception by my many female colleagues. There are well-rehearsed disadvantages faced by boys in the early years of their education attributable to the female-dominated environment in which they find themselves. Nursery World in recent weeks has even included a contribution from a female practitioner describing boys as ‘disruptive’. ‘Disruptive of what?, asked a male practitioner subsequently. The chain makes frequent public exhortations to include more men in early years teaching – yet the anti-male views within the organisation are, in reality, pervasive and deeply held.
‘The problem we have is that you’re male,’ confided an experienced, and exceptionally hostile, female colleague recently. ‘No offence, but you think and behave in a very male way.’ No, I certainly don’t take offence at being described as male, but it is interesting to contemplate the hoo-ha that would ensue if the protagonists had been reversed.
Recent news from the Teaching Agency, that the rate of men starting a career in primary teaching was growing at five times the rate of women, is welcome from the point of view of more male role models – who are less likely to see ‘boyish’ behaviour as bad behaviour – but, if the early years sector is anything to go by, they will find scant welcome from their female colleagues.
NASTY OR JUST A BIT SUSPECT?
‘All the men we employ in settings have something wrong with them,’ opined a different senior female colleague in a meeting. Matters of workplace sex discrimination are well aired, and enshrined in employment law. But, as far as the early years educational sector seems to be concerned, that’s all about discrimination carried out by men, against women; in reverse, it’s ‘anything goes’. Conversations which would result in females in, say, engineering or construction reaching for the phone to contact HR on the grounds of discrimination seem to be par for the course in an environment dominated by women. In the same way that the ‘Mums' Mafia’ can close ranks and exclude men in the playground at either end of the school day, so groups of women in the workplace can operate to ‘shut out’ or generate hostility towards a male interloper.
The pre-formed opinions about male colleagues are flexible enough to be adapted to the circumstances, and can morph from the ‘nasty man’ stereotype, to the ‘bit suspect, must be effeminate’, to ‘DIY and computing expert’, through to ‘justifiable target’. Certainly the hostility and aggression I have encountered in some quarters would be considered completely unacceptable if carried out on a male to female basis; no less acceptable if female to female; but perfectly in order if female to male.
‘Look at that pink tie! Does that mean something, then? Eh? What are we to draw from that, then? A female colleague trilled during a dozen-strong formal meeting. ‘You never can tell, can you? You never can tell!’ Very amusing, unless a female in a traditionally male-dominated environment were to be asked if she’s a lesbian – which would undoubtedly result in serious repercussions.
At a Christmas lunch a couple of years ago another female, finding herself seated next to myself and another male colleague, pointedly got up before the food was served and moved to the all-female far end of the table. And if you take offence – well, you’re a rather weak specimen, aren’t you? Take it on the chin, man!
Being expected to assemble office furniture, move desks around, or to welcome being handed the office toolkit, are taken as read. The 1950s stereotype of the woman who’s expert at knitting, sewing, and domestic matters is long gone, and today conjures scornful smiles. Asking the (male) office manager for help with a problem laptop, on the other hand, reflects a similar fixed image: ‘Well, it is unusual for a man not to know about IT....’
The stereotyping extends to the organisation’s dealings with the fathers of the children it serves. Attempts to involve the alien species almost invariably include the ubiquitous football, pubs, or bacon sandwiches. A bit like trying to attract the interest of mothers through soap operas, shopping, and dry white wine – a touch patronising?
An emotionally-driven female line manager has shown exemplary skill in switching between preconceptions as circumstances demand. The pre-formed initial conclusion on her arrival was that I must lack the intellectual rigour to carry out the job. ‘We really do need to employ a graduate to do this sort of thing,’ she explained publicly. ‘That sort of calibre.’ That changed abruptly at an organisational restructure, when she realised that I have extensive postgraduate qualifications; it meant that, on the plus side, she no longer hovered discreetly to see that I was capable of setting the alarm when locking up the building, but the downside was that another stereotype swept in instead; I became the ‘nasty man’.
‘Well, even so do you think it’s right to upset Brenda? Well, do you?’ Brenda richly deserved taking to task; there are times when managing staff means saying things which people don’t want to hear, or challenging the way things are done – or are not done. But my emotional friend was convinced that the issues, or the facts, were irrelevant. What really mattered was that the ‘vulnerable’ females needed protecting from the ‘nasty man’ unleashed upon them. After it became apparent that she was privately speaking in support to a female direct report whose behaviour was appalling, and offering her advance sympathy, I deliberately opted not to manage female direct reports where any contentious matters were involved – the outcome would immediately be that I was ‘in the wrong’.
Accordingly, staff, and sometimes critical situations, remained effectively unmanaged. Some habitually vociferous and domineering behaviour from female colleagues is accepted unblinkingly, presumably being perceived as laudably assertive. Woe betide the man who expresses a contrary view, that’s simply being offensive.
THE TOKEN MALE
In a number of meetings, I have been introduced to others as ‘the token male’, albeit in a tongue in cheek sense. So how does the token male fare? With difficulty, I’m afraid. I was taken aback at a recent conference to be rounded on abrasively by the (external) female speaker while relaying some innocuous feedback from an all-female ‘group exercise’. The sudden contempt and vitriol can only have been triggered by being male, and hence a justifiable target – to the extent that even shocked female colleagues chipped in, in my defence.
When first appointed, my (then) male line manager offered some sage advice about women in business meetings. ‘They chit-chat about non-work issues, with no structure, and you start to zone out...then, when you start listening again, you realise they’ve seamlessly moved on, and made some sort of decision without you being aware of it.’
A female-dominated meeting is certainly something to behold, and not particularly comfortable for the male of the species. High-pitched feminised shrieks of greeting precede it, inflecting upwards – ‘Oooh Stacey, how are yoooouuuu?’ A puzzling amount of pre-meeting walking about and excitable projecting is accompanied by high-volume announcements – ‘Cakes are in the kitch-uunnnn!’ Business meetings tend to follow a ‘coffee morning’ format; a prolonged, unstructured ‘natter’, with several participants talking at once, interrupting and talking over one another at will, and, seemingly, never drawing for breath. When spotting a potential gap to speak, the female ability to seamlessly ‘get in first’, without inhalation, leaves male colleagues poised, open-mouthed, yet silent. Decisions are made on a consensus of emotional gut feeling, with no form or logicality.
The great irony is that the organisation continues to bemoan publicly the lack of men working in the early years educational sector, and to profess bafflement at the causes. Only this Summer the Independent Police Commission has published a study on the pressures supposedly on women in the police service, with the Association of Chief Police Officers sympathetically commenting on the need to make women more comfortable in the workplace. The truth is that in educational environments it can be men who are as welcome as a dose of piles; berated, frozen out, or colluded against – and, once recruited, perceived as ‘odd’ or ‘out of place’. In many ways, it’s still a woman’s world, you know.