In many respects, our attitudes regarding diversity, equal opportunities and social mobility have progressed in recent decades but we know that there is still a long way to go to achieve a more equitable and integrated society.
Through our culture, the values and expectations we hold in common, we still maintain entrenched stereotypes when it comes to certain roles which we associate with gender. 'Childcare' is one such profession which continues to be perceived as 'women’s work'.
Despite attempts to professionalise our sector in recent years, our increasing knowledge of neuroscience and the fundamental importance of early childhood development and the explicit rebranding of what we do as early years teaching, cultural mores continue to present barriers to entry for men. The proportion of males employed in the UK early years workforce persists at less than two per cent.
The fact is that children aged up to 11 years in the UK are most likely to be cared for and educated by females. 25 per cent of our primary schools have no men in them at all. In general, not only are men unaware of early years as a viable career option, often they are actively dissuaded from pursuing it by relatives, teachers, peers and advisors.
For those who are brave enough to enlist on an early years course or to decide to work in the sector, it can be a challenging and sometimes lonely experience not only being a minority within a predominantly female world but also having to handle the views of others – colleagues, friends, relatives, parents of children under their care etc. Their motives, character and ‘masculinity’ can be called into question. Men are not rushing into the early years workforce.
So what? Should we be concerned by this or content with the status quo? Does it make a difference to children to be cared for and educated by both men and women? It is an interesting debate. Often times the notion of role-modelling is mentioned – children lacking a male role model, especially boys. But are we clear what we mean by a male role model?
Is this not just maintaining stereotypes? – our single image of what the male character represents, maybe the blokey-bloke who likes rough and tumble, sport, cars, beer, being outside, lifting heavy things down from shelves etc., as opposed to our view of the female role model which presumably matches none of these things? This is patently absurd.
Much continues to be written, researched and debated about gender with no absolute conclusions. What is evident is that there is a continuum of character attributes many of which are not gender specific. It is precisely this rich spectrum, which offers the potential for a wide range of interactions and experiences to be manifest where diversity exists within the group and this must be true for early years teaching. My maxim is that ‘Boys and Girls need Men and Women’.
Through the effective social exclusion of men from the workforce, we are denying children the opportunity to experience the wider opportunities available through a diverse spectrum of character types encompassing both male and female characteristics. This reduces our chances of meeting all children’s needs and arguably improving outcomes for individuals.
The vast majority of parents, when questioned express a desire for their children to be cared for by men and women. It is disappointing that the level of men working in Early Years is still so low but I am optimistic that things will change. There are many positive and good stories to tell from those men who already success in their Early Years careers, making a difference in the lives of children.
A more equal balance of men and women in the UK early years workforce would change our views of how children are cared for. It would create a more equitable and integrated society reflecting a culture of equal opportunity. We have the opportunity to do this and to act as a model for the rest of the world. It would demonstrate leadership, equality and inclusion to others at a time when the world is struggling with issues of subjugation, violence and separation. Britain could and should lead the world.
It is time for more men to join us. On 13 February the first-ever UK national Men in Early Years conference is being held in Southampton with more than 100 delegates coming together to hear from experts and practitioners and to promote the issue of the lack of diversity in our workforce. We will be countering some of the negative media portrayal of men, with positive stories.
We are calling on our Government to recognise the challenge we face in recruiting more men, to implement a policy that defines an explicit target for the proportion of men in the workforce and to work with us to achieve it.