Interview - Helen Perkins

Dr Perkins, senior lecturer in childhood and family studies at the University of Wolverhampton, has conducted new research with the London Early Years Foundation on children’s attitudes to gender stereotypes with Tracey Edwards.


In 2012, June O’Sullivan, chief executive of LEYF, worked on a paper about men in childcare with her dear friend Sue Chambers, who passed away recently. LEYF is very active in the Men in Childcare movement and really wants to understand more about it. Six years later we are still aware of the importance of men in childcare, but no-one seems to be sure of exactly why, except that they are good role models for boys. June wanted to find out what children think, and as this isn’t really something we had explored in our academic careers, it sounded very interesting.


We decided to use LEYF’s teachers as interviewers because ethically it was better to use people the children were familiar with. Tracey and I created pictures and questionnaires, which teachers discussed with 28 male and female children in seven LEYF nurseries. The photographs showed both boys and girls enjoying activities that might traditionally be gendered, such as construction, cooking, risky play or reading, or showed staff doing things like holding a snail, where it was not clear whether the teacher was a man or woman. The children were then asked to choose who they would like to share these activities with from a collection of photos of staff members.


We found that children don’t really care whether it is a male or female teacher who runs an activity. They are not precious about it. It was much more about whether they had a relationship with that teacher and whether they perceived that he or she was good at the activity. The level of expertise was particularly important, with children making comments like ‘he is really good at dinosaurs’, or ‘I like playing football with her because she’s good at it’. Sometimes answers did use gendered language, such as ‘she sings softly’, but for the most part, whether we asked questions about caring and nurturing or books and games, the responses were a mixture of male and female. It showed straight away that children are not making choices based on gender.


The original research found that boys often didn’t choose men for literacy activities such as reading or singing, which we tend to consider more caring and intimate. We wanted to follow up on this, and were pleased to see children chose equally on this too. Male LEYF teachers, who have worked hard on this area, were able to give examples of what they do, such as one who lies on the floor and holds a book above his head while the children all lie around him, and another who sings songs as he changes nappies. These seemed so intimate and unthreatening and made really lovely examples, which will feature in the full report.


It's important to start thinking about gender flexible pedagogies, and how we can remove bias from practice and add awareness of whether staff are perpetuating or challenging stereotypes. Some practice does still feature unconscious gender stereotyping, such as a female staff member who reported getting men to catch spiders. It is a challenge for professionals to be aware of influencing children’s expectations of gender. If children see us doing something, they will follow. It should be as normal for men to dress up or change nappies as it is for women, although we need to make sure we celebrate women doing this too. It is about everyone being seen to do everything.


We want to create a kind of audit of behaviours staff need to consider to ensure they are not reinforcing gender stereotypes through language or activities. This would be available on the LEYF and University of Wolverhampton websites.

When we talk about men in childcare we want to talk about why. We need both men and women to be role models for both boys and girls, otherwise we are limiting children’s life chances and choices.

The idea of 50 per cent of staff being male seems almost impossible at this point, but more of a balance is certainly achievable.

This is the most impressionable time of children’s lives and we must take advantage of it before they enter much more gendered environments like primary school, where the majority of teachers are female, or secondary, where they are predominantly male. Children can realise now that everything is for them.

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