Christian, a preschool teacher in Tromsø, Norway, has worked in early childhood education for a decade. His entry into the profession coincided with the government’s drive to increase the recruitment of men. Christian, therefore, has always been able to find male colleagues. “I don’t think I would take a job in an all-female kindergarten. Before I apply to a new job I always check,” he said.
This is not the usual pattern. Men form around 2% of England’s early childhood workforce (childcare and early years education). That figure is under 3% in Australia and less than 5% in the US. And in a sector with so few male colleagues, men often feel unwelcome. David Brody, who conducted the first international study observing men in early childhood, said parents and supervisors in many countries are sceptical, or even vociferously opposed. Men can feel socially isolated and leave the profession altogether, he said.
One place Brody didn’t find this kind of stigma, though, was Norway. With an ethos of gender equality underlying its culture and policymaking, it’s considered normal for men to teach in early childhood, and there has been a concerted effort to recruit men. The country increased the proportion of men working in its early childhood sector from 5.7% in 2003 to around 9% today, making it the global leader. Compared to the country’s goal of 20%, though, that’s hardly gender-equal. So why do men avoid the early childhood workforce, and why does it matter for young kids?
Many people are resistant to the idea of male early childhood workers. In the UK, men face a number of gender stereotypes, argues Jeremy Davies from the Fatherhood Institute, a think-tank. He said there is an “underlying, often unspoken, acceptance of the idea that men are dangerous”. A similar hostile environment exists in the US, said Francis Wardle, a researcher on men in early childhood and instructor of teachers in Colorado. Despite working in the field for more than 30 years himself, Wardle encourages his male students to get out. “I say: ‘you don’t want to be in this field, it’s not satisfactory on any level.’”
“You don’t want to be in this field, it’s not satisfactory on any level”
Working life can therefore be isolating for the few men in the field. In any environment, Wardle said, workers need support. If you’re the only man in the program “eventually you’re going to quit,” he said, “because there’s little camaraderie and few social activities with other men.”
Meanwhile, the absence of professional recognition in early childhood also puts men off. In Norway, qualifying for kindergarten jobs requires a degree in pedagogy, and the culture places value in early years education. This is the same in other Nordic countries including Denmark, where the male proportion of workers is just below Norway’s. In other countries, though, early childhood jobs are often heavily gendered and perceived as simply mothering, as opposed to an important part of the education system.
Why does it matter?
Men in the early childhood workforce provide role models, particularly for families with a lack of male caregivers. Researchers have found that men have different interactions with children to women. In particular, male caregivers are believed to help kids explore the unfamiliar outside world.
Connected to this, having a diversity of staff creates a diversity of experience for kids, said Anne Kristin Hjukse, Director General at the Department of Kindergartens and Schools at the Norwegian education ministry. For example, men tend to be more gung-ho in helping kids take risks and learn their boundaries — something which is linked to greater resilience.
In Norway, Christian says that owners of early childhood centres are aware of this, and happy to give their male staff leeway in helping kids explore, such as by climbing trees in forests.
What can be done?
Firstly, governments can actively help the sector recruit men. In Norway, their system of positive discrimination has allowed administrators to hire men even if they are less qualified. In just five years, from 2008 to 2012, Norway was able to increase the proportion of kindergartens with at least one male teacher from 16% to 22%. Workers like Christian, therefore, have something of an edge in the labour market: “it’s easier to get a job as a childcare worker if you’re a man,” he said. And once men are employed, it is much easier to recruit more, and three times as many are recruited when the manager is a man.
Another solution is keeping men together, which may be an easier practice for other countries to adopt. In Norway, the education system has actively directed men towards certain teacher colleges in order to create a concentration, as opposed to them being alone in a class of women. With more men applying, this has become much easier: in Tromsø, Christian said, nearly one in three studying early childhood teaching are men. Students are mentored by men already working in the profession and, in the workplace, networks have been established for male staff.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, governments can work to raise the status of the profession and men within it. In Norway, Hjukse pointed to a project in Oppland County which recruited boys in secondary school to do work experience in early childhood centres. The initiative aimed to open their eyes to a possible future career in the sector, she said, and is now being tried out more broadly.
Norway, though, is far further ahead than many other countries in this battle to win over attitudes. In the UK, for example, Davies sees a workforce which is not ready for a substantial male presence. Training and resources are needed to “help the sector be welcoming to men,” he said, from educating other staff members to building networks of male workers like those seen in Norway.
Fundamentally, he said, like any other movement for gender equality, it takes time. As Norway illustrates with its significant yet modest improvements, progress is slow. You can’t expect wholesale changes within the life of a government, said Davies: “you have to chip away at it.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/US Department of Education)