It’s hard to think of a profession now where it’s perfectly acceptable to suggest it’s not a suitable job for a woman. After all, there’s equality legislation and trigger-happy feminists to discourage that sort of gender prejudice.
Yet, when it comes to a flipside of that – men in childcare – it’s questionable if normal rules apply. An estimated 25,000 people work in the early childhood care and education sector in Ireland and only about one per cent is male.
Back in 1996, the European Commission Network on Childcare set a target for a male participation rate of 20 per cent by 2020. With four years to go, Ireland will be lucky to achieve a tenth of that. However, even in countries such as Norway – lauded for gender equality – only 10 per cent of kindergarten staff is male.
When David King (34) looks back at his struggle to get his first job in childcare five years ago, he believes some prospective employers could not see beyond his gender. Having completed a postgraduate diploma in Montessori, he reckons he applied for about 50 jobs and some openly told him that they would not hire a man to work with young kids.
“I got two call backs; one changed their mind before the interview and said they had hired somebody already and then I was lucky enough to be interviewed by a lady in Celbridge and she was very open to having a guy and gave me a start.”
However, it wasn’t long before his new boss got a call from another service saying “I hear you hired a guy – what’s your policy for him?”
It was symptomatic of the still persistent belief that male childcare workers pose more of a threat to children than female staff – as articulated recently by Andrea Leadsom, who was briefly in the running to be British prime minister and is now the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In the same newspaper interview, that she badly misjudged, the playing of the "mother" card against her opponent Theresa May, Leadsom also suggested it would not be "sensible" to appoint a man to look after young children in case he might be a paedophile.
"It was like somebody hit me with a plank," says Mick Kenny, chairman of the Men in Childcare Network Ireland.
“I had genuinely not heard somebody say that before.”
Describing it as “one of the most horrible fears out there”, he points out, however, that believing women would never abuse a child is a dangerous assumption to make. The policies and procedures required under the Children First Act, he points out, are there for the protection of children – and all the adults who work with them, regardless of gender.
King fears Leadsom’s comments could put off men who might have been considering a career in early childhood education because they would not want people questioning their motives. This, combined with the stereotyping of childcare as “women’s work”, discourages male participation.
“To me it is water off a duck’s back because that’s what I want to do. I am passionate about it, I’m good at it and I know it’s the job I am supposed to be in,” says King, who now works in Creative Kids in Walkinstown, Dublin. But younger men, and those contemplating a career change, may worry that people will think they are going into it for the wrong reasons or fear what “the lads” are going to say.
King’s own family and friends were “shocked” he says when, after working in retail and then doing a history degree, he opted to study for the Montessori diploma; he is now doing a Masters in Early Childhood Education. Another major obstacle to the involvement of men is the low pay which King and his wife, a Montessori teacher, are all too aware of as they raise their three children, aged four, two and one month, at home in Clane, Co Kildare.
“I would be on the upper end of the scale and it is still very difficult; I also teach adults at the College of Progressive Education at night-time. I would prefer just to work with the children and not have to supplement it that way,” he explains
The low status of the early childhood sector is undoubtedly a deterrent for both men and women, says Dr Mary Moloney, chairwoman of Pedagogy, Learning and Education (PLÉ), which is a national association of third-level institutions offering undergraduate degrees in early childhood care and education.
However, “we live in a society that is still very patriarchal – we still have this male breadwinner model,” she says. There’s no way a man working in childcare could support a family “and that is a huge concern”.
Indeed, it could be argued that, for the early years workforce, gender imbalance is the least of their problems – but the dearth of men and the sector’s low status are not unconnected. Moloney agrees there are issues for both males and females, but she believes there are more for men who “have to break a glass ceiling”.
Research has shown that in centres where there is a male working, there is a high rate of satisfaction among parents, she reports, but “in the general population there is suspicion – why would a man want to be involved?”
She sees the free pre-school education programme (the ECCE scheme), which is being expanded to up to two years from this September, as a “tremendous opportunity” to attract more men – provided it is matched by adequate State investment. An overwhelming success in terms of uptake, the scheme is now regarded as children’s first experience of education – a significant step forward from the notion that childcare is simply about “minding” children.
“We have had Síolta and we have had Aistear,” says Moloney, referring to the national quality framework and national curriculum framework respectively for children aged up to six, “but there is still this underlying thing of it’s caring for children while parents are at work”. It is through the ECCE scheme “we could break down the barriers and promote it as part of the education system – and that may be more attractive to men”.
Once men are more visible and their involvement starts to become the norm that will then filter down into the younger age group, she suggests.
However, policymakers should be promoting the recruitment of men, she says, and schools need to put out the message that early childhood care and education is a career option for males as well as females.
"We see teaching as a very worthwhile career – but do you have the same pride when your son turns around and says he wants to be a childcare worker? I don't think so," remarks Moloney. She lectures on a degree programme in early childhood education at the Mary Immaculate College in Limerick, where the intake of male students in any one year is approximately 0.5 per cent, which is replicated on similar courses in other third-level institutions.
As with pioneering women in male-dominated professions, once men get their foot in the door of childcare centres, their work speaks for itself. “One of the biggest advocates for men in childcare are the kids themselves,” says Kenny, who is manager of the Urlingford Community Childcare Centre in Co Kilkenny. While some parents’ jaws may drop at the sight of a man working in a crèche, they are usually quickly won over by the feedback from their own children.
And, of course, it is primarily for the sake of the children that many more “men who dare to care” are needed. Apart from bringing another dimension to the work, their presence as role models is crucial at such a formative stage of a child’s life – which is why all parents should be concerned about their absence.
"Early childhood is a time when children are in the business of developing their sense of identity and belonging – their sense of self and community," explains Dr Carmel Brennan, of Early Childhood Ireland. "Children are learning what it means to be a man or a woman in our society. They can only learn what it means to be a man from men. They need to see men as carers and players and educators."
Men in childcare bring a different energy – an energy that is louder and more physical and challenging, she says. In countries where there has been more research on men working in childcare, such as Norway, their female colleagues recognise this added energy and love the difference it makes.
Men seem to be particularly suited to the sector’s new focus on physical activity and developing robust children – and, in Brennan’s words, “giving children the opportunity to take risks and to experience those “scaryfunny” feelings that are critical to developing a brave, adventurous spirit”.
She adds: “Extensive research tells us engagement with male role models promotes children’s physical well-being, their ability to take initiative, give things a try and their capacity for relationships with both sexes.”
King believes it’s men like him who show not only children, but also parents, that guys can have roles in caring professions. “It gives children a better idea of what society is really like because they are never going to go anywhere again where there is just going to be women.” Some young children are afraid of men but “having a guy there all the time shows they are not scary and more than capable of giving you a hug when you need a hug”. While men’s readiness for “rough and tumble” play is a stereotype, he thinks it exists for a reason.
“Children would be a lot more boisterous with me, naturally, than they would be with the girls in work – so it is an added dimension in any setting.” But for King, it’s the love of working with small children that is his personal motivation. “Every single day is different. You could go in with a touch of the Monday morning blues and they are forgotten instantly when you are on the ground playing with three- and four-year-olds.” firstname.lastname@example.org