By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice
Early years professionals and settings rightly take pride in promoting equality and diversity, but sadly this isn’t reflected in the workplace gender balance. The proportion of male early years education professionals is tiny (3% in England and Wales, and 4% in Scotland) and has barely grown in the last 20 years, according to MITEY (Men in The Early Years).
Voice is backing MITEY’s campaign to change this. We also believe that, in order to get the best staff, employers should be recruiting from the full talent pool, meaning men and women. This is also important for children, who deserve a workforce that reflects their communities – and demonstrates that “caregiving and early education is not just women’s work”.
This shortage of men isn’t new. In 2009, Voice raised concerns about the lack a male role model for some children, both at home and, because of the predominantly female workforce, at nursery and school. This meant some children had no experience of positive male and female adult interaction.
However, getting more men into childcare isn’t just about providing male role models, particularly for boys without a father figure. This is part of a wider issue of promoting and celebrating equality and diversity – both in the nursery and in society.
We know from research that many children and adults are conditioned from an early age to think of gender stereotypes when it comes to careers. To use the few existing male nursery staff for outdoor play and never – because of negative attitudes – the nappy changing, is tokenistic and perpetuates the myth that caring is gender-specific.
The problem is self-perpetuating. As children go through nurseries with female staff, they’ve grown up perceiving it as a female profession, so when young men come to choose their own career, they don’t tend to consider childcare as an option.
Children in settings with female and male staff are lucky and learn that both men and women can be caring. This positive experience is also a positive advance for the profession and society and deserves to expand, at speed.
However, apart from societal attitudes, there is another big issue that is discouraging both men and women from entering the early years workplace – low pay. As we know, there is a recruitment and retention crisis throughout early years and education. Recent studies from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) found that many highly skilled early years professionals could earn more stacking supermarket shelves – a sad fact we have known for years.
How can we encourage a new group of people – men – to enter a profession that is so badly paid for the qualifications and training required to do it? Where is the incentive for men or women? That young women have traditionally been encouraged to work with children, whereas men have not – because it is a low paid profession and the perception that caring is ‘women’s work’ – is not acceptable and contrary to equality and diversity.
Unless more is done to improve the pay, working conditions, training, career development and status of the early years, that is not going to change in a significant or meaningful way. We need a national pay, conditions and career structure and we need it now.
Targeted recruitment of men into childcare is also needed. The Men in Early Years Challenge Fund, launched in Scotland last year, is designed to increase the number of men working in early learning and childcare (ELC), and pilot projects are now underway.
Michael Cross, from the Scottish Funding Council, aptly described the current situation as a “stubborn under-representation of men in childcare”, so it’s encouraging that he also said there’s a “strong appetite from the sector to work in new ways” to diversify the workforce.
Women too have a role. By actively encouraging men into the workplace and profession, they will dissolve the gender myth.
Men have a lot to offer early years and, with an election likely soon, Voice calls on the political parties to consider taking positive steps, such as those in Scotland, to proactively recruit men into the early education and childcare profession, supported by a robust career and salary structure.
We need more men – not to make up the numbers, but to enhance both the profession and the sector.