Why we need more men in early childhood

Published on Tuesday, 07 May 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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According to Child Forum, only 1.8 per cent of all early childhood education and care workers in New Zealand are male. Considering the milestones achieved in gender diversity and increase in paternity leave, and that New Zealand was the first country in the world to let women vote, it begs the question why this figure is still so low.

It appears there are a number of barriers for men who want to enter the early childhood profession, yet, the benefits for children learning from both male and female educators in the early years are huge. Here are some key insights into the issue, including comments from a male in the industry and advice for how to shift the balance in your centre.

What are barriers for men in the early childhood sector?

While it's widely known that teachers are highly instrumental in nurturing, educating and shaping the next generation, the vast majority of educators, particularly in early childhood, are female. It doesn’t make sense for children to have role models in the classroom that are only one gender, but unfortunately, it's not that easy for men to step up to the task:

  • Social stigma - While it's an archaic school of thought, looking after children is still considered a woman's job (whether paid or not) due to their assumed ability to be more nurturing. Many men feel they might be ridiculed by family or friends, or not be considered as a suitable candidate when applying for jobs.
  • Doesn't pay enough - The gender pay gap is sadly still present, making it harder for men to forfeit higher salaries and work in the early childhood education sector, which is undervalued in wages.
  • Workers face scrutiny - With social awareness higher than ever for child abuse and paedophilia, unfortunately men working with children in any capacity can often come under a lot of suspicion.

It's not just New Zealand

It appears that the lack of men in early childhood is a global issue. In 1996, the European Commission Network on Childcare set a target for male workers within the ECEC sector to reach 20 per cent by 2020.

Time is almost up, and yet, only one country, Norway, even comes close, sitting at 10 per cent. Turkey isn't far behind on 5 per cent, and Australia at 3 per cent is doing only slightly better than the UK which has reached 2 per cent for the number of males working in their child care system as reported by The West Australian and The Guardian.

Tackling the odds for a rewarding career

One male who did defy social stigma and obstacles to successfully work in the childcare industry in Australia is Jamie Morrow from School of Fish Childcare in Onehunga.

Originally from Ireland, Jamie first entered early education and care while travelling around Australia, when a lovely family spontaneously offered him a job as an au pair.

"I thought I'd give it a go and ended up really enjoying it so much that I did it for four years working with many different and amazing families both in Australia and New Zealand. This took me from no experience in child care to four years' worth, and it taught me not just how to look after children but run a household," he says.

"I was amazed at the trust I was given to care for somebody else's pride and joy, and I gained so many great relationships from being an au pair. I'm still in contact with a lot of families I’ve worked with in the past and it makes me so proud that I've been able to make a big impact on the children's lives. It's amazing how they never forget."

It was during his time au pairing in New Zealand that Jamie was offered a relieving position with an early childhood provider in Wellington, during hours when the children he looked after were at school.

When he later moved to Auckland to experience another city, the same company gave him a similar position in another centre. It was then that he realised early childhood education was definitely the right career for him and Auckland was the city he loved.

When dropping off the little girl he used to au pair for at her daycare, School of Fish, he always admired the centre and thought it would be amazing to work there. After speaking with the managers and being offered a job, he ceased his au pair services and now works there full time which he loves.

"I'm still learning every day. When I first started at School of Fish I had no experience with writing learning stories or meaningful provocation planning among other things, but now I'm able to confidently construct a learning story or wall document and plan my lessons to the children's interests and curriculum."

What are the benefits of male educators?

While he was a bit of an anomaly as a male in his chosen career, Jamie did experience strong support from everyone around him.

"Families and colleagues in New Zealand have been so supportive and absolutely outstanding," he says. "I was honestly blown away by the support and encouragement around males in child care. Even outside of work I get praised by both males and females about being a male in the child care sector."

The advantages of men actively caring for and educating our young children in an early learning setting are significant and Jamie believes that children need a positive male and female balance in their everyday life. He wants to see more men follow his lead.

"Men are very capable of doing this job, and the tamariki definitely need that male influence," he says, adding that there are many benefits to educators too.

"You can walk away from your job with a big smile on your face and feeling great that you have taught a child something new each day. It's also great to know how much you can impact a child's life in a positive way."

Additionally, it's important that children grow up seeing both men and women in care giving roles to increase gender diversity in the workforce. They also need to be able to learn from educators of both genders to further develop their skills, knowledge, social awareness and emotional wellbeing.

How to attract male employees to your service

While there still aren't many men actively training in early childhood education or applying for jobs, there are some out there if you know where to look.

"Maybe put in your job advertising that both male and female applicants are welcome to apply, as this is definitely something I hardly ever see," says Jamie.

He also suggests that early childhood centres could offer study support to help offset educator costs.

"I feel that if this was offered to early childhood centres and schools around New Zealand it would be so much easier to not only find male teachers, but more attractive to teachers in general.

If you're keen to employ more male educators but are finding it difficult, another alternative is to hire or have males visit your place of service in other capacities. So, keep a look out for, and encourage, males in roles such as casual sports instructors, music teachers, chefs, guest speakers, work experience people and ask more fathers to be involved in their child's activities and excursions in your centre.

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