The topic of men working alongside young children in early childhood care and education is impassioned, highly contemporary and topical (Cameron, 2006). It can be emotive because the idea of men caring for our youngest and most vulnerable children has, unfortunately, every so often been linked with accusations of child abuse (Waterhouse, 2000). This short article summarises the results of an exploratory study into attitudes of parents towards men working with young children in a professional capacity. Attitudinal barriers towards men working in the early years sector can often turn men away from such a career (Rolfe, 2005; King, 2014).
The HMSO Green Paper - Meeting the Childcare Challenge acknowledges this assumption,
Working with children tends to be seen as a predominantly female occupation. Yet male carers have much to offer, including acting as positive role models for boys – especially from families where the father is absent (HMSO, 1998).
There is a long standing sense of cultural and societal discomfort, and therefore parental nervousness, around men who decide to seek employment in a traditionally female dominated profession (Acker, 1991; Evans, 2002; King, 2014, Sargent, 2005). These concerns express themselves as surprise and astonishment at their presence, scepticism in their capabilities to perform the task as well as a female and even distrust at their motivations for wanting to work with young children (Williams, 1995; Murray, 1996; King, 1998, Cameron et al., 1999; Sargent, 2005; Cameron, 2006; King; 2014).
With less than 1 per cent of the childcare workforce male, Ireland is believed to have among the lowest male participation rate in Europe (Barnardos, 2012). While there is a need to explore the reasons behind such a fact, it lies beyond the boundaries of this research. The central goal of this exploratory study was to elicit the opinions and attitudes parents in the Republic of Ireland towards men working with and caring for their young children.
To both maximise response rates and to reach a diverse and geographically spacious target group, an on-line survey was developed. The topic of male involvement in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) is still a relatively controversial one. In this instance a survey allowed the respondents to be completely honest in their views, something that an interview might not have allowed for. Moreover, the survey/questionnaire is an appropriate tool to use in the collection of both quantitative and qualitative data (Bell, 1993; Cohen et al., 2003).
Ten questionnaires were piloted online, and as a result some slight adjustments were made to two of the questions contained in the survey. Due to the single mode of data collection in the study, no triangulation was completed. The survey was completed online, with links to the questionnaire being posted on Irish education websites, specifically early years focused sites and social network pages. 266 respondents completed the survey of whom the vast majority were mothers (95%), while fathers represented 5%. All respondents were parents of children who currently attend or have attended preschool services in the Republic of Ireland. Given the focus of the survey, it is possible that the sample was biased in favour of parents with experience of male childcare worker. No names where required to fill out the survey, allowing for full anonymity.
During the analysis of the responses a number of different response types emerged; positive parental responses expressed happiness or delight at having a positive male role model looking after their child. However, some parents provided more negative feedback, expressing concerns, caution or even worry when faced with the same situation.
Specifically question 4 asked participants: “Would you be open to sending your child to a setting that employed a male carer/ teacher?” A total of 264 respondents answered this question. The vast majority of respondents (95%) showed a willingness to send their child to a setting that employed a male. Question 5 asked the question whether a male childcare worker/ teacher is or was employed in their child’s setting (currently or in the past). A total of 261 respondents completed this question, with 38% of the respondents indicating that there is or had been a male in the service in the early years service attended by their child. This indicates that the majority of respondents did not have experience of a male ECCE educator.
As a busy man who owns a business, I’m afraid that I do not get much contact time with my kids during the week. I was delighted when I found out that there were male teachers at the school that would be able to set a good male example for my kids.
This theme of positivity and openness to males in ECCE was the dominant theme throughout this questionnaire, from both fathers and mothers. There were however more negative issues raised throughout the course of this research, with some parents expressing discomfort at the idea of a male in ECCE.
I would feel uncomfortable if a male was looking after my daughter. I would not mind it with my son. Cautious, but open to my mind being changed on men working in childcare, I wouldn’t go out looking for a male to mind my child, I would instinctively go for a female.
Furthermore parents where asked what their opinion would be if a male educator were to be employed at a preschool where their child currently attended. Many stated that with the correct qualification, experience and Garda vetting, the gender of the educator or carer should not be a concern.
I would be happy. Children need male role models in their lives too. They would have gone through the same process of obtaining qualifications and Garda clearance so obviously they have a genuine interest in the care and education of children. Equal rights!
Other parents, spoke of genuine worry and fear that a male would be responsible for caring for their child on a day to day basis. Some respondents also questioned the motives of the male educator for seeking employment with preschool children.
I would be uncomfortable and suspicious.
Negative societal opinions of men as caregivers can guide parents’ views of them as early childhood educators. Terms such as ‘shock’, ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘suspicious’ all demonstrate how some parents feel a deep sense of unease at the idea (Acker, 1991; King, 1998, Cameron 1999, 2006; Sargent, 2005). Such negative reactions were few in the responses received. In fact, the data collected directly from parents found a majority of parents open to the idea of male chldcare workers.
The understanding that, traditionally, the care of young children is the role of women is a common thread running throughout the literature, (King, 1998; Cameron et al, 1999; Fine-Davis et al., 2005; Cameron, 2006) and also highlighted in this study. However, the reverse of this discourse is also present in the results. Many respondents viewed men as ‘great carers’ and ‘as caring as women’.
While it would be unrealistic to make any generalisations from a study as limited and as small scale as this, it is nevertheless enlightening to examine the ways in which traditional roles and stereotypes are confronted and reinforced in the early years sector. Benefits of greater gender diversity to the children’s care, education and general overall development are all alluded to and generally seen as a positive within the survey’s responses.
This study has added to the sparse literature available on the topic of men in ECCE in Ireland. The findings show that while there is still some uncomfortableness around the idea of men in ECCE, there is also a positivity within Irish parental attitudes to men working in what would still be regarded as a female profession. For males entering the early years workforce this is a highly encouraging sign.
These findings go some way to highlighting the complexity of gender relations in ECCE. The literature in the field of men in childcare focuses more on the negative issues or the reasons why more men do not choose childcare as a profession (Acker, 1991; Evans, 2002; King, 2014, Sargent, 2005). This small scale study has shown that there is an openness and support to the idea of men working with young children in Ireland.
Further research should concentrate on children’s views of their male caregivers. The question of whether children see differences between the males and females that educate and care for them, would illuminate children’s voices in this ongoing debate.
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David King holds a dual position of Montessori Director and Adult Education facilitator. He was led to the field of Early Childhood Education from his passion for innovative practice and progressive education. He has completed a postgraduate Montessori qualification and is currently studying for a Masters in Early Childhood Education. He is an advocate for the benefits of having men work in ECCE and has volunteered his time and energy to writing blogs and speaking on national radio stations about the topic.