11th June 2019 All Posts Guest Blog

Does the absence of male carers matter?

It will be Father’s Day on Sunday. Many families now celebrate this annual event with gifts and cards acknowledging significant male carers in children’s lives. We do not do so in our household. I am told that we are making a stand against commercial interests exploiting our gullibility. No card for me then, instead, I am told that, “every day is Father’s Day.” To be honest, it doesn’t bother me. I can take or leave a card. For me, by far the most important aspect of parenting is connection, to have an unconditionally loving relationship with my children. In this respect, I count myself truly blessed.

There are however children for whom Father’s Day does not warrant celebration. Recent research from the Centre for Social Justice tells us that in the UK, only around two thirds of all our children are in families where both parents are still together by the age of 15. And this is where it gets more contentious. Is Father’s Day in danger of excluding those who do not have a male carer in their lives either through parental choice or circumstance? What about those for whom their experience of fatherhood is absence – physical or emotional, or abuse?

A wider question is – ‘does the absence of male carers matter?’ an ongoing issue addressed by myself and co-author, Simon Brownhill in our book, ‘Men in Early Years Settings: Building the Mixed Gender Workforce’, published last year. In it, we consider the continuing very low level of men (2 – 3%) in the Early Years workforce in the UK and some of the cultural reasons for this. We look at social attitudes to gender roles and stereotypes and consider actions that can be taken to address the imbalance in gender. We conducted our own research into parental attitudes to men working with young children. The results were overwhelmingly supportive yet reservations were expressed.

Our parental views survey was conducted in December 2017. There were 440 respondents.

Some of the key findings:

  • 92% believe it is beneficial for children to be cared for by men as well as women in Early Years settings.  This was consistent across both male and female respondents.   
  • 95% are happy for their child to be cared for by a male Early Years worker. Again this was a consistent result across males and females. 
  • 14% expressed concern about men working in Early Years. (12% females, 21% males)

It seems we are conflicted in our attitudes as a society. Whilst we see the benefits of children receiving care from both men and women, concerns are expressed by some of the same respondents, about men working in Early Years settings. Interestingly, a greater percentage of men expressed this opinion, than women. 

Digging behind these attitudes, we asked for comments regarding these concerns. Here are some examples of the responses –

  • ‘My children are used to having a female primary carer. I feel more comfortable with this being replicated in a nursery environment.’
  • ‘Children tend to be more scared of menMen don’t tend to want to work in this role and so I am suspicious of men that do.’
  • ‘Due to lack of experience surrounding men in childcare, I am wary of the unknown also media portrayal of men and selfishly lack of trust although I know this is wrong.’
  • ‘I do not believe that men instinctively have the same level of empathy as women to deal well with young children.’
  • ‘They wouldn’t be able to give the same warmth and comfort as a female would I suppose?’

I have underlined the phrases in these quotes that indicate feelings, beliefs and attitudes. To me these indicate an irrational sense of fear and suspicion. There is no evidence to substantiate these concerns and yet they are perpetuated. Perhaps our media has a role to play in this?

Is it any wonder then that men generally do not see Early Years care and education as a valid career? Who would want to work under constant surveillance and questioning of their motives? The fact is that care for and education of our youngest children in our country is provided almost exclusively by women.

Returning to my earlier question, ‘Does this matter?’, I believe it does. Our children are growing up  in somewhat bewildering times. Our policies and rhetoric speak to the need for equality, diversity, tolerance and respect and yet the evidence of the #METOO campaign points to systemic misogyny, sexual exploitation and female subjugation. Seemingly, we have more enlightened parenting regimes with equitable maternity and paternity leave available but in practice this makes little difference with mothers still performing the bulk of child care. We are still working on the gender pay gap and the low number of women in STEM industries. 

If we are to challenge attitudes, we need to do so in the Early Years. I am not advocating for more men to be ‘role models’ of masculinity. I believe we need the best people, male and female, to build warm, nurturing and supportive relationships with children so that they have the opportunity to interact with the widest range of character types – funny, warm, quirky, caring, passionate, cerebral, musical, creative, sporty, inventive and friendly individuals. We need to challenge gender stereotypes so that girls and boys have the confidence and support to be the best versions of themselves with the highest aspirations to be whoever they want to be regardless of gender. We want our children to develop respect, empathy and tolerance. We want them to be happy and confident men and women. I suggest that Early Years settings are a great place for this to happen and that men and women working together are the best team to do so. For those children who do not come into contact with men in their early lives, they are not currently likely to do so at their nurseries, preschools or childminders.            

You can purchase the ‘Men in Early Years Settings’ by David Wright and Simon Brownhill – on Amazon from just £12.34 here.

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About the Author

David Wright, co-owner of Paint Pots Nurseries in Southampton, has been appointed England's national representative for the World Forum Foundation on Early Care and Education. Mr Wright is a qualified early years teacher who co-founded Paint Pots Nurseries with his wife, Anna, in 1993. An active campaigner for Men in Childcare, he currently serves as an adviser to the Government on gender diversity in the workforce and to the National Association of Head Teachers on early years practice.