VIEWPOINT: Why are so few men involved in educating Britain’s youngest children?

VIEWPOINT: Why are so few men involved in educating Britain’s youngest children?

Joann Wilkinson and Jeremy Davies

If you were looking to live in the most gender-equal country in the world, you wouldn’t choose the UK. The World Economic Forum’s 2020 Gender Pay Gap report places us 21st in the global gender equality rankings – down six places on last year. Unsurprisingly, four of the top five countries are Scandinavian, but less obvious countries like Nicaragua, Ireland, the Philippines and Albania also beat us into the top 20. Our gender pay gap, currently 16%, compares to 7% in Sweden and Norway.

In our heads, we Brits are becoming progressively more socially liberal: the latest British Social Attitudes survey (36th Edition) found that 89% of us now think it’s wrong or very wrong for men to be paid more than women doing the same job, for example; a third (34%) think that mothers and fathers should get equal parental leave, and only 12% believe mothers should take it all.

But turning our hopes for a gender-equal society into lived reality can be difficult, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the context of early years education, where the proportion of men in the workforce is an indicator rarely cited – perhaps because it has proved so enduringly intractable. New figures show that most parents (79%) support male staff caring for children (see page 13 of the Department for Education’s Childcare and Early Years Survey of Parents in England, 2019) but the proportion of male staff has stalled at 3% for England, having hovered around 2% for the last 20 years (see Table 24 of the Department for Education’s Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey, 2019).

This is not the only gender-imbalanced workforce in the UK, by any means – see Careersmart’s 2018 list, for example. Considerable efforts are made to track and increase female participation in STEM subjects (here are the latest figures from Women in STEM). There are other ‘caring’ professions where men are under-represented: men make up 19% of the adult social care workforce, for example (Skills for Care, 2019), and 15% of primary school teachers, 14% of social workers and 11% of nurses are male (MITEY, 2019). But early years education is the most extreme of them, and it holds particular significance because this workforce has such direct potential to shape boys’ and girls’ caring aspirations, and thus to influence the sharing of caregiving and earning by future generations of fathers and mothers.

Our ESRC-funded study, GenderEYE: Gender Diversification in Early Years Education, led by principal investigator Dr Jo Warin (9), is the most comprehensive attempt to date, to find out what obstacles stand in the way of greater gender diversity in the UK’s early years workforce, and how the sector might overcome them.

We know that countries with the highest male participation in early years education include Norway, where around 9% of kindergarten staff are male, and Germany, where the figure is almost 7%. In both cases, there has been a degree of government intervention and investment in strategic policy change and behavioural change – such as a clear push towards the use of ‘affirmative action’ in recruitment in Norway, and centrally coordinated programmes such as the New Paths for Boys campaign in Germany. In its recent report Good Practice for Good Jobs in Early Childhood Education and Care, the OECD drew a clear link between the mono-gendered nature of the early childhood education workforce, and the skills shortage affecting the sector in most developed countries.

There is an increased acknowledgement in the UK that the lack of men in early years education is problematic – and both the UK and Scottish governments have provided small amounts of funding to prompt greater progress. South of the border, recommendations from the cross-sector Gender Diversity Task and Finish Group set up by the Department for Education in 2017, led to £30,000 of funding for the Fatherhood Institute’s MITEY (Men In The Early Years) campaign. This aims to support early years education providers to do a better job of recruiting and retaining male staff. Since April 2019, MITEY has built a network of more than 300 early years settings, held a national conference, and produced a suite of resources including the MITEY Charter and a Guide to Recruiting Men into Early Years Education – endorsed by leading sector organisations such as the Early Years Alliance and National Day Nurseries Association, case studies and online support sessions.

In Scotland, where the early years workforce is 4% male, the Government-funded £50,000 Men in Early Years Challenge Fund, coordinated by the Scottish Funding Council, has focused on increasing the supply of trained male practitioners. Male enrolment figures on early years college courses in 2017-18 were up 42% compared to 2014-15. The Edinburgh-based Men in Childcare organisation, funded by the Scottish Government and City of Edinburgh Council, also provides free certificated evening courses for men, designed to act as a stepping stone towards higher qualifications.

However, there is a need for clear data on best practices in recruiting, supporting and retaining male practitioners in early years education, as well as a better understanding of the value of having more men in this sector. In our GenderEYE study, we are developing case studies of eight settings’ approaches to recruiting and retaining men; these have been selected to reflect different sizes and types of early years provider organisation, within four ‘hubs’ (London, Southampton, Bristol and Yorkshire) chosen because of their previous and/or ongoing efforts to expand male participation in the workforce. We are also conducting interviews with key stakeholders, as well as running surveys for managers and practitioners. Although we have yet to complete our analysis, some observations can be made from the emerging findings.

It is already clear from our data that early years settings experience a high turnover of staff.  Given that this is the case, there are opportunities to specifically attract more men into the sector. However, there are few strategies in places for this, and it is often down to individual managers invested in creating gender diverse early years teams to look for ways to recruit men. On a general level, although settings are aware of the absence of men in early years, they are unsure about how to move this forward or navigate the legal or ethical frameworks for attracting minority groups.

Our initial findings would suggest that support is key to retaining men in early years education. This was available to practitioners through peer support, mentoring, support from managers, or external support groups. However, we have identified an element of ‘gender blindness’, as many staff felt that support should the same for all genders, arguing that male and female practitioners were no different and therefore should be treated equally. There was less acknowledgement of the gendered challenges that men in early years education face, for example, when parents disapprove of male practitioners changing their children’s nappies.

It is important therefore to consider gender when developing levels of support for practitioners. In particular, greater levels of support were required at key moments within male practitioners’ trajectories, such as when moving to a new nursery or when encountering negative reactions from parents or the general public. In these moments, external (sometimes all male) support groups, which addressed key issues around gender, were perceived to be valuable. Furthermore, such groups had an impact on individual early years settings as the practitioners that attended them continued to discuss key gender issues with their work colleagues.

Pay is often cited as a reason for male practitioners leaving the early years profession, supported by the understanding that men more frequently occupy a ‘breadwinner’ role. Our findings would suggest that although pay was a serious concern for both male and female practitioners, it did not automatically result in practitioners leaving the sector. In contrast, our findings indicated that some men who qualified as better paid primary school teachers take up positions in early years settings, accepting less pay in exchange for greater job satisfaction. Furthermore, for a number of practitioners in this study, early years emerged as a stepping stone to other careers in the care sector, such as social work. Thus, when discussing men’s early years careers and educational training, we need to consider more broadly their trajectories within caring work.

In order to create gender diverse workforces, we observed that gender-sensitive and gender-aware managers are key. In the settings with higher numbers of male practitioners, managers were aware of the challenges faced by male practitioners and initiated strategies to address these. However, not all of these actions filtered into everyday practice. Strategies for creating and supporting diverse gender teams need to be embedded in early years policies and systems. In particular, there is a need for a clear ‘gender agenda’ and the creation of spaces to discuss and explore some of the (often everyday) gender issues and concerns that arise in settings.

Finally, in relation to the value of men in early years education, it would appear that male and female practitioners are very much interchangeable in terms of the work they do, although this may vary according to interests and skills. For example, some male practitioners enjoyed outdoor activities whereas others focused more on cooking or crafts. We observed both male and female practitioners changing nappies, comforting and cuddling, and helping young children to sleep. One could ask, if male and female practitioners do the same then why all the fuss?

Importantly, the presence of male practitioners within early years education ‘de-genders’ care; it enables children to see from a very early age that care is an activity carried out by both men and women, allowing them to create and perform new scripts about the ‘roles’ of men and women in society, and ultimately about their own roles as they grow older.


Dr Joann Wilkinson is lead researcher, and Dr Jeremy Davies is co-investigator, on the ESRC-funded GenderEYE (Gender Diversification in Early Years Education) study.

Image Credit: Rebecca Lupton