Anyone with young children knows that male teachers are extremely rare in early childhood education. Unitec Lecturer Alex Williams has been looking at why this gender imbalance still exists, and talked to the men brave enough to be in this minority.

The lack of men in early childhood education (ECE) was an issue Unitec ECE Lecturer Alex Williams noticed right away when he moved into the sector. “As soon as I started visiting students out in the field, for me the question was huge: ‘Where are all the men?’ You go into any early childhood centre and you’re unlikely to see a man. For me it was profound,” he says.

Williams − who was a primary school teacher before moving into tertiary teaching 12 years ago − believes research in this area needs to be highlighted. “That initial exposure to ECE and the realisation that it’s a highly gendered profession where men are largely invisible was what originally sparked my interest,” he says. “But I also wanted to start a process of reframing early childhood education as a positive, meaningful, enjoyable and socially significant career for men.”

According to Williams, there are three commonly perceived reasons why there are very few men in early childhood. The first and second are the low pay rates, and the low status of the work; both of these are understood to be associated with ECE being seen as a woman’s area of work, which is traditionally undervalued. The third reason is the possibility of male ECE workers being accused of child abuse, as in the Peter Ellis case in the ‘90s.

But Williams doesn’t believe these three reasons account for the overwhelming lack of men in ECE. “Early childhood education isn’t that badly paid anymore, and we can come up with examples of low paid work that men are happy to do. Also, there are many examples where men are quite happy to do low-status work, although it is important that their sense of masculinity remains intact.

“The potential to be accused of doing something inappropriate is very real, and any man working in an early childhood environment will be aware of that reality, but these days early childhood education centres are designed so carefully, they’re wonderfully safe environments.

“Statistically, child abuse doesn’t happen in early childhood centres, it happens in the home, by people children know and trust. Added to that, men are quite comfortable working with children in other contexts, such as coaching young children’s sports teams, and working with scouts and cubs.”

Williams says the main reason behind the lack of men in ECE is our traditional stereotypes of what men and women are supposed to do for work. “Ultimately it’s an issue about gender stereotyping and traditional gender roles. When we look more deeply at the way society has framed up and perpetuated gender stereotypes around what men and women do, we start to get at the heart of the problem,” he says. “Society just doesn’t see working with young children as something that men do. It’s been framed up as a woman’s activity, an extension of mothering, a nurturing and caring role and that’s something we don’t see as synonymous with what men do. This needs to change.”

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In the last five to six years, the number of men in early childhood education has doubled, going from one per cent to two per cent

Once we understand the lack of men in ECE as a sociological issue, Williams says we can work on shifting that imbalance. “It’s an issue related to the way we have limited people’s choices based on gender. We understand that such limitations are unhelpful, and in many contexts society has worked hard to challenge those limitations. In professions like nursing, flight attending, caring for the elderly, we see more men represented in those areas than there used to be. It’s just that early childhood has been one area that has been really slow to see a positive step forwards in this regard.”

While things are changing – the number of men in ECE has doubled from one per cent to two per cent in the last few years – it’s not changing fast enough for Williams. “Everybody acknowledges that education is a socially significant, important aspect of our society, and to have such a socially significant activity exclude, through no act of its own, half the population, is incredible. Imagine if we only had male doctors, if 98 per cent of doctors were all men? We’re looking at a situation that reflects social beliefs from 50 years ago. These are redundant, unhelpful, restrictive stereotypes about what men and women do, and I find it disturbing.”

In an effort to help readjust this imbalance, for his most recent research project Williams decided to talk to the men who are already working in ECE in New Zealand, who are already breaking those traditional social and gender expectations. “There’s not a lot written about the lack of men in ECE, and what there is tends to focus on why there are no men: that is, what’s the problem? I felt that to understand the situation better, we needed to hear the voices of the men who are already working in ECE; to understand what encouraged them into this sector, and what it is about early childhood that these men like, what interests them.”

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THE NUMBER OF MALE TEACHERS IN ECE

Williams was able to secure a grant from the Unitec Faculty of Social and Health Sciences to facilitate his research, particularly the intensive interviewing process. “I found 10 men currently working in early childhood. They ranged in age from early twenties through to 62 years of age, and they ranged in experience from two years’ ECE experience, to 30-something years of experience, so I had a wide range of representation. I would meet with them in their work context and I interviewed them in a semi-structured way; I had questions I wanted to pursue, but I let them take the conversation where they felt most comfortable.”

Williams focused on three areas of interest: “Firstly, I wanted to find out the background of these guys, what they did before they came to early childhood. The second area was what influenced their decision to join early childhood − remembering that these are not flippant decisions; it’s a change in career that was underpinned by the need to gain the necessary qualifications. The third area was their experiences within early childhood, particularly the parts they found most rewarding. The focus was on the positive aspects, because I believe we desperately need to reframe early childhood as a positive, meaningful vocation for men.”

The research emerged with some very clear themes across the experiences of all the men, says Williams. “The first thing that was interesting − and very profound− was that none of the men had entered early childhood as a first career. They all had experiences in other careers. They seemed to need some kind of hiatus in their life, or some kind of opportunity to review where they were going with their career.

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UNITEC HAS AROUND 250 STUDENTS IN ITS ECE PROGRAMMES, SPREAD ACROSS THE THREE-YEAR DEGREE AND WILLIAMS SAYS THERE ARE AROUND FIVE OR SIX MEN ON THE PROGRAMME 

“For some of them it was possibly a negative thing that occurred. I guess that talks to the reality that most men don’t initially see early childhood as a career destination. They’d had businesses, driven trucks, been plumbers, done a number of different things, and through various situations in their lives had been provided with opportunities to review and re-evaluate their careers.”

Often a key factor was being able to spend more time in an early childhood centre with their own children. “It involved positive contact with time; time to sit down and read a book, play in the sandpit, or do a puzzle, rather than the stress of having to drop their kids off in ten minutes to get to work on time. It’s a big difference.”

Having the extra time to spend with the children widened the perspectives of these men, and made them realise that they wanted to spend more time in that environment, says Williams. “A man might say to himself, ‘I’m convalescing, and I’ve got the whole day in front of me, and I’m going to spend a couple of hours in the sandpit with my kids.’ Suddenly they find the sandpit is a vibrant, happening place. In fact, the sand pit goes off; there’s a lot of learning happening in the sandpit.”

The second theme that Williams found among his research subjects was that they had a shared desire to be involved in something socially significant. “They wanted to do something that was important, and to make a contribution to society,” says Williams. “The guys articulated that they were interested in doing something important, rather than just earning a living. That altruistic sentiment was a commonality that existed across all of the guys I interviewed. They all believed they did meaningful jobs.”

The last theme to come out from the study didn’t initially make sense to Williams. “It was really odd; I struggled with it for a little while, and I didn’t know why,” he says. “The men said they wanted to do a job that was fun. They perceived early childhood education to be something that was enjoyable and fun, and initially I kind of saw that as a frivolous thing. But as I thought about it more, and I read around theories of play and learning, I realised that children learn within a fun context. Playing and learning are closely related to each other, and playing provides a meaningful context for children to learn.”

Williams believes that by saying these environments were fun, the men were acknowledging that they were positive places in which learning was couched in a fun way. “I think that’s something we lose as we move through the education system. When my children transitioned from early childhood education to primary school education, the ‘fun’ word slipped off the radar quite quickly. In ECE, the idea of fun and play are of significance within the learning context and have meaning and value beyond a pastime. Not all learning is fun, but if fun and play are given as much value as numeracy and literacy, it can help with their overall learning. We know from our own experiences in lectures and workshops that if we’re enjoying ourselves, and if we feel that enjoying and being active in the learning process is valued, we’re more likely to engage.”

The research has shown some clear results about why these men chose to work in ECE, and Williams believes it’s important information for the future. “In the last five-odd years there has been a much greater recognition from the early childhood sector itself, from our politicians, from the Ministry of Education and other interested parties, that the lack of men in ECE actually is an issue. And that it’s an issue that won’t change if we don’t address it. What I wanted to do is provide some data so that if there is a recruiting campaign, it’s well targeted. What we want to do is talk about why the men are there, and what they like about it. That’s what this research was about.”

And Williams says he has nothing but admiration for these men who have chosen to go against gender stereotypes. “We need to celebrate and acknowledge the brave men who are already working in early childhood education as social leaders. They are the guys that are actively challenging archaic stereotypes about what men and women do, and need to be acknowledged as such. They are the Kate Sheppards of our generation, but we don’t see it.

“These men are consciously entering a profession dominated by women but still seeking to retain their masculinity. These men are modelling to young children, parents and wider society on a daily basis that men do nurture and care. Such modelling is at the heart of significant social change and we need to recognise and value it. They’re seeking to be acknowledged as men, but doing a career that has been synonymous with women.”

WRITTEN BY T CAFFELL

Contact

Alex Williams

Lecturer

Department of Education

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