Why I will continue to advocate for more Men in Early Years

My social media timelines yesterday contained a link to an opinion piece written back in February 2018 by Australian, Liam McNicholas entitled, ‘It’s time for men in early childhood to advocate for women’.Liam writes that he has decided to no longer advocate for more men in the Early Years education sector. He says that he can no longer do so while ‘women experience overwhelmingly more prejudice, harassment and outright violence in their lives in every other part of community.’ He states that ‘being a male immediately places us in a privileged position. For a straight, white male like myself and others, the privilege increases exponentially.’ Liam presents the evidence of under-representation of women in leadership in the sector as evidence of this.

Liam writes that ‘the fundamental reason that there are so few men in the sector is precisely because it’s viewed as women’s work – and is therefore paid poorly and given no value….. men don’t see it as a high-status job and aren’t joining the sector.’ Given these findings, he asserts that ‘discrimination against men in early childhood is a part of a wider discrimination against women, all through our society.’ And therefore concludes that ‘it becomes very difficult to continue to have a narrow focus on advocacy for men in early childhood.’

Liam reflects how he has gained a position of influence to advocate for more men in Early Years which he puts down to his male privilege. He feels he is no longer comfortable to do so.

It is blindingly obvious that there is an issue with the general perception of the Early Years sector and workforce and that there continue to be issues regarding the way some men treat women. Whilst I agree that the relatively low levels of pay and status accruing to the Early Years workforce are to do with our culture’s view of the profession as ‘women’s work’, my conclusions differ from those of Liam. Firstly, I find the call to abandon any further attempt at creating gender diversity in the Early Years workforce to be fatalistic and defeatist. It is not an either-or situation and I don’t believe we need to wait to fix the whole of society’s ills before taking individual action. Secondly, I reject the notion that all of us men are part of a masterplan to perpetuate hegemonic masculinity. To infer this is surely as much of an unhelpful generalisation as to imply that all men are potential paedophiles and therefore should never be involved with the care and education of young children? I reject the all-encompassing label of ‘toxic masculinity’ as a generalisation. I also reject the deterministic labelling of ‘white, straight, male’ as innately privileged and programmed to exploit women. The vast majority of the people I work with and come into contact with in the sector are female, including managers, owners and policy makers. (Maybe it’s different in Australia?) I don’t see evidence for men inside the sector looking to recruit more men to promote them into positions of privilege in order to suppress / exploit women. Unless someone tells me differently? I also don’t understand why deciding to blog about issues is a mark of privilege. I thought that was one of the democratising benefits of social media?    

I am a very nearly 60 year old white, straight male who together with my wife and son, employs 160 Early Years staff of whom currently 4 are male, all of who are employed as practitioners. I recruit and employ men, women, black, white, gay and straight people based purely on their aptitude. Some of these individuals are promoted, again based solely on their demonstrable abilities. Currently all of our senior and managerial staff are female. Myself and my son regularly work in our after schools clubs and other settings engaging with the wonderful children we care for. I suppose that is privilege, but one that is open to all of our teams regardless of gender.

In discussing this issue, we need to remember the most important people, our children. My case has always been that boys and girls need men and women to build relationships with them during their formative years. In my opinion, children should have the opportunity to build relationships and interact with both men and women. In a society where children are increasingly raised in single parent families and mostly by women, they may not be coming into daily contact with men. I believe this is a problem for all of us. This does not attribute any particular character traits to men or women – e.g. we don’t need men in order to play football with children but we are limiting the diversity of our workforce. Through ignorance, suspicion and cultural attitudes, we are also denying men the opportunity to engage in a fulfilling career.      

In my case, a call to create a more mixed-gender Early Years workforce is definitely not a call to perpetuate male hegemony.  Our principles are to attract, recruit, retain and develop the best people regardless of characteristics – sex, race, sexuality, anything else. If I have a manifesto, it is to establish a professional identity which is common across sexes, sexualities, race and which bestows status, trust and decent pay to the men and women who perform this role. I recognise that we have to start from where we are but if we do nothing, we will see no change. That is why I support the campaigns that advocate for improved status and pay now whilst 98% of the workforce is female. We also have significant work to do outside the sector to change attitudes.  

I don’t believe that my position represents a ‘narrow focus on advocacy for men in early childhood.’ If Liam is saying that because I continue to advocate for a more mixed-gender Early Years workforce, I am part of the problem, I don’t follow his logic. If I have misunderstood his position, I apologise.