Why aren’t there more dads in early years settings?

The absence of dads in early years settings confirms gender stereotypes in the workplace, but there has been little progress in recent years, reports Beena Nadeem.



Despite hands-on parenting, shared parental leave and fathers being more involved in family life than ever before, there are still few men in childcare. For men, it’s a lonely place, with a shocking 2% working in reception classes and nurseries in England. Perhaps more surprising than this is that recent figures confirm nothing has changed from our parent’s generation, with the figure remaining stagnant for the past 20 years.

Double the numbers up north

The number of men working in early years education [EYE] in Scotland is double that of England. Here, a decent tranche of government funding covering men-only childcare courses has enabled Scotland to achieve 4%. When the net is cast further afield, including countries like Turkey, figures increase to 5% while world leaders Norway has around 10%, with notional targets to achieve 20%. In fact, in many settings, it’s not unusual to see half the workforce in a Norwegian nursery being men.

Training charity Men in Childcare has been running Scotland’s men-only childcare courses, and for the first time is extending this to a university.

Kenny Spence, a trainer at Men in Childcare, says they tried to run the course in England. “Both times we were successful in recruiting men, but were never funded any further – it’s just not a priority down there,” he says. “We talk about gender equality, but we don’t put men into caring professions with young children.”

What has changed?

In England, rather depressingly, nothing has changed. In 2001-02 a target was set to have 6% men in the EYE workforce by 2004, but it was never achieved and a Department of Education report recommended a taskforce be set up on gender diversity in EYE, but again, there has been no government sign-off on any concrete action.

What’s new?

Frustrated by the lack of action, researchers from Lancaster University and the Fatherhood Institute recently launched a two-year study, GenderEye, to try to understand the obstacles.

They kicked off things last autumn with a fact-finding mission to Norway last autumn, where early years recruitment forms part of its government-steered national gender equality action plan. Lead investigator Dr Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood Institute, says: “As a society, we push more women into doing the childcare and therefore people think they’re more nurturing and men are a bit useless… Unless that is tackled through eliminating the pay gap, as well as strong leadership in nurseries to ensure a workforce which welcomes men, change won’t happen.”

By taking four hubs (nurseries) and their leaders to Norway, they found its success boils down to some hard-wired policies and ethics. This includes positive discrimination which actively promotes the recruitment of men into childcare and a required qualification (usually a degree in Pedagogy), though this is somewhat relaxed to encourage them in. The moves are also backed by governmental and institutional onus on gender equality. This starts at the very youngest of ages, where play at nurseries isn’t split between genders: all children play in the home corner, then move off to play with the cars.

What can we do?

Admittedly, we’re a long way off that point. But Davies says the sector doesn’t help itself. “It’s lazy in the way it markets to men. And this should not be an issue to do with gender, he says. It’s to do with a profession which is undervalued. The minute you open the discussion about gender and men, people start to talk about pay and how the idea of sticking a man in there throws everything up in the air.

“People add a ‘mysterious magic ingredient of masculinity into the profession by saying ‘boys need men’.  What everyone needs is a diverse workforce to reflect the society around us,” says Davies.

He does see things changing, though.“Dads now are more switched on than fathers were a decade ago. Women also have higher expectations of their men as capable fathers and that’s happening despite [a lack of] government policies.”

Some of GenderEYE’s hubs are already working hard to support change, from London’s Early Years Foundation, which a few years ago even brought in drag queens to conduct story time and have a Men in Childcare group which champions gender inclusiveness at work and already has 28 men working in its nurseries, through to Bradford-based St Edmunds Children’s Centre in Bradford, where it is routine to see male employees.


Despite pockets of good practice, pay remains a real sticking point. David Wright is leader of GenderEYE’s Southampton Hub. Wright is joint-owner of Paint Pot nurseries, a government advisor on childcare and author. He says: “It’s a cultural thing about gender roles and that relates to stereotypes; men are breadwinners and women nurturers and that’s very much entrenched even though society has moved on.”

His point is marked by a recent government survey which shows that almost 20% of day nursery workers in England earn less than the national living wage – something that is getting worse since the introduction of universal entitlement to early education for all three- and four-year-olds, whose education doesn’t have to be delivered by a graduate.

“Low pay now equates to low status, and that’s a disincentive to all,” says Wright. “Childcare is seen as pejorative, not academic – you’ve failed your beauty exams so the default is that you go and look after young children, and that perception does a disservice to all the workforce,” he says.

He adds that as men are still seen, predominately, in this society as the breadwinners, they enter the profession and find they can’t pay their bills, so have gone on somewhere else. He says: “Status, pay, fears of men being falsely accused and parental perception all form a huge zeitgeist and we need to get past that.”

What is needed, say experts is strong leadership which welcomes male applicants and stands up to parents who don’t want men changing their child’s nappy. We can start by encouraging boys to take work experience in childcare settings, says Wright, as well as having more male EY workers on children’s TV.

Although we’re seeing some changes, it seems there’s a long way to go before we’re even slightly nibbling at the toes of Scandinavian role models, let alone our Scottish neighbours.

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