Early Childhood Education: No Place for Men?

Even after years of studying gender as a sociologist, I was not prepared to see a man in the infant room on my daughters’ first day at a new child care center in August 2011.  I assumed the man was a dad.  When my three year old happily introduced me to “Teacher Adam” the next day, I realized that he was the first male child-care worker I had ever met (thus, my Biblically-based pseudonym for him– “Adam”).  I left the center very pleased that my family had chosen a seemingly progressive child-care facility in the small California city to which we had just moved.

I soon found out that not all of the parents or female staff were so pleased.  These staff and parents believe that men should not care for small children, especially infants, in a child-care facility, and that any man who wants to do so is a pedophile.  Thanks to their beliefs, Adam, the only man ever to be hired in the 25 year history of my daughters’ child-care center, no longer works there.  In fact, he will no longer be able to work with children ever again.

The mistrust of male child-care workers is a widespread phenomenonRonald V. McGuckin –aka “The Child Care Lawyer,” said that in his 30 years of professional experience male caregivers have been more subject to the fear and scrutiny of parents of young children than have female caregivers, especially with regard to changing diapers and potty training.

Returning to my own situation, it was a female staff member’s conviction that men should not change diapers that compelled her and others to keep a careful eye on Adam at the center.  Their sexist paranoia led one of them to suspect Adam of having an erection after bouncing an infant on his lap.  This suspicion, once reported, not only ended Adam’s career in early childhood education, but also the career of the center’s director who had hired him.

Neither private nor state investigations concluded that Adam was guilty of sexual abuse.  Also ignored was the opinion that many staff and families (including mine) found a state investigator to ask leading questions and twist our words.

After reading the state investigation report, many parents had made up their minds:  Adam was a threat to children everywhere because he is a man.

Even though the director denied having heard prior complaints about Adam’s conduct, at a meeting she held with parents, her denial fell on deaf ears.  The majority of parents put all their faith in the content of the poorly written state report.

The Community Care Licensing Division of California now intends to prevent Adam from ever working at a child-care facility again.

In less than five months, Adam went from being one of the best-loved teachers among the children at my daughters’ child care center to a complete outcast in the field of early childhood education.  Such is the power of our society’s fear of male child-care workers.  It’s a small wonder then that men make up only 5.2 percent of child care workers and a mere 3 percent of pre-school teachers in the U.S.

While men in other female-dominated professions experience what sociologist Christine Williams calls a “glass escalator” –quick promotions to the top administrative positions in their fields, based primarily on their sex, Adam’s case leads me to believe there is no such glass escalator for men in early childhood education.  How can a man rise to an administrative role in a field requiring care for children if he is not trusted with children’s basic care?  Even directors must often change diapers, help children use the toilet, and put children down for naps.

And maybe that’s what distinguishes early childhood education from other female-dominated professions.  The entire field, from caregiver to director, is hands-on, service-oriented care for children.  Declaring men unfit to provide such care is not only about sexism against men, however.  It’s also about sexism against women.  The greater the fear of men in caring professions, the more women are left to shoulder the responsibility of care work.  If women experienced equality in all professions, then perhaps they wouldn’t regard child care as their exclusive domain, and wouldn’t feel threatened by the participation of men. After all, without glass ceilings for women, there would be no glass escalators for men.

But without more men in child care centers, how are stereotypes about them going to break?  How can we teach U.S. children not to regard early childhood education as the exclusive domain of women, when they see only women caring for them?  What message are we sending today’s youth when we glorify involved fathers and stay-at-home dads but vilify male child-care workers?  Other nations are tackling these questions head on, by holding conferences on men in early childhood education and encouraging more men to enter the field.  I think it’s high time the U.S. did the same, so that seeing men like Adam with our nation’s children is a cause for celebration, not fear.

Lata Murti is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Brandman University, part of the Chapman University System, and the mother of two girls, Aivia, 4, and Lilya, 17 months.

26 comments
  1. Sue Yockelson said:

    Lata, I appreciate the paradox you highlight. Not only do men stay away from childcare because of its low prestige in society and notoriously low pay, we need to ask ourselves what institutional and attitudinal barriers are there preventing men from entering the field. The research on the importance of responsive caregivers and on the “father’s” contribution to development have been studied, their is little known about the effects of non-paternal, consistent male caregivers on development. Any takers?

  2. Don Piburn said:

    We as a society need to acknowledge that social institutions with a uniform workforce do not inspire gender equality, social justice, and other democratic values so critical to our children’s future. Advertisements featuring men in nurturing roles are appearing with greater and greater frequency in the mainstream media. Images of men capably nurturing and caring for young children without a woman in sight are increasingly common in print, television, and on the internet. Nurturing men are depicted in ads for products and services including cereal, carpet, department stores, wireless technologies, and more.

    Take a look at MenTeach (www.menteach.org), a non-profit international clearinghouse for both men and women seeking information and resources about men teaching. Another ongoing global effort, The Working Forum on Men in Early Care and Education is at http://worldforumfoundation.org/wf/wp/initiatives/men-in-ece/. Note the following article by Dr. Noelani Iokepa-Guerrero of the University of Hawaii. It is entitled “Raising a Child in Punana Leo: Everyone (Men and Women) play an important role”. In it she notes that twenty three percent of full-time staff in this Hawaiian Language Nest program are men, which is among the highest percentages of male teachers of young children on the planet. (http://www.ccie.com/library/5018130.pdf).

  3. Its very sad to realize that one of the biggest barriers to men in childcare is women despite all the research that shows gender balanced workplaces are better for everyone but especially for children. Its what drove me to set up the London men in childcare network. A place where men find support, have a voice and can lead on research about men working with small children. Check us out as we are a positive example for the world.

    • Julie Fernendez said:

      Thank you June. The society needs people like you to bring good things and justice to all

  4. I can empathize with “Adam”. I am a man who has worked in the Early Childhood profession for nearly 20 years, and I deal with bias on a daily basis. I usually start a new class now by giving a speech to my assistant, and anyone else working in the classroom. I call it my “I’m a man, and this is what I do; get over it” speech. Basically, I explain that I am willing and capable of doing all aspects of my job. I allow children to sit on my lap. I dress them and change them. I’m there when they need a cuddle, and I’m there when they need discipline. I recommend they find employment elsewhere if they have a problem with it. Where parents are concerned, I have a bit of a different approach. If a parent asks that a child not sit on my lap, I tell them that will be okay, but it means I will have to forbid the child from doing this with any of the staff so it does not appear we are discriminating. If they ask me not to dress, potty train, change their child, etc. I simply tell them these are all aspects of my job, and if they don’t want me to do my job, they should seek a different place for their child. Usually, their attitude changes right away, and I believe I have changed many of their opinions by taking good care of their children.

  5. Steve said:

    I just want to say here where I live in the Uk ( England ) I am training to become a Early Childhood Educator for the under 5’s and I did my Level 2 in early years education and 2016 I will be doing my Level 3 Diploma in the Early Years Workforce which once fully qualified allows me to work with babies, toddlers and Pre-School Children and yes I am a man involved in the early years and it is my belief that children need a balance of both male and female role models in their life as many children are being brought up by single mothers without a father around and that mean that child or children of that single mother will grow up without a father figure.

    So by having a man or men working in Nurseries and Pre-Schools, children will have that role model to look up to.

  6. Julie Fernendez said:

    Thanks for the article. The society as a whole should come forward and accept males as caregivers and give them the opportunity to work without suspecting in every thing. When women caregivers touch children during diaper changes and potty times, people look at this as asexual innocent caregiving. However, for the same activities male caregivers are suspected and considered as bad. This is truly injustice to human kind as males are also brothers and fathers and equally have a similar caring and innocence asexual caregiving mind that the society both men and women do not accept. Only when the society accepts such a good relationship then the whole perception and trust will increase and men will become more responsible towards children and family. Just because men are kept away from children, the true bonding between men and children got broken over time and today children only feel and work with female caregivers missing the other side of parenthood which is a bit different but nice.

    • Thanks for your time reading it and the insightful comment, Julie!

  7. Eamon Doolan said:

    I am a male in Childcare and I feel like a woman in the mid 1970s trying to prove I have place outside the kitchen. A person should not be judged on Gender sex or race but on a person’s ability to do their job anything more is sexism and discrimination. I am a very successful teacher and have proven that men are very capable of being successful early years educators . I have and will continue to be a pioneer for men in Childcare and ask do not judge us at first glance but at the quality we give to your children. Kind regards Eamon Doolan Pre School teacher Ireland.

    • Thank you, Eamon, for serving as pioneering proof that men are very capable and successful ECE teachers!

  8. carol said:

    surely the point has been missed here… yes there is no reason why men should not be child carers.. but not men who get aroused by children

    • if arousal is actually what happened. That was the allegation, but no one could confirm it, including the state investigator who questioned all the child-care employees multiple times.

  9. Ethan said:

    This is ridiculous! Why should someone be fired just because of there gender!?!

  10. rochelle sellman said:

    my assistant wanted CA LIC311A some time ago and was informed of a great service that hosts a searchable forms database . If others are interested in CA LIC311A as well , here’s a https://goo.gl/Kd7UhD

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