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 phenomenon. Ronald 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.