Why we must recruit more men into the early years — and how we can do it


By Dr Jeremy Davies from MITEY (Men in the The Early Years)

Latest figures show that in England and Wales only 3% of staff working in early years education are male; in Scotland it’s 4%.

In more than three-quarters of early years settings, there is not a single male employee.

This is not a phenomenon unique to the UK: it is global.

Investing — financially and strategically

But we know that countries which invest in more coordinated gender equality policies are doing better at encouraging greater male participation.

The proportion of male early years educators is more like 10% in Norway, for example; Germany, after concerted investment and effort through its government-funded Men in Kitas campaign over the last decade, has broken the 6% barrier.

The UK’s figures have barely improved over the last 20 years.

The lack of gender diversity is not unique to early years education; there are other ‘caring’ workforces where men are under-represented.

But it is extreme – men make up 15% of the primary school workforce, 14% of social workers and 11% of nurses, for example.

So something is going badly wrong.

Often the blame for all this is laid at men’s door: we hear that men aren’t interested in this kind of work; that it would threaten their masculinity; that the pay is not good enough.

Tell that to the man who makes your cappuccino, stacks the shelves in your local supermarket or delivers your Amazon packages!

Less attention tends to be paid to thinking strategically about how to attract men into the workforce and look after them once they’ve joined it.

Getting rid of stereotyped gendered roles

And even where settings recognise the lack of men and see it as a problem, all too often their rationale is that having more men would be helpful in creating a better ‘gender balance’ – effectively strengthening gender inequalities by suggesting that men and women are fundamentally different, with women being cast as more ‘natural’ at caregiving (like mothers are) and men offering some not-very-clearly-defined-but-highly-heteronormative male ingredient.

The latter usually translates as “men are better at rough and tumble (with the boys)”; “men like doing outdoors play (with the boys)” and “we need men to act as role models for the children (boys) who don’t have fathers at home”…or a mixture of these.

This is problematic in several ways.

First, there is no evidence that women are ‘naturally’ any better at the caregiving elements of early education than men are – and to suggest so, or build a workforce on the basis of such an idea, is to ‘box in’ female staff to a stereotype that overlooks the possibility of their excelling in other skills and areas (like outdoor play, for example)…and do the converse to men.

Second, beliefs about the number of ‘absent’ fathers are wildly exaggerated.

For example, in a major study of highly disadvantaged families using children’s centres, 22% of mothers said their child’s father looked after the child every day; a further 53% said he did so on a minimum of 3 days per week; only 3% answered ‘never’, and 70% went on to say they could ‘always’ rely on him to look after the child, if needed.

Third, in the tiny minority of families where fathers are truly ‘absent’, what difference might the presence of a male early years practitioner, per se, make on the children affected?

An interesting question, but we are not aware of any studies that furnish us with an answer. This is not to minimise the enormously positive impact that early years practitioners can have on children’s outcomes – but evidence suggests that this holds regardless of gender, and that in terms of ‘role modelling’, children draw on all the adults around them as they look for people to confide in, learn from and emulate. 

Why bother with gender diversity?

So why should we care about the lack of gender diversity in early years education, then?

There’s a pragmatic reason: in the context of an Early Years recruitment crisis, we make our lives doubly difficult by excluding men, and therefore halving the potential talent pool from which we could be recruiting.

But there are social/philosophical reasons too.

Here at MITEY HQ we believe that recruiting more men is a question of building a representative workforce. Just as we should care about whether the early years workforce draws its staff from minority ethnic groups, we should care about whether it is open to, and inclusive of, men as well as women.

Further, we believe that early years providers have a duty to show children from the earliest point possible, that men and women are equally capable of, and responsible for, looking after and teaching them. In that respect, recruiting more men is a stepping-stone towards a more gender-equal future for our children and grandchildren.

Evidence shows that children’s career aspirations are restricted by gender stereotypes at a very young age.

By the time they are 7, girls are nine times more likely than boys to say they’d like to be a teacher. Looked at this way, it is easy to see the long-term benefits that could arise from bringing more men into the field.

Get started with our free guide

In our free 20-page Guide to Recruiting Men into Early Years Education – endorsed by the Early Years Alliance, National Day Nurseries Association and the Men and Boys Coalition, among others – you will find a host of suggestions for practical ways to make your setting more inclusive of potential male recruits.

These include:

  • Replacing ‘feminised’ job titles like ‘nursery nurse’ with more gender-neutral terms like ‘early years practitioner’
  • Keeping a check on sexist ‘workplace banter’
  • Including ‘positive action’ statements, images of men and male case studies in job advertisements, to clarify that male applicants are welcome
  • Holding open days targeted at attracting male recruits
  • Promoting early years and other caring jobs to boys of all ages
  • Working with Job Centres to promote early years careers to men
  • Promoting vacancies via fathers who use early years provision, as well as mothers.

The Guide is available as a free download to members of the MITEY network (which is also free to join).

Register for your copy here

MITEY is run by the Fatherhood Institute. It is a national network and campaign which works to bring more men into the early years education workforce, and support them once they are part of it.


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