In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.
Picture someone working in the Early Years.
What do they look like?
If you pictured a woman, you’re probably not alone. The Early Years workforce is predominantly female, with group-based and school-based Early Education and care providers reporting that 97% of paid staff are female. And it’s not just a UK issue. Globally, men make up a tiny percentage of people working in the Early Years
I sat down with Jermaine Payne, a nursery manager in London, to find out what it’s like to be a man in the Early Years and how we can encourage more men into the sector.
“We don’t have to feel that it’s a female-dominated field. There are lots of opportunities for men in the sector and a lot of benefits. We need to normalise, from a young age, that men can be caregivers.”
Men in the Early Years demonstrate to children early on that caregiving doesn’t have a gender.
“Often, when children grow up in lone-parents families, it’s with the mother,” explains Jermaine, “So from a young age children see the caregiver role as one that’s for women.”
When it comes to challenging the stereotypical view of gendered jobs and roles, the earlier, the better.
Research from The Fatherhood Institute and Lancaster University found children receive career guidance very late in their education and learning. By their mid-teens, (and probably earlier), children have established ‘clear ideas around gender and career pathways’.
This means that young men often simply don’t recognise that Early Years is even a career option.
But Jermaine and other men in the Early Years are helping to change that. Having now been in the sector for 18 years, the children Jermaine looked after as toddlers are now old enough to consider entering the sector themselves.“I see them in my local area,” says Jermaine, “They remember me and I still talk to them. It shows those boys, who are now developing into young men, that men can do it. The person who looked after them in their Early Years is a man.”
Challenging the seemingly ‘positive’ gender-based stereotypes is also essential for men to thrive as practitioners too.
The tendency is to assume that we need more male practitioners in the Early Years as they’re good at physical and risky play, or can fill in for absent fathers. But these stereotypes can also be harmful, by placing extra stress or responsibilities on male educators.
“Male practitioners must manage the expectations of parents, colleagues and children in terms of offering something ‘special’, novel, or interesting, and being a good, responsible, and trustworthy practitioner. In addition to this, they must be skilful and trained in managing physical play with children. As this area of learning is perceived as a natural characteristic in men, the need for training on how to engage in physical play with children is sometimes overlooked.”
“It’s more down to your personality,” explains Jermaine, “I’ve seen women want to be physical and get stuck in. It’s not just a male practitioner thing. Just because we’re men doesn’t mean we have to do the physical stuff and play football. Let’s normalise women doing that too.”
“I was always the only man in the settings I worked at. I think I’ve maybe worked with five men in total, in all the time I’ve been in Early Years. I’ve been in the sector for 18 years now.”
Jermaine was only 16 when he entered the sector through an introduction to childcare course, offered by his local authority. He’d initially wanted to be a sports coach but all the places on that course were taken. So he opted to learn about childcare instead.
“I thought, ‘That’s fine, I can work with children, no problem,’” laughs Jermaine, “But I’ll never forget the first time I walked into a nursery! It was so different from what I expected.”
But aside from getting used to the noise, mess, and of course, the nappies, being the only man all the time was tough.
“It was difficult for me because I always knew there was a stigma around being a man in the Early Years.” says Jermaine “We’re talking the early 2000s, and I knew there was a potential for people to make comments or accusations.”
And Jermaine wasn’t alone in his concerns. More than half of male practitioners reported that they have contemplated leaving the profession due to concerns around allegations of sexual abuse (compared to 6% of women).
Luckily for the children in his care, Jermaine’s love of the role keeps him in the sector. Through his hard work and commitment, Jermaine earned a leadership position within 8 years of starting his introductory course and has now been in management 8 more years.
“I’m passionate about child development.” says Jermaine, “I love to make those attachments, those bonds with children. You’re making a change to a child’s life. Giving them experiences they might not have. That’s our job and that’s what matters. I love helping families.”
And Jermaine feels things are improving.
“There’s more awareness now and people are more inclusive,” says Jermaine.
“To start with, I didn’t know much about child development or care. I thought it might not be for me,” says Jermaine, “But the feedback I got from my colleagues was that I was really good with the children, that my interactions were good. So I thought, I can do this! I’ll give it a shot.”
This support and encouragement lead Jermaine to not only complete the introductory course he’d started, but earn his levels 2 and 3 as well.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Jermaine.
“I started to realise that being a man in the Early Years could present some problems,” he explains. “I’ve had parents point-blank refuse to have me as their child’s key-person, because they didn't want me to change nappies. I’ve been through it all.”
But Jermaine’s manager at the time was fully supportive of him and backed him up completely, which is key to retaining male practitioners. The manager informed the parents that Jermaine would be their key person should their child join, and if that wasn’t for them, they could find another setting.
Aside from having a supportive team around you, Jermaine says that male Early Educators must also have faith in themselves.
“I knew I had skills I could have taken elsewhere and found another career.” says Jermaine, “But I’m persistent and strong-minded. I could see that being in a nursery, I had an impact on children, on their lives. I had attachments with children and I couldn’t let that go. So, I do what I do best and block out all the unnecessary noise.”
Norway managed to increase the amount of men working in their Early Years sector five-fold. And, although still only 9 percent are men, this makes Norway’s the most gender-diverse Early Years sector in the world. So how did they do it?
Jermaine believes that men in the Early Years should be more visible, perhaps taking workshops in schools and colleges, and being present on social media, to create awareness. Research shows that boys ‘receive very little exposure to early years as a career’, so greater visibility would certainly help.
“Men in the Early Years need to make a stand,” says Jermaine, “We need to get out there and create awareness of why men being in the Early Years is good!”
In fact, Jermaine himself has considered consulting or coaching in the future, to support more men into the Early Years. Watch this space!
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.