Many have had their say on why ECE attracts and retains so few male teachers. The drivers of the phenomenon are well known, including low pay and invisibility of the profession.

Another of the main demotivators is what’s known as ‘accusation bias’ – the “sadly prevailing societal suspicion of the ‘real’ motivations of men who choose to work closely with young children”, as Te Rito Maioha chief executive Kathy Wolfe puts it.  We don’t like to admit it, but the reality is that a big proportion of our society, at least privately, view men working in early learning as ‘weird’ at best, and at worst as latent sexual abusers trying to position themselves closer to their prey.

A related societal pressure that nice people would never admit to is hopefully on its way out – how could any real man possibly admit among pub mates to dreaming about a career doing women’s work? There is good reason to suspect that the generation currently thinking about their futures are making great strides in this direction – in fact, teenagers I’ve spoken to seem genuinely perplexed at the fact that such a tired set of gender norms ever existed. What a great argument against those seeking to extend the human lifespan: some ideas need to die.

We hear lots of high-level waffle from the usual talking heads about needing a tectonic shift away from deeply ingrained societal prejudices before we can make any meaningful progress in male early learning teacher numbers. A journalist will of course view this as political obfuscation 101: you’ve chucked your lot in with a good cause, without having to actually come up with any real ideas, commit yourself too fully, or spend any money.

But what can we actually do about this seemingly intractable problem, where the rubber meets the road? We hear so often that ‘change starts at home’, so what can centres themselves do to help allay the fears of men who are afraid to commit to ECE lest they find themselves at the centre of a spurious accusation of abuse, from which they may never recover? How can we help them feel that we want to help contribute to shifting those tectonic plates?

Peter Reynolds, CEO of the Early Childhood Council (ECC), made it clear that this article wasn’t going to include any easy answers, or by-the-numbers advice for centre managers everywhere. The simple reality, says Peter, is that without that societal shift, there is exactly zero point talking about specific measures that centres could introduce in order to achieve harmonious gender representation – because accusation bias comes from the communities they serve. Peter strikes the tone of someone who has had this conversation many, many times before – he’s pared back the niceties, and isn’t afraid to use unambiguous language in his assessment of the problem and its causes.

“I think it’s very difficult for centres to try and mitigate the community view that permeates this area.

“I’ve walked into childcare centres in the afternoon, and you see a little toddler fall over and start to cry. If a female teacher starts to comfort them, nobody bats an eyelid. If a male teacher goes up and comforts the child, invariably there’s a complaint on the manager’s desk the next morning. In that sort of scenario, who would want to put themselves at risk? I still get phone calls – not as many as I used to – from childcare centres saying, ‘look we’ve just employed our first male teacher – wonderful chap, we’re pleased to have him on board, but we just wanted to check with you Peter, do we need to amend our nappy changing policy?’ It’s that sort of stuff that applies a social and emotional pressure to males wanting to work in our sector, that is unreasonable at the end of the day.”

Reading research and media coverage of the topic, it’s striking that many of those talking heads mentioned earlier seem at pains to downplay the part that accusation bias plays in scaring men away from ECE teaching. Striking because, as a male, I haven’t read any reasons that don’t pale in comparison to the idea that I would need to be aware of suspicious eyes on me constantly.

One study appears to be saying that accusation bias can’t be the prime driver of the problem, because men are with kids in other contexts, like Cubs, or sports teams. It would seem an obvious point here that men in such mentoring roles such as these have always been acceptable in society’s eyes: not so much when it comes to child care and education.

Kids need their nappies changed. In early learning, that job is done by teachers. Yet society demands that this simple equation is something centres need to agonise over, and choose among equally unpalatable options. Peter says he fields regular phone calls asking for his advice.

“I know centres out there that will take an [uncompromising] view, they will let their parents know that they have a male teacher on board, who will be working as a teacher like anybody else, they’ll be involved in all the activities including changing. There are others that do accommodate the concerns of parents. The extent to which by doing so they’re perpetuating this social pressure is a problem, but I can’t blame them for doing that – they’re doing it because that’s the view of the parents that have their children enrolled at that facility. It’s very much a societal issue.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to respect the relationship between a centre and their parents. If you hold to that view that a teacher is a teacher, you might be seizing the moral high ground but if half your parents walk out the door, and you end up shutting down, what have you won? That’s the reality that centres face.”

Russell Ballantyne is director of Dunedin’s Early Learning on Stafford, a centre that he is proud to tell me employs four male teachers. Russell is also leader of ECMenz, a support group for men in early childhood education. He says he prefers the option that involves taking a stand – telling parents that they have teachers, not male or female teachers, and that as such everyone is treated equally, like it or lump it.

“That’s just perpetuating the idea that men are a danger to children. Some centres seek to take the risk away. What we are then doing is treating guys like they aren’t safe to be with children, and we’re teaching children that men aren’t safe to be with children.

“There are some superb centre managers out there who would say to parents, if you don’t want our staff to change your child, then perhaps this isn’t the centre for you.”

Russell believes that society will change when the sector stops talking about teaching as a gender issue. He also wants to highlight the many parents he interacts with who are helping to break down old barriers.

“In order to move this thing forward, what we need to do is to recognise that this isn’t a gendered issue, but that it’s about protecting children.

“We need to ensure that our policies and procedures are in place to ensure that children are safe in our centres.

“At the end of the day, our parents want that gender balance – that’s why they bring their children to our centre. A pre-schooler’s world can be very feminine. It may be that a lot of children haven’t had that contact with men. And so the parents may be a bit worried. But in many cases they are seeking out that contact anyway.”

We’ve all heard that the tide may be beginning to turn – numbers of male early learning teachers are inclining upward – in fact there’s been a quadrupling of the percentage of men in the workforce as a whole in recent years. When asked what’s going right, Peter is wary of attaching much significance to percentage increases.

“‘Quadrupled’ means you’ve gone from one to four. The numbers are still remarkably small, it’s under 3 per cent. It does seem to be moving in the right direction, and long may it continue. We’d like to see 13 percent, not three.

“Is that realistic? Any number you quote is going to be realistic, it’s just the timeline that’s attached to it.

“What’s going right? Time. The persistence of services who say ‘no, we definitely want this person working in our centre’. Hopefully time will continue to impact on this to the extent that some centres who have amended their changing policy will feel comfortable changing them back again.”

So is that Peter’s advice? Stick at it?

“It is going to take time, but I don’t offer up that advice without the second part of it, which is that they do need to continue to try and change that social pressure, to change the attitudes of their parents, and make sure that people are given a good chance.”

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