Living in a 'manny' state - Male childcare workers

by Catherine Moonan - Independent.ie

The childcare industry is typically driven by females - should we accept this or try to correct such a gender inequality?
One of the first films that comes to mind when I think about men in childcare is the comedy Three Men and a Baby (1987), where three bachelors share an apartment in Manhattan.

After Jack, the actor, goes filming in Turkey, his two friends find his baby daughter, whom he knows nothing about, left outside their apartment door.

The two men were clueless -- a bit like myself, when I brought my first newborn home from hospital over 10 years ago.

Or you may remember the film Mrs Doubtfire (1993), where Robin Williams plays Daniel Hillard, who, suddenly divorced without custody of his children, disguises himself as an elderly Scottish Nanny in order to get the job of minding them.

Thankfully, men don't have to dress up as women in order to mind their kids or anyone else's. In fact, on the west coast of the US, male nannies, or 'mannies' as they're called, are the latest accessory. They're cool, they're hip and, guess what? They're great with kids.

Less than one per cent of childcare workers in this country are male, the lowest figures in Europe, however, numbers have been rising in the last few years.

Mick Kenny is manager of Urlingford Community Childcare in Kilkenny, and is the Kilkenny representative of the Men in Childcare Network.

Kenny has been working in childcare for the last 13 years. For the first eight of those years, he never met another man working in the field.

In the last five years, however, he has seen an increase in numbers. He's delighted to report three new members at their last meeting.

"Childcare involves a lot of hard work," he says. "When you think of the huge amount kids have to learn before they go to school -- social skills, building self-esteem, not to mention using a scissors and how to colour."

For him, childcare is about educating the children and having fun. "Men enter childcare because they enjoy it,'' says Kenny. "It's a vocation."

He finds that working in childcare can be quite flexible and accommodating. Childcare workers, if they have children of their own, can opt to work during term time only. Kenny's four-year-old son attends the pre-school where he works on a Monday and Friday, so he gets to spend time with him as part of his job.

Kenny says that when he's in the playground with his two children, he notices how good some fathers are with their kids.

Stereotypes

"We need to re-examine men in childcare and look at how we can target more men through career guidance in schools."

A few years ago, Kenny took a male transition-year student in on work experience. "He was excellent with the children," he says, "and would have been perfect for childcare." However, on returning to school, he was advised to do nursing.

Where two parents are working all day, it's important for children to have a male role model," says Kenny. "Children learn from what they see around them. If they only see women in caring roles, this forms stereotypes for the child."

Kenny recalls a small group of pre-schoolers who were asked recently what they want to be when they grow up. One of the boys said: "I want to be a teacher, like Mick."

"At least, he hasn't dismissed it," Kenny says. "Men in Childcare Network is about getting more men involved in childcare and supporting them when they're there. The Network has some advice for childcare centres when it comes to male childcare workers.

"Be pro-active and communicate the positives to parents and staff, and make it a fact that men are involved with your programme. Consider men and women in an equal and positive way. Have policies and procedures in place for the protection of all, ie, children and childcare workers.

"Men are usually working in isolation from other men, and they may need specific support from their supervisors to feel they are doing a good job and are included in the childcare team."

Karl Nugent is manager of N Zone in Kinsealy, north county Dublin, which has been owned by his parents, Mike and Mary Nugent, for the last 16 years.

Karl is very proud of the fact that 11 out of their 32 staff are male. N Zone takes care of 75 children in their creche and pre-school and another 75 in after-school care.

The majority of male childcare workers in N Zone are involved in sporting activities with children in after-school care. They actively look for candidates who are involved in sporting clubs. The family has a strong sports background, with two of the boys having played tennis for Ireland.

Nugent says that even though they have plenty of men working in the after-school area, a male childcare worker has never applied to work in the creche or pre-school.

"However, if they did, they would be interviewed on their experience and capability, like all other applicants."

Robert Buckley is director of Cocoon Childcare, one of the largest childcare providers in the country, with 14 childcare facilities and more on the way.

He is currently treasurer of the National Children's Nursery Association (NCNA), which has the largest membership of full day-care providers, and was the first male on the board three years ago.

Robert's mother ran a creche from her home in Rathfarnham, so Robert grew up helping out.

He says that childcare is typically an industry founded and driven by females. Out of 200 staff in Cocoon, they only have one male childcare worker.

"Childcare doesn't seem to be an option for men in Ireland," he says, "whereas in Scandinavian countries, it's a very normal option for men to care for the zero-six age group as it is for the six-18 age group."

He feels that low-wage levels for childcare workers in this country is one factor which discourages men.

"The professionals that we see in childcare are not truly recognised," he says. "The level of subsidy for childcare is nowhere near what primary and secondary schools receive from the government."

It has to be said that another reason for men not entering childcare is the stigma associated with men and children. Some people, both men and women, are just uncomfortable with the idea of men looking after children, especially younger ones.

However Dr Niall Muldoon, national clinical director of the CARI Foundation (Children at Risk in Ireland), welcomes more men into professional childcare positions and encourages a positive promotion of men in childcare.

Balance

"It is something that is very important which we, as a society, undervalue. The need to have more men in childcare should be a priority," he says. "Children need a gender balance, particularly in the pre-school years. The benefits of men in childcare are huge."

Muldoon also says we need to be vigilant where children are concerned.

"We need to be aware and concerned for all children. Professionally employed childcare workers, male and female, should be vetted," he says, and this can take up to six weeks.

"A male role model is good for children and is hugely important. It needs to be considered as a viable option," he says.

The National Flexi-Work Partnership, a collaborative venture between the Centre for Gender and Women's Studies, Trinity College Dublin, FAS, the Irish Business and Employers Federation (IBEC), Aware and Age Action Ireland, carried out a pilot project a few years back to encourage more men into childcare.

Their report was published in September 2005, and the majority of managers, staff and parents felt that male childcare workers were a positive asset to the childcare profession, as they provide children with a positive male role model.

One of the main findings was that children, and thus in the long term, society, will benefit from more men working in childcare, as they will see that both men and women take responsibility for caring.

So, although we're far from being a 'manny' state, the recent slowdown in the economy could be a positive turn for men in childcare. It's possible that some have lost their jobs, and decide to re-skill in a different area.

You know the saying, if you combine something you love with something you're good at, you'll never have to work a day in your life.

May 25, 2009

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