by Donald E. Piburn, M.S.Ed

[MenTeach: Don Piburn has been working in early education for years. He has been instrumental in recruiting and retaining men teachers through his work in hawaii hosting MenTeach retreats serving on the AEYC affiliate board and being a founding father of the  World Forum in Early childhood education(MECE)]

I take great pleasure in attending the annual conferences of the National Association for Young Children (NAEYC). For me the NAEYC typifies the apex of professionalism, in addition to being something genuinely affirming about achieving a critical mass of early childhood educators at the annual conference.

These are my people! They speak my language. They are the ones who might mutter, “We need to wait our turn” when a shopper squeezes ahead of them in the checkout line or “Are you sure you did your best?” when the mechanic fails to fix their car.

In their midst, it is unnecessary to couch my opinions in a preliminary explanation of what it is I do for a living. Yet my deepest feelings of loyalty, acceptance and camaraderie collided with reality as I plucked the 2004 NAEYC Conference Preliminary Program from my mailbox.

In my own subconscious version of the Where’s Waldo?¨ game, I scanned the cover photo of 350 to 400 conference attendees looking for male faces. My heart sank when I could confirm only four or possibly five men in the crowd. A colleague had once placed such obvious numerical disparities in context by joking that there is never a line to the men’s room at an early childhood education conference, but that is not entirely accurate.

Though the image unmistakably conveys the scarcity of male early childhood educators at large scale professional events, signs of gender disparities will be evidenced in even more subtle ways. Each year during certain periods of high traffic, NAEYC conference attendees frustrated by long waits for the women’s facilities will commandeer a number of the ground floor men’s restrooms. Ever accommodating, the convention center staff will post little signs directing the relatively inconsequential male minority to a facility some distance away from the main center of activity.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Gender disparities will emerge whenever a presenter asks her or his audience to sing, which is not unusual at such conferences.

Early childhood educators sing with an abandon reserved for those who know the child within, but a baritone stands out in our choir. Quite unconsciously people nearby will scan the crowd seeking to identify the source of an uncommon resonance. Faces turning in unison will draw unanticipated attention and feelings of peculiarity to the few.

I have felt similarly marginalized following a particularly engaging post-presentation conversation when I looked up to discover that I was unintentionally sitting in on the subsequent presentation on the care giving needs of newborns. A sea of self-gratifying faces seemed to follow as this obviously misguided male rose to withdrawal. Sorely outnumbered, the few dare not protest against even the most blatantly transparent evidence of gender biases.

The mission of the NAEYC and specifically Goal #3 proudly asserts the importance of: “Building and maintaining a strong, diverse, and inclusive organization.” Such lofty principals would seem to stipulate that the paltry 3% to 4% of early childhood educators who are male and the fact that those numbers are slipping be defined as an unconditional outrage.

Only when the actions of the NAEYC reflect the value that it places on diversity, equal employment opportunity, and working for a just world will current disparities reflective of a persistent and sorry history of gender discrimination be forgotten relics of a less-enlightened and bygone past.

The most effective way for the NAEYC to rectify such “in-house” gender disparities is a matter of debate that belongs to their elected leadership. A position statement on the importance of men in the lives of young children and affirmative action measures make sense because they promote an interest in creating a more inclusive and diverse workforce for today and the future, which is precisely what the NAEYC professes to be most about.