Dewi Cooke takes a look at the child-care industry and wonders why only 2 per cent of carers are men.
It’s feeding time in the baby’s room of the Queensberry Children’s Centre and Yarrow Andrew is tenderly serving up an appetising yoghurt mix to the under-twos.
Some show interest in the creamy goop, others are more curious about the adults in their midst and stare up silently from their little wooden safety chairs. Of the 40 or so staff at the Carlton centre, Andrew is one of three who stand out. That is to say he’s a bloke.
The male-to-female ratio is no anomaly but a reflection of the “feminised” nature of caring work in Australia, where men make up just 2 per cent of the child-care workforce.
While there has been a push at the federal level for more men to enter teaching, there has been little similar movement within the children’s services sector. It’s a vocation where workers don’t need formal training to get a job and pay rates are low compared with teachers.
The dominance of women is not exclusive to Australia. In Europe, a need for more male role models for children has been acknowledged and moves are afoot to initiate change.
The Blair Government has set a target of increasing the number of men in child care to 6 per cent of the workforce. In Denmark, men already make up 8 per cent, while in Norway the figure sits around 10 per cent. The Norwegian Government’s target is 20 per cent, its rationale being that more men in such jobs would help reverse gender discrimination.
But Brian Newman, head of children’s services at the University of Melbourne, isn’t so sure that male child-care workers are the key to resolving gender inequality.
“Children from a very young age are aware of how the world works and they know who runs the world – that it’s men,” he says. “Whoever teaches them in child care or early childhood settings isn’t necessarily going to change that understanding that they get from everything in their life.”
Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that women gravitate towards jobs in retail or the health and community sector. Recent pay equity figures put the gender pay gap at about 13 per cent across all industries, thanks largely to the boom in the male-dominated mining sector.
Flexible hours are recognised as key to the jobs women take on, mainly so that they are compatible with caring for children, a role that mostly still falls to women.
Child care sits within this area of “women’s work” and the relatively low pay – the weekly award wage ranges from $525 to $1006.20, depending on years of experience and qualifications – is acknowledged as one of the deterrents for men.
Another issue, say workers who spoke to The Age, is the sense that their long hours and commitment are undervalued by the community.
But what attracts them to the job is less tangible than money. Andrew, 37, says that experience in the job has shown him “what a fabulous job it is”. “I intend to stay here until I feel that I’m no good,” he says.
A trained kindergarten teacher, he has worked in child care for 10 years and also has a Bachelor of Arts majoring in politics and women’s studies. His interest in gender politics have informed what he calls his “feminist commitment” to continue working in the field. He doesn’t believe that he brings a more masculine style of caring to his work and says the years spent in predominantly female work environments has impacted on aspects of his own behaviour.
“I think I have a tendency to do that, to play down aspects of being male while I’m here partly because I know that when I started out it was easy to be marginalised as being able to do rough-and-tumble play with those boys in kinder,” he says. “I think partly because of my women’s studies I strongly wanted to be able to do the job as the job, not as a man.”
Christopher Stitt’s take on it is that he has been viewed differently because of his gender. The 40-year-old recently left his job at a communityrun child-care centre to take on the role of assistant kindergarten teacher at a prestigious private school.
Stitt says in some work- places he felt like the only positive male role model in some children’s lives.
“I have worked in some really low socio-economic areas and the children have almost no role models at all – kids almost never saw fathers,” he says. Their response, he says, was to see him as someone they could play cricket or footy with, someone who could plug that gap left by their fathers.
It’s a picture former Labor leader Mark Latham painted in 2004 when he spoke of the “crisis of masculinity” affecting young boys, which he linked to dropout rates at school, youth unemployment and delinquency.
But Newman, who is responsible for the overall management and operation of the university’s children’s services, including program development, argues that expecting men to innately present positive portrayals of masculinity is not so straightforward.
“It depends on what you expect these men to model. Do you expect them to show children traditional ways of being male or do you expect them to show children non-traditional ways of being male or do you really just want children to see that different people do different things?” he says. “So if you’re wanting to reinforce traditional male values then having men involved in caring in an explicit way doesn’t help because it’s not the ‘appropriate’ role model. If you want to see it as alternative, then there’s similar dangers in that it says that this is somehow different. And that’s where those notions about presenting a role model, I think – about what role models are – can become problematic.”
Andrew says throughout his career he has watched as boys and girls become aware of their differences and observed the invisible pressures for them to divide along gender lines.
“Kids are very clued-in to gender, even from the early days. I know that some of my babies will be starting to notice those differences,” he says. But rather than present a male stereotype of strength and stoicism his hope is to “give space” for the children to be whatever they want.
“I like one of the comments I got from one of the parents and she said, ‘I’m glad you’re here Yarrow, because I hope you’ll teach my son multi-tasking’. And that’s what I hope I can be is providing them with a role model of someone who can be caring or strong or fun as a male. “Because often they will see those differences, they’ll see their mums do the bulk of the caring and they’ll see their dads late at night or at the weekends and it’s like I want them to see other ways of being.
“One of the highest compliments I’ve had in my teaching was one of my male kinder kids, when he left he said, ‘I want to be a teacher like you when I grow up’. To me that was a sign that he might in the future feel like it was possible. For him it wasn’t gendered female it was maybe just a good job to do.” The problem facing many in the industry is not just how to attract men like Andrew, Stitt and Newman – but also how to keep them. Newman was one of the first two men in New Zealand to graduate from early childhood studies and says he’ll continue to work in early childhood because he “absolutely loves it”.
But Stitt’s recent decision to become a kindergarten teacher was partly driven by the pay issue.
“There’s no other career opportunities for you apart from directing a centre,” Stitt says. “You are working as a social worker, dealing with problems with parents, referring children, advising parents on where to send their kids to school.” Career path and remuneration worries 23-year-old Adrian Zacharias too.
He has recently taken on fulltime child-care work after casual jobs in the industry. He believes the children he’s worked with are more grounded for having a male carer and they “knew that they could get away with a lot more with me, as in flipping me upside down and being much more physical”. But it’s also the emotional demands of the job that take a toll and which he believes aren’t acknowledged. “It’s pretty harrowing, you know? You’re emotionally and physically putting yourself forward for all these children that you’ve looked after and you don’t get much for it,” he says. “I really do think that the pay in child care is sub-standard and needs to be rectified.
“Traditionally it’s been seen as a woman’s role… but for guys to stick around in this sector something has to be done about that.”