Why don’t more men consider a career in childcare? And why should we now, for the sake of our children, be trying to close the gender gap? By Grant Woodward.
Paul Byron’s pram is a sight to behold. Expertly equipped with everything he could possibly need in the course of a day’s work, it holds snacks, water bottles, a first aid kit and, perhaps most importantly of all, a selection of much-cuddled soft toys which must not, under any circumstances, go walkabout.
Meanwhile, his young charges happily maraud their way through the playground in a luminous set of high visibility bibs. “If it’s really busy in the park the bibs are a huge help,” Paul explains, speaking with the wisdom that comes with years of experience. “It means I can spot my kids immediately.”
A decade ago, following the birth of his second child, the 45-year-old swapped a career in mechanical engineering to become a full-time childminder as a solution to the constant demands of having to juggle childcare. He hasn’t looked back since – although he readily admits there are a few occupational hazards.
“One of the worst is when you’re looking after several children and one of them isn’t feeling too well,” says Paul, from Moortown in Leeds. “Then they throw up all over you and suddenly you’ve got three children to look after and you’re soaking wet with vomit.
“There are days when I’ve had children aged between six months and 10 years old. On occasions like that you pray for good weather because I’ve found that they all love den-building. I haven’t met a child yet who doesn’t like building a den in the woods.”
According to the Fatherhood Institute charity, we need far more Pauls. Just two per cent of early years childcare workers are men and the charity insists it’s high time that changed.
“Governments have been talking about wanting to improve male representation in the early years workforce for many years, but we’re still a long way from cracking this,” says its chief executive Adrienne Burgess.
“It’s important children grow up understanding that men are just as capable of looking after children as women are.”
Calling for a huge effort to make early years education and childcare jobs more attractive to men, the Institute has produced a Men in Childcare guide.
It’s based on work with eight local authorities, including York Council, and offers recommendations on how to boost recruitment.
The charity has pinpointed a number of barriers facing men who want to work in this field. For a start there are the negative attitudes and damaging stereotypes ingrained over the course of decades, coupled with too few training courses that are marketed at men or designed with them in mind.
Careers advice about working in early years education is also lacking, while too few employers are proactively recruiting men and ensuring that workplaces are welcoming to them.
Then there is the fundamental fact that most men are simply not encouraged to see themselves as “caretakers” of children in the way women are. It means they don’t get the hands-on experience that might lead them to consider a career in childcare.
But why is all this so important anyway?
“If children go into a nursery and see only women then they go home thinking that women are somehow special,” explains Burgess.
“Research has shown that this is fundamentally not true – women do not innately have a special set of skills when it comes to looking after children.
“And there are tremendous benefits in terms of the different priorities and interests that men bring with them. These broaden children’s experiences in a way that just wouldn’t happen in an all-female environment.”
She points to research which has shown that children are aware of the difference between the genders from a very early age and take more interest in people of their own sex.
“A male caretaker helps them to model a diversity of behaviours and does it in a really lovely way.
“It doesn’t just put them into contact with a guy who is interested in sport, but one who changes their nappy and gives them a cuddle.”
She recalls one male childcarer who told her the job made him feel like “you’re a hero every day”.
“Because men in childcare are unusual, every child who sees a male worker hangs off his hands the whole time,” she says. “They stand out and they really are a hero every day.” Stewart MacDonald hit some of the hurdles identified by the Fatherhood Institute when he was looking to start a career in early years education.
The 31-year-old, a former store manager for Halfords, took time off when his wife fell ill and ended up becoming a house husband when she eventually returned to work. It meant taking principal responsibility for young sons Cameron and Harry.
“It was more difficult than I thought it would be,” he admits now, “but it was really rewarding at the same time.
“When Cameron, who’s now seven, was little I was at work a lot so I didn’t spend much time with him. It’s nice to be given a second chance.”
Inspired to become a primary school classroom assistant, he struggled at first to find the careers guidance he needed.
Then he went along to a Men in Childcare conference organised by York Council and everything fell into place.
They swiftly put him in touch with the right person to guide him through the process and secure the necessary funding for his training.
“My son goes to a school that is all female and that’s not a bad thing,” he says. “But I’m a firm believer that you need a bit of everything in life.
“I think what holds men back are the perceptions. When children are taught about ‘stranger danger’, it’s always a man. When children see men working in childcare it’s different, but different isn’t always bad. There are real benefits for kids and we need to redress that balance.”
Paul Byron, for one, is confident attitudes are slowly changing when it comes to men looking after children – their own or other people’s.
“When I started going to toddler groups you did get some funny looks,” he recalls. “But that was 10 years ago. Things are very different now. As a father you can walk into a toddler group and no one will give you a second look.
“But as a country we’re still too steeped in the model of the man going out to work and the woman looking after the children.
“The trouble is it’s often difficult for men to get hands-on experience when they’re working 50 hours a week. That means it’s daunting if you’re not used to having three little lives to look after each day.”
But while he says he might earn three times as much in engineering as he does now, he insists money isn’t the be all and end all.
“I get to look after my own children and make a difference in their lives, as well as hopefully do the same for other people’s kids when they have to work.
“Engineering is important, but this is something that I feel is important for society as a whole. In fact, I don’t think there’s anything more important than looking after kids, is there?”