Boys, Men and a Lack of Will

Part 3 in a series of essays.

This 12 year old boy really wanted to talk to a man… he was talking to Mr. Jones as if he was his father. – School Counselor, Sacramento, CA

Most men say they were never asked.
Marcello Bermeo, 2013

In the rather cryptic words of Marcello Bermeo above lies the answer to many questions. Why don’t more men get involved in the lives of young children? Why don’t more men consider a career in early care and education? Why don’t we see more men at professional development conferences? Why don’t more fathers join parent leadership groups? Why don’t more fathers participate in their child’s early school experiences?
The past 30 years have provided me with a wonderful array of opportunities to explore diversity as it relates directly to children and families. I have worked in suburban and inner city schools, with infants, toddlers, preschoolers and school-aged children. I have worked in private, school district, Head Start and State Preschool programs. And I have worked with children in restorative justice and residential settings. In most of these settings, there has been a singular, inescapable, yet rarely acknowledged bias. Whether by intent, accident, or disinterest – the bias against males is alarming.
This bias wields its influence upon a host of stakeholders – the children (boys), the parents (fathers) and the male teachers. It is evident in the number of boys suspended, expelled, identified for special needs… evident in the number of boys in placement in residential settings… evident in the absence of fathers in parent organizations… and perhaps most evident of all in the scarcity of men as early educators.
As one of these rare men in early care and education, I have frequently found myself in settings that were astonishingly gender-skewed. Whether in ECE courses, at ECE conferences, in preschool settings or at professional meetings, and even at community gatherings, the gender ratio in the room has regularly been spectacularly unbalanced.
As a teacher, when working directly with children, I have frequently observed this same gender bias at work influencing the curriculum, daily schedule, conflict resolution strategies, team strategies, communication styles and parent involvement priorities and strategies.
Robert Connell tells us that “gendered behavior is created and maintained through the interaction of the social division of labor…, the dispersion of power…, and the distribution of cathexis…, the access one has to ways of fulfilling one’s emotional needs…” (Sargent, 2001). One must therefore contemplate the self-perpetuating outcomes related to this absence of men as educators. This absence impacts the learning of gender behavior by both boys and girls. Men are cast as disinterested parties in the nurturance of young child well-being. Men become disempowered in matters related to the cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development of children. And finally, men lose access to important experiences as they relate to their own emotional well-being.
As I prepared to complete my coursework in an otherwise remarkable Master’s program emphasizing diversity, the curriculum stood disappointingly silent in addressing perhaps the single most glaring bias in ECE – gender equity as it relates to early educators and caregivers. One of the final assignments involved viewing and commenting upon a series of 16 interviews or vignettes related to anti-bias in early education. Not one of the 16 interviews or vignettes included a speaking part by a man. Even the textbooks have given short shrift to the issue. For almost two years, my classmates and I explored “fairness” without giving thought to equity as it relates to the gender of teachers and caregivers.
Given that the disciplines of Sociology and Education in general and Early Education in particular are progressive – the lack of recent research into this gender gap is actually quite surprising. While it can be generally agreed that there are perceived and/or real differences between men and women teachers and that these differences may influence outcomes for children there is little research that might confirm or deny such benefits. An abbreviated literature review identified recent studies of interest that may shed some light on the relationship between men as teachers and caregivers in early care and education programs and the immediate and long-term outcomes for children, although the majority of these studies focused on elementary school teachers and children.
Also during my explorations, it became clear to me that the very absence of men in ECE contributes to the research challenge. The studies that I found were regularly limited in scope by such considerations as:
• The scarcity of men available at ECE programs to study.
• The scarcity of programs at which there was sufficient gender balance among staff to make meaningful observations or conclusions as to the benefits of such gender balance.
• The lack of availability of a sample size of men large enough from which to adequately control for such important factors as experience, position/job title, and education.
• The lack of availability of a large enough male workforce from which parents, administrators and colleagues might draw meaningful conclusions from regular interaction.

Studies were regularly limited in study population size, were qualitative or narrative in nature, and were informed by social forces outside of the classroom. In other words, the very nature of the subject, the absence of men in ECE, makes a scientific, controlled, and responsibly generalizable study of this subject particularly challenging. Cameron, 2001, in a review of the literature, observed that the studies on men in ECE are “mostly small-scale studies” many of which consisted of interviews of a limited number of men. In the studies cited by Cameron, 2001, the number of men interviewed ranged from four to 12. While these studies may “identify recurring and divergent themes and issues, and seek possible explanations for these” the small sample sizes “raise questions of reliability and representativeness” (Cameron, 2001). Cameron goes on to observe two additional limitations of the research – the “token” nature of the men studied and “the varying cultural contexts in which these services are located” (Cameron, 2001).
Rolfe, 2005, identifies the following gaps in research on men in early education:
• The benefits of a mixed gender workforce
• The role of employers’ recruitment practices
• The experiences of men in working in childcare
• The effects of locality on men’s recruitment to childcare
• Turnover among male workers
• Detailed knowledge and attitudes of young people towards childcare employment
Examinations of the challenge of men in early care and education have tended to focus on primary grade teachers. Writings have explored a variety of issues from the impact of male role models… to the impact of male teachers on students… to teacher preparation… to gender representations of touch… to the very nature of maleness.

Do American ECE professionals have the will to create a more equitably-gendered world for young children? According to Peter Moss, the European Commission long ago recognized that “the gender-based division of family and employment responsibilities not only constrains women’s lives, but also deprives men of the emotional rewards resulting from the care and development of children” and “greater solidarity between men and women is needed if men are to take on greater responsibility for the caring role” (Jensen, 1996). It cannot be overstated how crucial the second part of that statement is for the successful integration of men into nurturing roles.

References:

Cameron, C. 2001. Promise of problem? A review of the literature on men working in early childhood services. Gender, Work and Organization 8(4)
Jensen, J. J. (1996). Men as workers in childcare services. A discussion paper. European Commission Network on Childcare. London.
Rolfe, H. (2005). Men in childcare. Occupational segregation, Working Paper No. 35. Equal Opportunities Commission. Manchester.
Sargent, P. (2001). Real men or real teachers? Men’s Studies Press. Harriman, Tennessee.

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