If you were to walk into a nursery or primary school in the UK today, chances are that the staff you would see there would be women. In fact 98% of staff in early years’ childcare in the UK are female (meninchildcare.co.uk).

Toy manufacturers such as the makers of Barbie and Lego have come under public attack for gender stereotyping, which led the latter to release a range of female scientist figures – a sell-out range. But it seems widely accepted that the person paid to look after or educate your child in their early years is almost certain to be a woman.
A parliamentary inquiry into parenting and social mobility from earlier this year highlights that “female domination of the early years workforce, combined with ingrained gender stereotypes has created an environment of family support services which are aimed almost exclusively at women and which, inadvertently, do not appear to sufficiently value the role of fathers,” (Fatherhood Institute 30th March 2015).
The report goes on to say that fathers are often side-lined when family services are developed and that support networks and tools are often designed by women for women. When referring to primary child carers, the term ‘parent’ has effectively become synonymous with ‘mother’. Not only are fathers virtually excluded from working in childcare but their needs are largely ignored when it comes to developing support networks, thus discouraging active fathering. The situation is self-perpetuating with the dominance of female workers in the childcare industry reinforcing existing gender stereotypes, promoting the female agenda and pushing men further away.
And what message does it send to our children? That only women can work in childcare? Or that women do caring, nurturing jobs while men go out into the big corporate world? Or most concerning, that it is odd if men choose to work with children.

What are the barriers that stop men going into childcare and early years’ education as a profession?
The childcare website, ‘Nurseryworld’ highlights the risk of being wrongly accused of indecent behaviour as a key factor in preventing men from entering into the childcare profession. However, when Nurseryworld conducted a survey of over 1000 parents, it revealed that 98% were in favour of men working as trained childcare professionals, thus contradicting the theory that men working in childcare are perceived as threatening in any way.
In a poll of 113 male school leavers aged 16-19 conducted by Nurseryworld, none was interested in entering childcare as a profession. The main reason given was that it is a female dominated industry (54%) and concerns about what other people would think (50%) about entering into a female dominated industry and/or questioning their motives for working in childcare. Interestingly, low pay was cited by 38% of respondents and was not the main barrier to entering childcare as a profession.

What is being done to increase male representation in the childcare arena?
There are now several active pressure groups and charities specifically focused on improving the rights of fathers and promoting positive male role models in the child care arena: The Fatherhood Institute is a registered charity working on policy, practice and research into the role of fathers in the UK, actively campaigning to breakdown social stereotypes and to represent the rights of fathers in the UK, as well as preparing both boys and girls for a shared role in caring for their children in the future; Men in Childcare is a training organisation based in Scotland that offers training opportunities to men who want to work in childcare, its aim to combat “a shocking lack of male role models in the profession”. The organisation launched an all-male introduction to childcare training course to encourage men to participate in the training process and has trained over 1000 men in accredited childcare courses since its launch in 2000.
There have been some positive results: the number of men training as primary school teachers increased by 50% from 2008 to 2012 (Nurseryworld.co.uk). Career prospects are good with teachers twice as likely to progress to management level jobs after 3.5 years in comparison to other graduates (Nurseryworld.co.uk). Getting more men into childcare roles is absolutely essential in changing the mind-set of children towards their carers and educators, providing a diverse mix of role models and halting gender stereotyping at source.
On a national level, the implementation of the living wage in 2016 will go some way to uplifting pay in the lower end of childcare earnings, thus to some extent improving the earning power of child carers and presenting it as a more viable option for breadwinners in the family.

What can Employers do to support parents at work?
There is much that employers can do to support parents at work. From a legal perspective, all employees have the right to request flexible working and there is some evidence that fathers have taken this up as well as mothers in order to facilitate childcare arrangements. However, ONS Labour market statistics from Jan 2013 show that 87% of men are employed in full time work versus 54% of women. Part time work is taken up by 43% of women compared to just 13% of men. Thus part time work remains heavily female dominated and this is largely due to caring responsibilities. Employers need to be proactive in analysing the roles that are available part time and breaking down assumptions about roles that ‘cannot be done part time’, whether it is due to seniority or volume of work.
Even seemingly small things such as leaving the office on time can be problematic if there is a long-hours culture and leaving ‘early’ is frowned upon. Encouraging a positive work-life balance, discouraging presenteeism and providing role models, particularly at senior levels, who live these values can transform the support available to parents – and anyone else who has interests outside the workplace.
Supporting new legislation, such as Shared Parental Leave, by offering a positive reaction to fathers who take up this right and removing any stigma that may be attached to it, will go a long way to normalising hand-on fathering.
In short, the legislative frameworks are there to support active parenting for mothers AND fathers. They now need to be used effectively and embedded into workplace culture if we are to succeed in offering positive role models of both men and women actively engaged in parenting responsibilities.