earlychildhoodA fascinating article in today’s Toronto Star Men stand out as daycare workers about men in professions dominated by women.

Well, perhaps not dominated, if you use the language as reported in the article, it’s “a job pretty well the domain of women.” Those who study gender in our culture tell us that language matters. Dominate – a word clearly tied to aggression and subjugation – is the word we use to describe fields where men are employed in disproportionately high numbers. Where women enjoy such privilege, even in whopping imbalance, such as here where the College of Early Childhood Educators awarded 599 certificates to men, out of a total of 41,700 (that’s 1.4%), we use a much softer word like “domain.” Interesting.

Also interesting is to consider the actions taken in fields which are the domain of men, where outreach and public education and sometimes even affirmative action-style programs are crafted to welcome women.  And when the field is dominated by women, what actions are taken to attract men?

Angela Gauthier, associate director of academic affairs at the Catholic board, said a male role model, for both boys and girls, is desired in the early grades, where it’s still largely women. She said the board sends out a clear message that men are welcome. But if there are no candidates, there are no hires. As well, a member of the school’s public relations team said Durham isn’t actively pursuing male candidates. Both Gauthier and Hartwell point to what some may consider a low salary for a potential “main breadwinner,” with pay ranging from as low as minimum wage to just above $30 an hour, all depending on experience and employer.

In other words, nothing is done. It’s not that the program directors disagree that men are necessary to increase the diversity of role models, especially for boys who are by nearly every measure fairing increasingly poorly in school compared to girls. Instead we invoke as an excuse the differential salary enjoyed in this particular female dominated profession. Yet such an excuse is rarely invoked to justify the low numbers of women in engineering.

Our discourse on gender in the workforce consistently fails to appreciate the complex interplay of forces that result in different rates of men and women in certain professions. Ironically acknowledged as a means of excusing male absence from early childhood professions, the fact is men still do overwhelmingly enjoy the burden of serving as “main breadwinner,” and that is to deprive men of options, to force many men to abandon potentially meaningful careers in order to take on jobs that might be more empty, tedious or dangerous – but which for all those reasons pay more. If we want to increase the numbers of women in male-dominated fields, we must also be equally interested in increasing the numbers of men in female-dominated fields. If we were to take on this far more holistic approach we might appreciate the real substantial issues at the core of both problems, namely those societal gender expectations that are every bit as burdensome on men as they are on women, resulting for example in men constituting 97% of all workplace fatalities.

What would such a social education project look like. Well it might model itself on successful programs that have changed the public’s perception of what women are capable of in the workforce. Just as images of women working as engineers, architects or miners (well less so that last one for some reason) have broken down our sexist stereotypes of women, we must see more images of men as nurses, preschool teachers and babysitters.  Societal perception of men in these professions is every bit as sexist as that which prevented women from entering male dominated professions.

Western University professors Dr. Rebecca Coulter and Dr. Margaret McNay are authors of a reference article that explored men’s experiences working as teachers with young children. Their research evolved around seven men and their experiences teaching early grades at elementary schools, but Coulter said the findings could easily be applied to male ECE workers. The paper concludes: “valued as that rare commodity, men in elementary teaching, their motives, abilities and sexuality were nonetheless often viewed with suspicion.” She said it’s not just the parents but even some principals and fellow teachers who looked with apprehension at males teaching early grades, for myriad reasons.

We have a lot of work to do. Imagine if women constituted 1% of engineers and defending that number with this kind of statement:

. . We are focused on the public interest and professionalism, and do not take gender into account, although it is an interesting question.”

Yet that is part of the written statement issued by Julia Lipman of the College of Early Childhood Educators:

“since the college’s inception in 2008, the number of new members each year who identify themselves as male has consistently been observed at approximately 1 per cent of the total membership. . . . We are focused on the public interest and professionalism, and do not take gender into account, although it is an interesting question.”

If this kind of statement would be unacceptable in justifying 1% of women in a male dominated field like engineering, where gender diversity actually brings very little benefit to the public interest as such, why is it acceptable in the case of early childhood education, where gender-based role models clearly are important. For Lipman to suggest the lack of men in early childhood education has no connection with public interest, while boys are failing schools in record numbers at least partly because of a lack of male role models, is disingenuous at best and ignorant of her own professional commitments at worst.