Men in the Nursery: Gender and Caring Work


Claire Cameron, Peter Moss & Charlie Owen

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    The authors would like to thank the workers and parents who took part in the study and the managers of centres who permitted us to interview staff on the premises. Without them the study would not have been possible. We would also like to thank colleagues at Thomas Coram Research Unit and readers who included Peter Aggleton, Bronwen Cohen, Chrissie Meleady and staff, children and parents at Sheffield Children's Centre, Margy Whalley, and Robin Wright. They did not all agree with all of our views and conclusions, and as authors we take responsibility for the contents of the book, including any mistakes it may contain. The authors would also like to thank Susan McQuail who conducted interviews for the study, and Caroline Bell who helped in innumerable ways. This work was undertaken at Thomas Coram Research Unit which receives support from the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Employment. The views expressed in this book are those of the authors and not necessarily those of either Department.


    When we began the work on which this book is based our starting point was what happens when men are employed in nurseries and similar early childhood services, and the traditional gender composition of childcare work was altered. As the work proceeded, and in particular as we interviewed workers and parents – both men and women – it evolved to become a study of gender and caring work. If one of our main starting questions was ‘why are there so few men in childcare work?’, a main question by the end was ‘why are there so many women in childcare work?’.

    Specific childcare institutions have a critical role in the book. We argue that a central feature of virtually every childcare institution is that it is gendered: not just because the workforce is nearly always women, but because the way the work is thought about by parents, workers, government policies, colleges who train workers, managers and policy makers and, not least, wider society, assumes childcare to be ‘women's work’. Within the broad equating of caring work of all sorts with women's work, childcare is particularly equated with, and considered akin to, one form of caring – mothering. Yet despite the gendered nature of childcare work, gender is regularly ignored, a taken-for-granted assumption, so self-evident it is rendered invisible. One of the important consequences of studying the experiences of men childcare workers, and comparing them with those of women, is that it makes visible the gendered nature of the work and opens up possibilities for exploring and questioning this phenomenon.

    The study on which this book is based was undertaken in 1997 and 1998. It was part of a larger investigation entitled ‘Men and Women Working in Day Care’ and carried out by us at Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education University of London. The work was initially funded by the Department of Health (1996–1998), and subsequently by the Department for Education and Employment (1998–1999) as responsibility for day care services was transferred from one Department to another. The larger study was concerned with describing and analysing the characteristics of staffing of day care services for young children as we detail in Chapter 2. Because of the funding arrangements, the study took place in England. In that respect it is an English study, although some of the data sources on which we rely refer to Britain (e.g., the Labour Force Survey) or parts of the UK or Britain (e.g., studies in Scotland). In the book we will use the convention of referring to Britain, while bearing in mind that there may be local variations in circumstance.

    Our interest in gender in these services for young children stemmed in part from earlier work by the European Commission Childcare Network. This expert working group provided support to the Commission's Equal Opportunities Unit between 1986 and 1996 on the broad subject of reconciling employment with the care and upbringing of children. The European Union has long recognised the importance of men assuming more responsibility for the care of children as one condition of achieving gender equality in employment, and the childcare network made the theme of men as carers one of its priorities. This theme covered both men as fathers and as workers in services for young children and the Network produced reports investigating the implications and possibilities of employing more men in childcare services (Ghedini et al., undated; Jensen, 1996).

    Through this earlier work, together with visits and an international seminar undertaken as part of the study, we noted the different approaches adopted to the issue of men's employment in childcare in Britain as compared with Scandinavia. In Denmark and Norway, for example, the idea and practice of men childcare workers is widely accepted, if still not yet widely implemented. In Britain, there is much more ambivalence and caution. One of our aims was to question and understand these national differences.

    This book begins by giving voice to childcare workers, through presenting the stories of six men and women working in childcare centres of various kinds. It shows them to be a heterogenous group, with differing origins and routes into childcare and education work and differing ideas about the effect of having a more mixed gender workforce. This introduces a major theme of the book – diversity, not only between men and women, but among men and women. Their working lives and their gender identity in their work, as recounted in their stories, provide a way of relating the theoretical material which follows to the substance of ‘real lives’.

    In the remainder of Chapter 1 we set out the literature, ideas and debates that we have found particularly relevant to our exploration of gender in childcare institutions. We use the term ‘gender’ to mean a socially constructed, rather than a fixed, category, that is a source of individual identity and which is constructed and makes sense in relation to others and in relation to circumstance. Various debates about the ways in which gender is analysed across the study of work, organisations, and identity have proved helpful to the present study. But two have been particularly important to our analysis and are outlined at the end of Chapter 1: the relation between mothering, fathering, the self and work; and the purpose and ethos of childcare institutions.

    Chapter 2 considers matters of mapping and sourcing. It gives a brief account of early childhood services and the early childhood workforce in Britain, making some comparisons with other European countries, in part to make visible the ‘taken-for-granteds’ in the British set up. It outlines the current policy context for early childhood services, and the statistics on men in caring work both in Britain in some countries overseas. Chapter 2 also provides an account of the research context and process. We detail the methods adopted in the study and the various data sources drawn upon. There is a brief introduction to the centres where we interviewed workers and from which our sample of parents was drawn, and the chapter ends by noting the evolutionary processual character of our analysis.

    In Chapter 3 we begin to use the experiences of our informants to document how and why men and women become workers in childcare institutions. Their educational and work backgrounds reveal many different ways into childcare. The idea of childcare as a linear career is less apparent than a series of work moves structured by opportunity and circumstance. Men workers seemed to receive less support and more ambivalence from their families and friends for their choice of work than women workers did. The critical work of the institution in valuing its workforce not just for being there, but also as a body of skills that require extension and stimulation, emerged as a central theme.

    The working environment for staff as a group of adults and in their practice with children is examined in Chapter 4. It considers the job conditions of childcare work, including a comparison of salaries with the national average. Both formal and informal ways of working and being together as ‘men’ and ‘women’ are examined. We discuss various exclusionary practices by staff, which potentially cast the man worker as in a position of being on the margins of institutional life – the man worker as Other (and here it is important to note that in the minority of childcare centres which employ men workers, there are almost invariably just one or two). Issues about whether the work with children is the same or different for men and women workers are considered along with issues of difference between girls and boys. Tensions between gender difference and individuality are explored. Finally, the issue of role models, one of the most frequent justifications offered for wanting more men childcare workers, is critically questioned.

    Chapter 5 analyses the interaction of the institution with the outside world, through staff practice and relations with parents. It considers both the development of an ideology of parent involvement across early years services and how the men and women workers we spoke to went about establishing their relations with parents. We elicit differences in workers' relations with mothers and fathers, and question the common assumption that men workers will encourage more involvement by fathers.

    The views of mothers and fathers themselves are discussed in Chapter 6, drawing on interviews we undertook as part of the study. Again, the national picture on parental views about early childhood services is reviewed before examining findings for the light they throw on parental support for, and reservations about, the practice of employing men workers. Differences between men, and between men in varying work contexts, recur as an important theme in the parents' accounts.

    Issues of risk and protection are considered in Chapter 7. A link between men workers and potential sexual abuse of children in childcare institutions is often claimed: we set out to analyse the evidence. We situate the British and North American debate in relation to Scandinavia, contrasting the different approaches adopted in policy and practice. We provide workers' perspectives on issues of physical contact with children and give an account of how allegations against workers are interpreted and managed by childcare institutions. We argue that the issues of men's employment and the issues of protection from risk of sexual abuse are both important but should be uncoupled and viewed as distinct.

    The book is drawn to a close in Chapter 8. We review the evidence we presented and revisit and explore further four central themes of the book: these are caring work as mothering work; incorporating the self and gender identities; gender visibility and reflexive institutions; and gender equality and resistance to men. Finally, we reconsider the case for changing the gender composition of the childcare workforce, and suggest steps that might be taken to effect such change. The links between making gender visible and the reflexivity of the institution's practice are reiterated and considered central.

    ClaireCameronPeterMossCharlieOwen Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education University of London
  • Appendix 1

    Further details of the male and female workers interviewed:

    Table 1: Duration in post and gender of childcare workers
    Table 2: Job titles of men and women childcare workers in rough order of seniority
    Table 3: Gender, marital and parenting status
    Table 4: Childcare workers' household arrangements
    N = 21Male and Female
    Married/cohabiting with own children8
    Married/cohabiting with step-children1
    Married/cohabiting with no children3
    Single parent with child1
    Single, divorced, own children + step-children1
    Single, living with parents/family3
    Single, living independently4
    Table 5: Childcare workers by gender, age and seniority
    Average age (years) for group of postsMen (n = 11)Women (n = 10)
    Senior posts3834

    ‘Basic’ included the following job titles: nursery officer, nurse and assistant, project and support worker, family aide and family care worker.

    ‘Senior’ included the following job titles: senior teacher, teacher plus supervisor, manager, deputy, owner, headteacher.

    Appendix 2

    Details of the Centres Visited

    The criteria for the inclusion of centres in the study were:

    • Half the sample to be in London, half to be from outside.
    • A mix of types of institution.
    • Half the sample of men to be ‘new recruits’, in post for around two years; half to be ‘old hands’, in post five years or more.
    • A woman member of staff who had been in post a comparable length of time to the man/men.

    Using professional contacts in local authorities and the private and voluntary sector, the following centres were found with at least one male employee. They reflect the diversity of England's group childcare provision, although they over-represent the public sector.

    • Private sector: two day nurseries that were part of a chain; one in the City, one on the northern fringe of London. One Montessori nursery school in west London.
    • Public sector: three local authority day nurseries, one run by the social services department, two run by the education department, all in London. One family centre run by the social services department of an eastern county.
    • Voluntary sector: two family centres run by a national children's charity, one to the west of London, the other to the north. One children's centre workers' co-operative, in a northern city.

    All the centres were visited between March and August 1997.

    Appendix 3

    Some Characteristics of the Parent Sample
    Household Organisation

    Seventy-seven parents took part in the survey of parents' views. This represented 52 mothers/co-mothers and 25 fathers from 51 households. Thirty-five were from couple households, and 16 from lone mother households. In all the lone mother households, the father was not pursued for interview, because of the possibility of encroaching on sensitive post-marital issues or disputes. In nine couple households, the fathers did not make themselves available for interview.

    Table A2.1: Mothers and fathers and employment status

    Mothers' employment: of 52 mothers/co-mothers, 27 were not earning their own income: of these two were sick or disabled; one was doing voluntary work; four were students; and 20 were unemployed.

    Of the 25 mothers who were employed, 19 of whom worked full-time, these job titles were given:

    1. high status: consul-general; money market dealer; assistant director of fund management company; personnel officer; legal negotiator; principal officer (social services department); tutor in law; bookshop business manager; charity business manager; photographer/lecturer; administrator; neonatal nurse; coordinator of social work education (university); teacher; social worker; nursing lecturer; nursery teacher; manager of theatre company.

    2. low status: medical receptionist; care assistant; supermarket display assistant; supermarket provisions assistant; administrator (social work).

    Fathers' employment: of 25 fathers, only three were not earning an income; one was a student, the others were unemployed. The remaining 22 gave the following job titles, 21 of whom worked full time:

    • high status: senior software engineer; head of structured finance in an international bank; global business manager; chartered surveyor; project manager; supermarket deputy manager; quantity surveyor; youth and community worker; development officer for ethnic minorities; assistant psychologist; photographer; personal tax manager; community worker; day centre manager; artist; principal officer (SSD); freelance tutor and translator; maintenance manager.
    • low status: carer; electronics panel wiring; agricultural worker.

    Women were much more likely to be not earning a living themselves, and more likely to be in low status occupations. Some of the women not earning were part of a household with a high earner; and some families had no earners. Of the 16 lone mothers, ten were unemployed.

    Access to Centres

    Household composition was broadly related to the type of centre their children attended. Children of lone mothers were much more likely to be attending public and/or priority access centres such as family centres or local authority day nurseries than to be attending private centres.

    Table A2.2: Household composition and access to childcare centres

    In summary, the families came from across the range of employment status and household types. There were couple families whose job titles and whose access to private centres suggested an affluent lifestyle; there were lone mothers who were unemployed and whose attendance at priority access centres suggested they were at a material disadvantage. There were also couple families and lone parents whose job title suggested a broad middle range income. Most striking, though, was the concentration of disadvantage, of income and household status, among those attending the family centres and public day nursery with priority access.

    Table A2.3: Age of parent respondents
    Children of Parent Respondents

    Altogether, the parents interviewed had 97 children between them: three-quarters of the 51 households had one or two children; and only 13, or one quarter, had three or more children. As would be expected, most of the children were under school age: this was the case for two-thirds of the households, although a small minority did have children of over 17 years of age. Of the total of 97 children, 57 were boys, and 40 were girls.

    Table A2:4 Ages of children and proportion of the total who were preschool age
    Age of childrenNumberProportion under 5
    Under 14
    1–2 year olds27
    3–4 year olds3364 (66%)
    5–16 years old27

    37% parents had used the centre for one year or less; 25 or 49% had used it for one or two years, and 7 or 14% had used the centre for three or more years.


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