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Only three percent of UK nursery workers are male

Is that a problem?

Over the course of British history, the link between your gender and what job you do has become much weaker. But it is far from being broken. 65 percent of police officers, 78 percent of CEOs and 84 percent of security guards are male. 62 percent of librarians, 74 percent of hairdressers and 82 percent of cleaners are female. Few industries, however, are quite as gender-skewed as early-year education and care. Take a peek at the payrolls of UK nurseries, pre-schools and playgroups and you’ll find that men make up just three percent of the staff.

Does this matter? Some people think so, including the UK government, who pledged some funding for the situation in 2019. But the underrepresentation of men feels a bit different from many of the efforts to improve women’s representation in certain occupations, which were often a response to how patriarchal societies have historically blocked women from being able to follow their own ambitions in the workplace, especially when it comes to high-status, high-paying roles in fields like science or politics.

That stands in contrast to early-educational roles, which are not highly valued in British society: UK nursery workers generally get paid £14-24k a year, way under the UK average salary of about £32k. Some people would argue that it follows that the main reason most men aren’t entering the profession is because it’s never their best option. One suggestion is therefore to raise wages in the sector. Higher wages could have wide support: plenty of people think societies have made a huge mistake in financially and socially undervaluing a career that is essential for both child development and for enabling parents - and particularly mothers - to return to the labour market. However, the idea that this value increase should specifically be tied to opening the field to men would sit poorly with many people.

Besides, plenty of men do low-paid, low-status jobs, so it doesn’t follow that this can be their only blocker to working in nurseries. Stigma may be more of a problem. There are a couple of ways this manifests: the idea that this sort of work is “girly” and therefore embarrassing, and the idea that men are more likely to pose a danger to small children because of either incompetence or evilness. On this second point, the industry already has in place systems to prevent danger befalling their charges, such as thorough vetting and training. But parents that buy into this trope may vote with their feet against nurseries that hire a lot of male workers, which is a recipe for business failure, and might put them off hiring men in the first place.

Increasing the number of male nursery workers to the point their presence in the sector seems normal, however, could be a long-term solution to parents’ hesitation about them, as well as other men’s hesitation about becoming one. And there are several reasons why pushing through with this plan could benefit everyone. Seeing more men in a childcare role could help smash up society’s automatic association of women with childcare. That could improve the bias against mothers in the workplace, for example. Having good male role models in all aspects of their life can also be beneficial for children, especially boys. And making the early childcare sector one that larger chunks of the male half the population would consider would be one way to alleviate its current recruitment crisis. A 2021 survey found that 4 out of 5 British nurseries are currently struggling to hire staff.

Read our explainer on: gender inequality

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