If your child is lucky enough to have a male educator, they are in the minority when it comes to schooling in Australia.
Male educators make up just two percent of the workforce in Australian early education, compared to 18 percent in primary schools and around 40 percent in high schools.
Australia's first longitudinal study of teacher numbers has revealed the number of male primary school and high school teachers has fallen 10 per cent and 14 per cent respectively since 1977.
Dr Kevin McGrath led the study, Are male teachers headed for extinction? The 50-year decline of male teachers in Australia 1 for Macquarie University (he now works for the NSW government). Dr McGrath says part of the problem is that no government in Australia had a policy to encourage men to take up teaching.
According to Dr McGrath, it’s very clear that the younger the children in education settings, the fewer men in the workforce.
“There are two ways we can think about the factors causing this situation. First, this echoes the perception that teaching young children is ‘women’s work’, or not suitable for men. And as we’ve seen historically in Australia, work that’s perceived as women’s work is undervalued, underpaid, and perceived to have lower status,” says Dr McGrath.
“Another reason is how men are perceived in Australia. The characteristics of men that are valued in Australia are sporty, assertive, strong, rough blokes – the ‘man’s man’. Men who don’t conform to the dominant types of masculinities, for example because of appearance, sexuality, or career choice, are marginalised, made fun of, ridiculed, and sometimes treated with suspicion.”
The Macquarie University study drew on annual workplace data, calculating the proportion of male teachers in Australia from 1965 to 2016. The study found male primary school teachers will disappear entirely from government schools by 2054 and be ‘extinct’ in Australia by 2067 if the decline continues at the current rate.
What men offer
Dr McGrath says while there aren’t a huge number of differences between men and women in early childcare, he believes men tend to be more accepting of rough and tumble play in young children.
But when it comes to being good educators, men offer the same things as women do, which is why there should be an aim to have both women and men working in education settings.
“Young children distinguish between men and women, boys and girls, based on physical appearance, they observe how people who look male or female behave, and they then use that gender knowledge to make generalisations about others.
“Essentially, they learn how men and women are different and how they should behave as a boy or girl. In early education settings, where around two in 100 educators are male – what children learn is that adults who are affectionate, kind, loving, and concerned about education, are all female. So those traits must be more appropriate to display if they’re a girl, than if they’re a boy.
“This isn’t to say that children won’t learn that men can have these traits - and some boys are naturally very caring and affectionate - but for some children, from a young age, they don’t get to see men who are kind, caring, loving or concerned about education.”
A male teacher's perspective
Adam Angwin is the centre director at Goodstart Early Learning in Tuggerah, New South Wales. When he started there, he was one of two male educators and, as he progressed through different roles in the service more male educators joined the team.
“It was something that our team and families had embraced and celebrated as it gave their child the opportunity to be surrounded by both female and male role models and directly overcome the typical stereotype of the roles males and females could play in a child’s life and the workplace. It was important to me to ensure I continued to focus on engaging males in early childhood education and care,” Adam says.
“We also believe that it is a positive for children to be exposed to both genders when at the service. It is great for them to see how females and males collaborate and communicate together without any gender stereotype issues.
“For some children they do not have a male role model in their home life and our male educators are able to provide role modelling and a positive attachment for these children with a male. Some children just prefer a male as a companion and we are able to provide this for them.”
According to Dr McGrath the Australian government can be blamed in many ways for not encouraging males to become teachers. He believes the government has turned a blind-eye to this issue.
“This reflects something deeply engrained in Australian society, and it is those perceptions that need to change if efforts to encourage men to become teachers and early childhood educators are ever going to succeed,” he says.
“Another point I’d make is that it is difficult to advocate for men in education while women face greater disadvantage in the Australian workforce more broadly. We need to solve those problems.”
Progress being made
Dr McGrath maintains some progress is slowly being made to recognise the role of men in the lives of children. There is the Australian Association for Men In Early Childhood and the online #BecauseWhy campaign which is trying to break gender stereotypes.
But when it comes to really encouraging more males to be educators, Dr McGrath says it is a difficult issue and there’s no single solution to this situation.
“We need to change our perception of the education profession and restore the status it deserves. We can start with better working conditions, recognition, and salary that is proportionate to the demands of the job. Working in early education settings is rewarding and fun, but it’s not easy - it’s exhausting, demanding, and requires sophisticated knowledge of developmental psychology.
“We need to change our perceptions of men and the characteristics we value of men in Australia. It is ok for a man to comfort a child: to be kind, affectionate, and to take an interest in education – we should value those characteristics.”
Dr McGrath also believes society must stop marginalising men who do not fit within the stereotypical masculine ideal.
“There may be plenty of men who would enjoy working in early learning settings, it’s a great job, but they shouldn’t have to worry about what other people might think or how they will be treated if that’s the career they choose.”