No Man’s Land: Where Are the Male Daycare Caregivers?

A gender-segregated caregiving profession is not optimal for children.

Posted Jul 05, 2019

Most U.S. children today grow up in a dual ecology, spending significant time in both home and daycare. Child daycare in the U.S. is a messy hodgepodge of arrangements varying in quality, size, and scope as well as in their philosophies, goals, affiliations, and regulatory status. Yet one central unifying characteristic remains: Male caregivers are virtually nonexistent. This is a problem for several reasons.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

First, children’s gender concepts develop early, and are shaped in part by their proximal environments. Much of this learning occurs through interaction with gender role models. In the absence of male caregivers, the gender message daycare children receive is skewed and retrograde.

Research has shown that boys in particular tend to experience lower quality interactions in daycare. Daycare boys also manifest more externalizing behavior problems than girls. This may be due in part to the feminization of caregiving, which may create a mismatch between some boys’ interests and tendencies and those of the staff.

Moreover, American society has grown to value labor force diversity. It is now normative for Americans to support, and expect, equal career access across the board for individuals of all genders. Historically, this effort has focused on making predominantly (white) male professions accessible to everyone. But what holds true for all-male institutions should, in fairness, hold true for all-female ones. If we value diversity, equality, and inclusiveness, we should value it both ways.

The absence of male caregivers puzzles further in light of research showing that male and female caregivers both are capable of taking care of children, interacting sensitively with them, teaching them well, and creating secure attachment bonds. Most married heterosexual mothers, when asked whom they would trust most with their child’s care other than themselves, choose their husbands. There is no evidence to support the notion that men are, by some biologic matrix, inherently incapable of providing warm, responsive, professional, high quality childcare. For their part, female caregivers are generally open to, and accepting of, the idea of male caregivers joining their ranks.

Further, research suggests that gender-integrated care environments are better for children. An integrated daycare environment is more likely to help children to learn that caring is part of masculinity as well as femininity. Integrating the caregiving workforce would carry the additional benefit of having children grow up in an environment that resembles the one into which they are being socialized. The presence of male caregivers may provide particular benefits for boys from father-absent homes, for obvious reasons. The benefits may extend to daycare fathers as well, as they may feel more at ease interacting with a male caregiver. This in turn may encourage greater father participation in the child’s life. Such participation has been shown to improve developmental outcome for children.

The arguments for gender-integrating the child caregiving force are compelling. And yet men are still by and large absent from this line of work. Why is that? The research literature has identified two main reasons:

One reason for the absence of men from the caregiver ranks is the traditionalist stereotype (and historical reality) framing childcare as "a women’s domain." The resulting stigma characterizes males in caregiving roles as either unmanly or incompetent. The stigma may stir otherwise qualified and interested men away from the field. Those men who do enter the field become de facto norm violators. As such, they face backlash, criticism, and suspicion, which in turn may serve to drive them away. (Also, men who enter the field are often perceived as "leaders in training" and are channeled quickly into leadership positions in the profession. This phenomenon is known as the “glass escalator.”)

In addition to facing questions about their manliness or competence, male caregivers must also face darker questions about their motives. American culture—in which kids are generally safer than they've ever been—is nonetheless awash in child-related fears. Many parents may fear that male caregivers represent potential danger. The fear is understandable. Men are more violent than women, and that includes violence against children. Yet the fact that most pedophiles are men does not mean that most men are pedophiles. Preventing individuals from pursuing a given professional path on account of some group characteristic amounts to discrimination of the type our society aspires to end. Still, at present, negative perceptions may be enough to deter some men from entering the profession, or prevent some daycare directors from recruiting and hiring men.

The second reason identified in the research for males' absence from the caregiving profession has to do with the job’s low status and dismal pay. This, of course, is not a problem limited to male caregivers. Rather, it characterizes the childcare field as a whole. Our society likes to pay lip service to the importance of children and childcare. Yet lip service does not pay the rent. Developmental psychology research has long established that when it comes to children, early intervention begets better outcomes. But research findings do not a policy make. Currently in the U.S., low status and low pay for caregivers are normative. So, too, is low quality daycare. (It's not difficult to connect the dots.)

According to the Economic Policy Institute, childcare workers earn a median hourly wage of $10.31. Many dog walkers are paid more. According to the website, childcare workers earn an average of $15,473 per year, less than crossing guards. This state of affairs is, of course, rotten for all concerned; yet for men, who are still the primary earners in many two-person families, the prospects of such low earnings are doubly daunting.

The upshot in a nutshell: A gender segregated child caregiving force is a disservice to children, caregivers, and society as a whole. Becoming aware of, and owning, this fact is a first step toward changing it.


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