Nearly all professionals in early childhood care and education (ECCE) are statistically identified as a woman. This information alone has set the stage and tone for many conversations regarding gender in the profession. That said, like everything else related to identity, gender in the profession of ECCE is complex.
What is Gender?
The breakdown of gender representation in ECCE is 97.7% women and 2.3% men. However, gender is not as binary as statistics communicate, society wants to believe and, frankly speaking, many are just beginning to wrap their head around.
As a man who identifies as a cisgender, I didn’t begin to consider, understand and talk about the complexities of gender until recent years. Even after years of building my awareness, I am consistently reminded of blind spots and ignorance. Many of the things I catch myself saying or doing are considered by advocates for justice and equity as microaggressions.
What are Microaggressions
My pronouns are he, him and his. Around the world, this gender identity is dominant over all other gender identities. With dominance—in all of its forms—comes the privilege of being blissfully/painfully ignorant. When ignorance and interactions with individuals who do not identify with the dominant identity—in this case a cisgender man—converge, it is common to consciously and/or subconsciously express microaggressions.
However, in the field of ECCE, being a cisgender man is not dominant. The dominant gender identity is a cisgender woman, which creates a paradox beyond the scope of this article. The microaggressions against anyone who does not outwardly identify as a cisgender woman are strongly impacted. Microaggressions in ECCE not only impact cisgender men but also impact others who do not identify as a cisgender woman.
When Gender Enters the Conversation
At the end of every semester, one of the college courses I teach holds a ECCE program director’s panel. The panel brings together wonderful directors/leaders in the field. The participants share their experience and knowledge with the class through an informal conversation. It is the highlight of the semester.
As is usually the case, this year the topic of recruiting a staff who ethnically, ability-wise, culturally and linguistically reflect the population of children and families being served came up. One of the directors, with positive intentions, said, “My girls are great. They support and care for one another regardless of any identity differences.” With that, I interjected and asked the panel if they have employed any men. “Yes,” they said, adding the caveat that men are treated differently and have limited responsibilities they can perform.
After a few follow-up questions, the directors explained why.
“It’s really about protecting the man. We don’t want men changing diapers or being left alone with children because they could be accused of sexual abuse. That could have an irreparable impact on their future and I don’t want that to happen. And parents express their discomfort with men caring for their child.”
Another director added, “It’s true, and it’s sad because men who want to be early educators and care providers tend to be great teachers, a wonderful addition to a program, and a role model that many children don’t have in their lives.”
Stepping back, the intentions were well-meaning, and for the audience, a satisfying, logical, harmless answer. But as a man in ECCE who is always reflecting on my actions, working to address my microaggressions against others, I needed to draw attention to the microaggressions against individuals who do not identify as a cisgender woman.
Where Were the Microaggressions?
There are three primary forms of microaggressions. Microassault: comments that are meant to inflict damage, however, they are held private unless a person loses control or feels overly in control. Microinsult: Comments that demean someone. They may come verbally or nonverbally. Microinvalidation: Behaviors that nullify a person’s experiences, as related to cultural, self or group identity. All of these are relevant, based on the conversation that took place during the director’s panel.
A 2016 research study completed by Jaime Lester, Aoi Yamanaka and Brice Struthers investigated the role of gender microaggressions in career technical programs. These are the types of programs in which many early childhood professionals, particularly those who work in childcare programs, earn their credentials. Their research looked at the impact of microaggressions on women who enter STEM programs; however, their findings reflect similar experiences of individuals who do not identify as a cisgender woman in early childhood.
Some examples of common microaggressions they identified were the lack of representations in the workplace and academic settings, opportunities to be heard, exclusion from professional conversations and relationships, tokenism, and attitudes towards professional roles and responsibilities. All of these are relevant to individuals who do not identify as a cisgender woman.
During the director’s panel, it was mentioned that men are not allowed to be left alone with children or change diapers. This means that anytime a conversation about working with children individually or responding to the health needs of children, men will likely experience all of the aforementioned manifestations of microaggressions. While some of this can be attributed to patriarchy’s influence on ECCE, solutions do not need to rely on the transformation of gender norms in our society.
Solutions to Consider
Recommendations to confront microaggressions against any identities share the common underpinning of implicit bias training. Professionals in the field must recognize how what is normal in the field marginalizes men. They must validate the knowledge, skills and interests of individuals who do not identify as a cisgender woman. Professionals must strengthen relationships, foster representation, create opportunities, restrict exclusion, and promote individualism.
The next time you encounter a conversation on gender in ECCE, confront microaggressions and truly demonstrate your commitment to gender equality, equity and justice.
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