Men applying for positions in childcare work

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Incompetent, but not a risk: Socially desirable responses to men working in childcare and implications for future research and practice

In attempts to achieve gender equality in the workplace, the underrepresentation of men in women-dominated careers is often overlooked. Men who wish to pursue careers in sectors dominated by women are often faced with opposition, as they are perceived unsuitable candidates. This is especially true of highly feminised careers, such as childcare work, where women are assumed to have innate qualities that make them more suitable for the position. Women are perceived as more communal—warm, nurturing and caring—than men, which results in men being overlooked for positions in childcare work. Persisting gender stereotypes such as this can impede the sustainable representation of men in childcare careers, hindering attempts to increase gender equality in society.

Men who wish to work with young children are typically treated with suspicion by parents, colleagues, and sometimes even family and friends. Interviews with men working in childcare suggest that men need to manage their image in the workplace to avoid being perceived as a threat to the children in their care, and need to work harder than women to earn the trust of parents and colleagues before being allowed to become a fully included member of their organisation. However, when people were asked about men’s suitability for childcare work, responses were framed in terms of competence, rather than risk. That is, men were perceived as less competent with children than women, and not considered a risk to the children in their care. 

These two seemingly contradictory findings—that men are perceived as a threat, and also not a threat—can be explained by social desirability. It is much more socially acceptable to say that someone is unsuitable for a career because they lack the skills required to perform the job, than to suggest that they could be a threat to young children. As a result, there is an apparent discrepancy between men’s lived experience when working in childcare and the reasons that people give for men’s exclusion from childcare work.  In order to address this, more attention should be paid to the underrepresentation of men working in childcare. 

Particularly, researchers and practitioners should work together to develop ways in which organisations can be encouraged to see past gender, to the actual—rather than perceived—skills of the candidate. 

Further Reading

Case, Federica (2022). Social Psychology Glossary (2): Stereotype. Solutions.

Sczesny, S., Nater, C., & Haines, S. (2021). Perceived to be incompetent, but not a risk: Why men are evaluated as less suitable for childcare work than women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

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