June.23.2022

We refuse to value care – why sexism is at the core of our early childhood crisis

By Lucinda McKnight and Natalie Robertson

Introduction: The old, old problem

The introduction of an extra year of education for three and four-year olds in New South Wales (by 2030) and Victoria (by 2025) is an ambitious initiative. Articles in response argue that promises to boost provision may be difficult to deliver. Australia already has a problem filling existing positions in childcare.

Yet the commentary frequently glosses over the fundamental cause of these workforce problems. It’s sexism. Discrimination based on stereotypical understandings about gender. That old, old problem that is ever present, even in these post #metoo days, in which society has awakened to #everydaysexism.

Of course, pay, conditions and turnover affect recruitment and retention in the sector. But without naming and addressing the gender inequalities underpinning these issues, they will not be adequately addressed.

Working in a feminised profession

So what’s going on? Education in Australia (as in the UK and Canada) is a feminised profession.

This means both that women do most of the work, especially at lower pay levels, and that it is perceived as “women’s work”. The majority of teachers, at all levels of education from early years to tertiary, are women. In Australian early childhood education, women make up 96% of the workforce.

Feminist theorist Professor Madeleine Grumet has pointed out the relationship between nurturing at home and at school. Devaluing of women’s work at home (and indeed that of all those who act as carers in our society) is echoed in the devaluing of teachers’ work. In early childhood education these are closely interwoven, and it is therefore undermined as ‘child care’ or ‘glorified baby sitting’. Children themselves are also devalued and dismissed as not worthy until they become “fully formed”, idealised adults.

Caring for children, therefore, is “abjectified”. It is pushed beyond the boundaries of what is recognised and rewarded by society. Caring for children involves snot and poo, dribble, phlegm, sweat, tears, glue, mud, paint, food, vomit, crouching on the floor, carrying heavy bodies, tirelessly comforting, calming, encouraging and supporting. It is also rewarding, tender, exhilarating, creative, loving, funny and inspirational.

The gender binary’s impacts

Many feminist researchers believe that society is organised by a gender binary that privileges what is perceived as masculine over what is perceived as feminine. So the “masculine”, or what is serious, scientific, rigorous, rational, measurable, finite, cleanly defined, standardised, programmable, instrumental and technical is valued above the messy, woolly, grubby world of the so-called “feminine”.

This binary operates at countless levels, in countless ways, to keep the hierarchical status quo in place. Misogyny, the hatred of women, and mysopedy, the hatred of children, are at the heart of a larger system that refuses to value caring. This binary’s stereotypes and assumptions also discriminate against male educators working in the sector.

Early childhood teachers are discriminated against, paid low wages and employed under poor conditions because of the gendered nature of their work. This sexism feeds into the discrimination faced by all primary carers, because undermining the quality and extent of “childcare” affects participation in the workforce more generally. We argue that to change early childhood education, the sexism at its heart needs to be openly named, critiqued and challenged.

What can be done?

So… how to go about this, and ultimately, to make the profession more attractive to all, including those of all genders, colours, abilities, class backgrounds and ages? At the most basic level, researchers, the media, policymakers and politicians need to start naming sexism as the basis for the challenges faced by the early childhood sector.

The labour of workers in this sector is never gender-neutral, but always caught up in societal judgements based on its alliance with child-bearing and rearing in the home. We need to stop pretending these challenges are about early childhood education as a career being rejected simply as “boring”, low-paid or hard work.

Nothing less than a paradigm shift is necessary. If the early years are the most vital years of education, in which children develop at an astonishing rate, then we need investment that places these years at the top of any hierarchy.

Instead of valuing a medical paradigm in education, where being efficient, scientific and  “clinical” are revered, we need to value what is culturally considered to be more feminine. We might ask, “Are there kindergarten surgeons, who model their practice on the patience, kindness and empathy of early childhood teachers?” Flipping a scenario is often a handy way to expose the gender stereotypes and power asymmetries that underpin it.

Conclusion: Reinvention needs both imagination… and funding

Raising the status of early childhood teachers, paying them more, restructuring their work to acknowledge its intensity and toll, creating and rewarding career progression, making early years programs permeable with local communities, creating vibrant, accessible and well-resourced professional learning environments, enhancing early childhood teacher preparation, incentivising transfer for those in other careers, funding vitally needed research… there is no shortage of ideas for where money can be spent.

Whether there is the courage and honesty to address the real problem at the heart of early childhood education is another matter.

Dr Lucinda McKnight is an Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Early Career Research Award (DECRA) Fellow in the REDI (Research for Educational Impact) Centre at Deakin University. She uses a range of feminist theories in her work on teacher autonomy and professionalism. She is also a mother of two children and has spent many hours caring for children at home, and providing community support in early childhood education as a parent helper. Follow her Teaching Digital Writing project blog or her twitter account @lucindamcknight8

Dr Natalie Robertson is a Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at Deakin University. During her time working as an early childhood teacher, she developed a strong interest in workforce issues and play-based learning. These interests have followed Natalie into her later research and work in initial teacher education.  Natalie’s focus on workforce issues has framed her professional and research interests towards the attraction and retention of teachers in early childhood education. She is currently working with the Victorian Department of Education and Training to deliver the Early Childhood Professional Practice Partnerships (ECPPP) project) and the Innovate ITE program: Accelerated Bachelor of Early Childhood Education.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

One thought on “We refuse to value care – why sexism is at the core of our early childhood crisis

  1. Olivia Karaolis says:

    Hi Lucinda and Natalie,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful post, It made me think of Professor Nel Noddings and her “ethics of care”, an approach that has much to offer all education settings, early childhood included.

    Perhaps if we recognize the value of care and its complexity, we will start to see the possibilities for early childhood education as well as the benefits for teachers, children and young people at every stage of their schooling.

    Warmly,
    Olivia

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