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“People Still Think of Us as Babysitters” - Sexism and What's in a Name?

teachingBy Sarah Alexander
© ChildForum 

Discussion article

Why do people still think of early childhood teachers as babysitters, caregivers, or childcare workers? 

Early childhood teachers provide care for children in the parents’ absence. It is what early childhood teachers do because unlike schooling early childhood education is not compulsory for (most) children to attend.  So why not accept and embrace the association with the babysitting or childcare image and not be offended?  

This image is not acceptable because early childhood teaching is so much more than babysitting!  Just ask any early childhood teacher.

The low social respect and with it low pay is not acceptable either.

So therein exists a problem with the title given to this work and its associated image. 

What can be done about this?  Two things could be done, at little or no cost, to throw off the current damaging image and springboard positive change.

1.  Change the image of early childhood teaching as women's work by bringing men in, in a significant or equal number

2.  Get a better title for early childhood teachers.


1.  Bring Men into Early Childhood Teaching and Address Political and Institutional Gender Bias

Several years ago when there was a shortage of qualified teachers created by not enough teachers being trained at a time when the government had a goal of supporting the sector toward employing 80% and then progressing to 100% qualified teachers, the sector started to look more professional in the public eye.   

But this boost to the status of the sector was short-lived - the Ministry of Education did nothing to address the stereotype that early childhood teaching is women's work. It did nothing to show its support of gender diversity:

  • it did not set a target for increasing the proportion of male to female teachers, and
  • it did require early childhood services to have employment policies and an early childhood curriculum that included gender diversity as a goal.

There was no significant increase in the proportion of male to female teachers at the time that early childhood centre employer demand for teachers outstripped supply (2007 - 2010). 

The NZ government, and its agent the Ministry of Education who holds stewardship of the ECE sector, sees value in maintaining the status quo of early childhood teaching being 'women's work' and having a low social image.  It means it can much more easily manipulate and control the sector and any protests. 

In Australia a politician provided this summary:   

A lot of women, mostly women, used to look after kids in childcare centres. And then they brought in this national quality framework and they had to go and get a Certificate III in childcare in order to continue the job they were doing — you know, wiping noses and stopping the kids from killing each other.
A lot of women just quit. The ones who got certificate threes said, ‘OK, I want more pay now that I’m more qualified’. All we did was drive up the cost because of this credentialism. (Senator David Leyonhjelm interview on TV show The Project, Jan 2017).

Which no doubt reflects the views of some of our NZ political leaders and administrators - except they don't put it into words as Senator Leyonhjelm did. Read more about sexism in the NZ Ministry of Education's administration of ECE - in an opinion article published on the Stuff news website

Also learn more about the advocacy that has been undertaken, political reactions, and research in a speech given by Dr Alexander in 2016.


2. Coming up with a better title than Workers, Teachers, Nannies, Ladies, and Educators  

Looking at the bigger picture of the status of early childhood work we come back to the title that is given.  

Was the name change from childcare worker to early childhood teacher in the 1990s sufficient to eradicate the association with babysitting?  It was not, it seems.

How people see those performing a particular job is related to what a job is called. For example, not all men who may be great with young children will want to risk being seen to be doing work that conjures up the image of babysitting among their peers. 

The title given to a job suggests an image of the job and the skills it requires.  

Use of the title ‘teacher’ runs the problem of not being seen to be accurate because it immediately creates confusion among those who see teaching as what happens in primary and secondary education and an early childhood teacher’s role is quite different and unique to this.

Use of the title ‘educator’ leads to confusion with parenting since being an educator is a prime part of parents’ role and this does little to define the work as a professional occupation. 

In the past in NZ it was only women who served passengers on planes – they were called air hostesses. A change in terminology to 'cabin crew' has seen the occupation open up to include diverse people (gender, age, and race) and the 'trolley dolly' image has been shaken.  

Changes in image have also come about through changes in titles in some other occupations – for example, 'secretaries' have become valued for their skills now as 'personal assistants' (PAs).

So the question is, should we keep the titles of “early childhood teacher” or “early childhood educator” or  change to something like “education developmentalist”,  “birth to 5 specialist", “early learning designer”,  “constructor” ….  Or …. What are your thoughts on this?   

Add and view comments below

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