Over the past decade or so we’ve seen a succession of initiatives, aimed at increasing the number of men working in services for children. Whether this emphasis will continue under the new Coalition government remains to be seen, though Nick Clegg’s recent Barnado’s lecture suggested it might. Reminding his audience that men currently make up just 2% of the childcare workforce, the deputy prime minister stated:

That’s just not good enough. We need a diverse range of providers, with a greater gender balance, surrounding children with a range of role models – different people to learn from and relate to.

But why all this concern about recruiting men, and why so much anxiety about their supposed under-representation in childcare, teaching and other areas of work with children? Is there really any evidence that children ‘need’ male ‘role models’, if they’re to flourish?

These are some of the questions I tackle in my chapter ‘Men wanted? Gender and the children’s workforce’ in the Reader for the new Open University Masters module Critical practice with children and young people (K802), published by Policy Press last month. In the chapter I review the ways in which work with children has been ‘gendered’ in the past – and analyse the factors influencing current worries about men’s absence from children’s services.

The chapter challenges what I term the ‘male role model discourse’ that dominates much media and policy discussion, particularly around the needs of boys and young men. I argue that this discourse draws on a highly simplistic understanding of gender development, one which ignores the plurality of relationships that shape young men’s transitions to adulthood. I maintain that trying to identify a special, distinctive ‘masculine’ contribution to boys’ development often ends up reinforcing outdated gender stereotypes. It can also lead to diminishing the vital role played by women – both mothers and female teachers and carers – in nurturing young men.

A shameless plug: if you want to read the whole chapter, you’ll need to buy the book – but if you register for the OU module, you’ll get the Reader as part of your package of learning materials (which also includes three DVDs and access to a new website). More information about the module (K802) here.

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