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Getting More Men to Teach in Early-Years Education

‘There are twice as many women flying U.S. military planes as there are men teaching kindergarten.’
December 5, 2022
Getting More Men to Teach in Early-Years Education

[On the December 2, 2022 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, Richard V. Reeves joined choice Mona Charen in a discussion of his book  Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male Is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do About It.]

Mona Charen: I want to just follow up on one thing that you mentioned in the book, but I want to hear a little bit more about and that is, you say that we really need a big push to have men teach, even at the very young ages—like even preschoolers should have male teachers. And then you mentioned that one of the obstacles is parents’ discomfort with the idea of men being in charge of toddlers, because they’re afraid of abuse. You mentioned it, but you didn’t give a solution. So I want to hear more on that from you.

Richard V. Reeves: Well, I think the solution is to increase the proportion of men in those professions, like early-years education, such that they are not an abnormality. Once that has become much more normal then I think it’ll be less troubling for parents, I think when it’s such a small number, then it’s actually just—it’s weird for parents. They go Wait, wait, what? You’re going to have a guy look after my 3-year old or 4-year old? In fact, my own son has done some early-years education and still does some of it, and in fact has faced some of that stigma and some of that discrimination.

But I think when only between 2 and 3 percent of kindergarten teachers are male, then inevitably, they’re a real oddity. And you may also get some selection effects as to who wants to go into those professions when you are going to face such huge stigma. And so I do think it’s probably just a numbers game here, in the same way that if you go back far enough, you’ll find times when there were almost no women in certain professions, such as medicine, or engineering. They were treated as like what’s very odd, right? What’s wrong with you? There’s something slightly defective about you to want to be in such a small minority.

And so I do think we just need to get more in. And that’s going to require all kinds of things. But whereas we’ve seen a huge effort to get more women into male-dominated professions, which I applaud, and which have been quite successful, there’s been nothing on the other side, nothing really, in terms of getting more men into areas like teaching, nursing in the early years. In fact, as a share of the profession, there are twice as many women flying U.S. military planes as there are men teaching kindergarten. And I’m not against women flying fighter jets, please don’t misunderstand me. . . . In fact, I just want the best person at shooting down the enemy flying our fighter jets, I don’t care what gender or color or orientation they are, I just want to be really good at shooting things down. But interestingly, like that’s partly [why] we’re redesigning aircraft cockpits and ejector seats to become more inclusive of women and their physiques. Which is great, because they would typically designed for men, that’s great. We need equivalent efforts to get more men into those other professions which are female dominated. We won’t get to 50 percent; I’m not arguing that. But I do think that any profession where you’re at 2 percent, you have to think there’s some strong social norms affecting that number.

Charen: Right. And there has to be, just as when women were, say underrepresented in engineering fields, maybe the majority of women don’t want to be engineers, but some percentage do. Similarly, with men, maybe the majority don’t want to be kindergarten teachers, but some larger percentage than 2 percent must want to, right?

Reeves: I mean I can’t remember who said this, something along the lines of many of our problems in society stem from the inability of people to imagine an overlapping distribution. So whoever said it, it’s so true, because . . . almost everything you talk about in this area, which when we’re talking about overlapping distributions, the question is, how much do they overlap? How much does it matter, and you don’t want it to affect how individuals are treated.

But you should also recognize that if there are differences on average between two populations, that is going to be reflected in occupational segregation, etc. It’s just not going to be at the level of 3 percent, right? It might be at 20 percent, it might be at 30 percent, or whatever it’s going to be. And in fact, interestingly, in the most gender-egalitarian countries, there are somewhat fewer women in STEM than in other countries. And so that might suggest that there’s a kind of level of the quality you get to where, actually, the occupational structure settles, to some extent, aligning with real preferences. And that’s the point I think, where you should be okay with differences. You don’t have to say everything must be 50/50, unless there’s evidence that we’re still unequal. I don’t think that’s realistic. But also, I think, as you just suggested, if you’re if you’re a 2 percent, I mean, look, I was just got back from the U.K., and a third of British members of Parliament are now women. And when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister it was 5 percent. And I can remember back in the ’80s, people saying, well, of course, you know, we’re not going to have so many women in Parliament, it’s not really their thing. You know, women aren’t into that kind of thing. Well, we’ve now got a third.

So that suggests that 5 percent is not a time to be saying that. Now . . . we might not get to 50 percent, but a third is a lot more than 5 percent. So I’m skeptical of overweighting differences to justify very big inequalities.

Richard V. Reeves

Richard V. Reeves is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he directs the Future of the Middle Class Initiative and codirects the Center on Children and Families. Twitter: @RichardVReeves.