Missing in Action

Picture a typical social care professional working with children.
What do you see? Quite possibly you will be thinking of a woman, in
her late thirties, who has the air of a “mum” about her. While it
may be fair to say it’s a man’s world in many professions, this is
certainly not the case in social care. The gender balance is, and
always has been, heavily weighted towards women and this is
especially true in the child care sector.

Men make up just 2 per cent of the overall child care workforce,
according to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES)
2002-2003 child care and early years workforce surveys. Child care
is the second most female dominated occupations, exceeded only by
secretaries and personal assistants. Men make up just 3 per cent of
the people taking foundation modern apprenticeships in child care
and 2 per cent of those on advanced courses.

With this in mind, since July 2000 the DfES has been running a
national recruitment campaign to encourage people to work in the
sector. Although the campaign has targeted other groups, it has
also sought to reach men.

Fuel was added to this fire when in June David Blunkett, minister
for work and pensions, called for more men to work in child care.
He said employing men could not only assist in filling vacancies,
but male child care workers would provide children with a positive
male role model.

This rally cry was further boosted a month later when a new report
from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) revealed that more
men would consider perusing a job in child care were it not for its
low pay and poor status.(1) It found that 27 per cent of men would
consider working in child care, and 25 per cent of boys have
expressed an interest in joining the “caring” professions, even
though just one in 50 child care workers are male.

The DfES estimates it will need a further 163,000 workers in the
coming few years – a move that will increase the child care
workforce by over half. Speaking at the publication of the EOC’s
research, Jenny Watson, the commission’s acting chair, said: “Child
care services, particularly the new plans for extended schools,
will not meet parents’ need if they can’t recruit enough staff –
and they can’t do so unless they recruit men.”

Barry Kilkelly, aged 49, is one of the relatively small band of men
working in child care in the capital. He is a family support worker
for the London Borough of Lambeth’s foster care team and has worked
in social care since 1986.

Prior to this Kilkelly did a variety of jobs including labouring on
building sites and working in shops. It wasn’t until his son was
born in 1980 that he considered changing career. “I was in the
building trade and work was erratic so I had the opportunity to
stay at home and look after my son.” He enjoyed it so much he took
the unusual step of undertaking the nursery nurse examination board
training between 1984-1986.

After completing his course he began work at a day nursery in
Lambeth where, as one of only three men working across the
council’s 14 nurseries, his presence was greeted with some
surprise: “Some people thought it was very peculiar a man wanted to
work with children. They’d say: ‘What on earth do you want to work
with kids for, don’t they get on your nerves?'”

Other reactions were far more extreme, as Kilkelly says his
motivation was questioned by some of the parents he encountered:
“They thought it was odd I wanted to work with kids. Looking after
my own child was OK but this was a step too far.” His own family
were surprised by his choice but supported him, as did his partner
at the time who was a teacher. Kilkelly moved to the council’s
adoption and fostering team in 1990 and is now in the process of
completing a Diploma in Social Work.

Allen Bowen, a social worker for Newham Council’s children in need
team, experienced a markedly different reaction when he announced
his chosen career.

Originally from British Columbia in Canada, he decided to complete
a degree in social work six years ago when he was 32. Bowen had
spent 14 years as a convention co-ordinator although male
involvement in social care was the norm in his family. His father
had worked in mental health services, and has been a social worker
for war veterans for the last 20 years.

Bowen says: “My upbringing followed the humanist approach and the
value system of social work really meshed with mine, I felt like I
fitted in.” He embarked on the social work degree, in which he
specialised in child protection, after volunteering at a Canadian
mental health helpline. He first came to work in the UK for
Lewisham Council in 2002 for six months before returning to work
for Newham last March.

One of the most rewarding parts of working with children and
families in London, Bowen says, is the sheer variety of clients he
deals with. Had he stayed in Canada he says he would not work with
such diverse clients with a wide range of needs.

Empowering and enabling children is what drew Richard Blackwell,
aged 31, into social care. He is currently the only male social
worker in Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s referral and
assessment team. Despite being the sole man, he says he had been
made to feel extremely welcome and had never experienced any
negative comeback because of this gender – from clients or other

 The skills that male workers bring to social care are no different
to their female counterparts, although all three social workers
admit that sometimes their very presence can help improve
relationships with clients.

Blackwell explains: “I’ve noticed that when we visit families the
dads appreciate having a male social worker there. They feel they
can talk openly and they their view will be represented.” Being
male, and from overseas, has helped Bowen in his practice: “I’m
seen as the white guy with the funny voice but it helps my work.
Being male and Canadian is a novelty.”

So how can the government and local authorities attract more males
into social care? Blackwell says the very term “child care” does
not help: “Society still perceives child care as being a female
role and to label a service like this simply extends this

On a practical level he says it would be helpful to make
information about careers in social care available in an easy to
access format. “Information needs to be provided about what a role
involves. Some men like to have something they can look at and

Men are certainly going to be key if the shortage of all social
care professionals is to be tackled effectively, and more men need
to realise that the sector offers rewarding and stimulating
careers. For Kilkelly this is already happening as his 24-year-old
son works in a school for children with special needs, something he
is proud of. “It feels good to have influenced him.”

(1) Men into Childcare, Equal Opportunities Commission,
July 2005

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