In an interview for her (failed) Conservative leadership bid, the now Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom made a number of comments regarding men who show an interest in providing professional childcare. In short, she suggested that to avoid hiring a man for such a job was not sexism, but ‘cautious and very sensible’ considering that paedophiles are often attracted to working with children, before closing with the statement ‘I’m sorry – but they’re the facts’.
I, like many others, am utterly appalled by such comments on a deeply personal level, as well as from an academic perspective and through my involvement in campaigning for gender equality and men’s issues. To understand my personal disgust, you should know a bit more about my upbringing. When I was 12 years old, my parents had the first of my two (much younger) siblings, Fraser, with Macy being born around 16 months later. I therefore spent my teenage years surrounded by all things baby; helping out with changing nappies, babysitting, and keeping the tiny tots amused. One specific incident is forever seared into my memory, that of sharing a deeply traumatic day with my other sister, Sophie (three years my junior, and eight at the time) looking after a continuously screaming one-year-old Fraser whilst my mum accompanied my Dad to a hospital in Tenerife for a dislocated shoulder. Suffice to say, I consider myself pretty ‘baby-savvy’.
These experiences, combined with genuine interest and intrigue, mean that I am fascinated by kids. From new-borns to teenagers I love interacting with them, and I am always spending time with my neighbour’s babies and offering to babysit. I can’t wait to be a Dad myself. I also studied gender development for many years as part of my degree and PhD, and now teach developmental psychology to undergraduates at my institution, where, more than anything, I try to portray just how fascinating children are and how rewarding it is to work with them (with varying success!).
Considering my substantial practical and theoretical experience in caring for and understanding children, and my genuine, innocent, interest in their behaviour, comments like those made by Andrea Leadsom make me feel deeply uncomfortable. The very fact that I had to use the word ‘innocent’ to describe that interest in the previous sentence quite simply makes me sad. Why does being male mean that those particular interests are eyed with such deep suspicion? Interests that wouldn’t evoke a second thought when exhibited by a woman. This is where my anger takes on an academic angle.
Where does this prejudice come from?
Firstly, I will agree, cautiously, that statistical evidence does suggest that the majority of paedophiles are male. However, this categorically does not mean that the majority of men are paedophiles, or that paedophilia is part of some innate male quality. It certainly does not mean that men who show an interest in children or providing professional childcare are likely to be paedophiles, or that they express such interests for any other reason than the genuine enjoyment and reward gained from interacting with children. Yet sadly too many comments, often by prominent public figures, seem to suggest that the inherent suspicion that surrounds men interested in children and these roles is fueled by such thinking. But where does this come from?
To me it appears that the seeds are planted in childhood. Parents, and others such as teachers and peers, frequently and systematically limit young boys’ engagement with activities linked to caring and nurturance, and steer them away from professions like childcare and nursing. Indeed, recent academic studies suggest that parents, particularly fathers, still seek to discourage ‘gender-atypical’ behaviour in boys, such as playing with dolls. Conversely, boys are often praised for engaging in ‘gender-typical’ behaviour, such as rough-and tumble play or playing with toy cars. I have seen and experienced this myself in observing other families, and was routinely discouraged from feminine activities during my own childhood. This is before we even begin to discuss the influence of the media (take as one example the episode of the popular TV show ‘Friends’ where Ross and Rachel hire a male nanny for their daughter. Cue Ross becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the femininity and sensitivity of ‘Sandy’, and eventually dismissing him, as well as having his own sensitive nature mocked). Is it no wonder then that boys, and the men they become, show disinterest and even fear when engaging with children? Most likely due to a lack of experience and understanding, as well as the residual impact of relentless socialisation away from such interests? Is it also no surprise then, that when men do show an interest in children, it is felt that explanations for such strange behaviour must be found? ‘Maybe he’s gay? Maybe he’s a paedophile? Maybe it’s both!’ At the very least, you are guaranteed to get a highly suspicious and judgmental look.
‘Shunned at the school gates’
I must therefore ask, what exactly are we worried about here? Why do we feel it is necessary or important to discourage young boys from learning such important skills? They may not want to take up careers that involve care, but many will one day become fathers. By so strongly discouraging engagement with traditionally feminine activities, aren’t we robbing men, so early on in their development, of the opportunity to provide the emotionally engaged, loving, and nurturing care that their children need and deserve?
I have spoken to many expectant and new fathers, and many of them feel isolated in the process of caring for their own children, largely due to their personal fears and perceived inadequacies, but also due to the chronic lack of value placed on their input by some health professionals, friends, and even their partners. One male clinician I spoke to at a recent conference described how, as a stay-at-home dad, he was shunned by other mothers at the school gates, especially when looking after his daughter. I hear similar stories of judgement from other new dads that I know about their experiences in taking their children solo (heaven forbid!) to the local park. The explanation they all give is that the women that judged them just couldn’t seem to understand why a man would want to choose to be a stay at home dad, or how a father could care for his child for 60 minutes on his own. Their fear, was that those women had similar beliefs to Andrea Leadsom regarding their interest in caring for their own children.
Despite their hurtfulness, in a way, I don’t specifically blame Andrea Leadsom for her comments. Sure they were misguided, ill-informed, seriously lacking tact, and damaging, but she, like so many others, make such remarks because of a wider issue that we face as a society. Whilst young girls are now allowed, and often encouraged, to engage in masculine activities and careers, we are yet to see a similar impetus behind encouraging boys to pursue and enjoy traditionally feminine interests.
‘Gender expectations on sons are still rigid’
More than anything, I feel that we must move towards a place where children are permitted to pursue their own individual interests, without the relentless pressure of gender, and therefore allowed to fulfill their true potential. Indeed, recent evidence does suggest that traditional attitudes are softening somewhat, but that gender role expectations of sons in particular are still rigid. Clearly we still have a long was to go before boys can feel freer to enjoy activities that involve nurturance and care, to possibly pursue that enjoyment into a related career, and to live in a society that doesn’t harshly judge them, or believe there is something wrong with them, for doing so.
I will never stop being fascinated by children. Their behaviour, their development, and their wondrous love of life. But I do sometimes feel uncomfortable in expressing that interest and when spending time with children, as I often feel others are judging me, or worse, thinking there might be something deeply awry. I will take solace however in a comment made by one of my male neighbours, and father of a 1-year-old girl, when discussing Leadsom’s comments. He commented that the decision about who looks after his child is less about gender and more about the individual, how they interact with your child, and whether you can feel that you can trust them; saying that he trusted me to the extent that he would rather I looked after his daughter than some (female) members of his close family. I found this to be both a deeply comforting comment, and a refreshing perspective, that hopefully many people throughout the country share.
My hope is that, by challenging the negative and hurtful beliefs regarding men and childcare, and by allowing young boys to engage with these interests, we will soon begin to see an erosion of these outdated attitudes. A process that will, with any luck, allow boys, and the men they become, to enter caring professions without judgement, to become wholly fulfilled and valued fathers, and to express a normal level of interest in children and their behaviour without the associated prejudice.
By Dr Ben Hine
Ben is a lecturer in psychology at the University of West London and a chartered member of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Ben is interested in a number of gendered issues, concerning both men and women, and specialises his research in attitudes surrounding victims and perpetrators of sexual violence. He is a strong believer in the negative and restrictive affects that gender can have on young children, particularly young boys, and the adults they become.
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