By Tommy Gagliano
Let’s start off with a fact about me: every job I have ever had has involved working with children. (Well, every job that the IRS knows about, that is.) Let’s continue with another fact about me: I am a man. The latter fact undeniably complicates the former. Let’s talk about it.
I’m going to present a few scenarios to you, the reader. I want you to think about how each of them makes you feel, and how you would react if you were the parent in the situation. Scenario number one: You are looking for a babysitter for your young children, and one of the neighbors who you don’t know well, a 17-year old boy, offers to babysit for you. Scenario number two: It’s the last day of summer camp, and you are picking up your daughter. Before she leaves, her male counselor gives her a big hug and tells her to have a great school year. Scenario number three: You find out that one of your daughter’s male high school teachers sent a few texts back and forth with your daughter about a school assignment.
Thoughts? Feelings? Would you be uncomfortable in any of those scenarios? Now reverse the genders in each situation. The babysitter, counselor, and teacher are all female, and the child in each is a boy. Do you feel the same way?
If the gender didn’t matter to you at all in the above exercise, that’s great! I would love to live in a world where everyone thought that way. If you found that gender did matter to you, don’t feel too bad about it. We’ve been taught to think that way, and you are certainly not alone.
I guess I’ll just get to the point then: There is a bias against men in the fields of education and childcare, leading to numerous harmful double standards. These sexist notions can make it uncomfortable, risky, and even dangerous for men to work in those fields. In my six years of experience working with children, I have felt the impact first-hand.
I’ve worked at two different summer camps across six years, in various roles and positions. I’ve led groups, run activities, worked in the travel program (day trips and overnight trips), planned activities and theme days, helped create an entirely new camp program that complied with CDC and NYS Board of Health COVID-19 guidelines, and so on. I’ve worked with campers as young as three and as old as fifteen, both male and female. I care about my job and I care about my campers, and because I’m a man, sometimes that gets me in some trouble.
Generally, if your campers like you, that should be a sign that you’re a good counselor. I say “should,” because that wasn’t always the case for me, at least in the eyes of my superiors. At my former camp, I had to be spoken to on more than one occasion about “getting too close” to my campers. My third summer there is probably the best example of this. Story time!
That summer, I was a counselor for the oldest group of campers. The older campers had the choice to either stay on campus and do regular camp activities (the group that I led that summer) or do a travel camp, where they went on day trips to various places (the program that I would work in the following summer). Many of the campers did a mix of both, switching on a week-to-week basis. I developed pretty strong relationships with a lot of my campers that summer, including a 12-year-old boy that we’ll call Ryan, and a 12-year-old girl that we’ll call Amy. Ryan and Amy started “dating” the second week of camp, and I was the only staff member that knew about it. I promise this is relevant information.
One of the trips scheduled for that summer was to Splish Splash, a water park on Long Island, and as we approached it, Amy began asking me if there was any way I could go on the trip with them. From the conversations I had had with her, I knew why she was asking—for the Splish Splash trip the group would be split, with each travel counselor taking half of the campers with them. People love to separate boys and girls (something I’ll discuss more later), and even if that wasn’t what the travel counselors decided to do, if Ryan ended up in a different group from Amy there was no way she would be able to convince them to make a change without giving away her “big secret.” In addition to being her favorite counselor, she wanted me there so I could make sure that she and Ryan would be together for the day.
I couldn’t explain that to my boss, of course. It would’ve sounded ridiculous, and I also had no intention of betraying my camper’s trust; even if it’s silly to us as adults, that secret was a big deal to her. Instead, when I asked him if there was any way that I could go on the Splish Splash trip, I told him that my reason for asking was that Amy really wanted me to go. He didn’t react, but the assistant director—who was technically also my boss, I guess—did not like that at all. He made the totally rational assumption that Amy had a crush on me and wanted me on the trip so she could see me in a swimsuit, and essentially told me to stay away from her.
I didn’t, of course. I continued to do my job the same way because I knew that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and I felt that it would be completely unfair for me to avoid one of my campers who also hadn’t done anything wrong.
A few weeks later, the assistant director pulled me aside to have another conversation with me. Amy and her best friend had been having some issues. I talked to the friend privately about it earlier in the day, and I had just finished talking to Amy privately when he came over. He didn’t like that I was talking to Amy separately, away from the rest of the group, and warned me that he did not want it to happen again. I explained that I was working towards solving a camper issue, but he did not care.
Around week six or seven, we got a new camper. She was a hugger. She hugged both me and my co-counselor on her first day, when we barely knew her. One day that week I was pulled from my group to run soccer, and when I had a few free minutes I ran over to the water slide, where my group was, to say hi. Suddenly, three or four campers, led by the new girl, sprinted towards me. They were all soaked from the water slide, and they wrapped me up in a big hug so that I would get wet too. From that point on, it somehow became a weird inside joke among certain campers in our group to hug me (and my female co-counselor), often while saying the phrase “Tommy nooooo!” I don’t really remember how the phrase originated, but the sound of them all saying it is permanently stuck in my brain. One of the campers that participated in this strange tradition was Amy. The assistant director somehow managed to miss all of the other campers hugging me, many of whom were boys, but he didn’t miss it when Amy did it.
Immediately after it happened, my boss and the assistant director both showed up to our next activity. The assistant director said he needed to speak to me, and brought me to an empty classroom across the hall. I don’t remember exactly what was said, but fortunately, I tend to write extensively about things that piss me off, and I still have my account of the incident from the day that it happened. He told me that what he witnessed was “uncomfortable” and “completely unacceptable,” and angrily lectured me for what felt like hours, but was likely closer to twenty or thirty minutes in reality. He brought up the Splish Splash trip and said that he “shouldn’t have even entertained the idea.” (He didn’t, and it wouldn’t have been his decision anyway, but he didn’t seem like he was in the mood to be corrected.) He also mentioned how he had to fire an employee at the camp he previously worked at for having inappropriate relationships with campers, implying that this was my final warning before I met the same fate.
So to recap, I was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a camper and threatened with termination, and the only pieces of evidence to support the accusation were A) I was her favorite counselor and she wanted me to go on one of the trips, B) I talked to her separately while trying to solve an issue she was having with another camper, and C) she was one of several campers that hugged me. Oh, and D) I happened to be a man, and she happened to be a girl. Can’t forget that one.
In a vacuum, this could be viewed simply as a supervisor misunderstanding a situation, but the context and gender dynamics cannot be ignored. If I was a woman, regardless of the gender of the camper, this would not have been an issue. It would not have even been on the assistant director’s radar. You could say that I’m speculating, but in fact, female counselors did all of the things that got me in trouble on a regular basis that very same summer. It was not at all uncommon for female counselors to hug their campers. As I mentioned before, my female co-counselor was also on the receiving end of our campers’ hugs, albeit less frequently than I was. Moreover, female counselors sometimes initiated hugs with their campers—something I have never done. Temporarily removing campers from the group to talk to them privately and work through issues is a basic responsibility of the camp counselor job, and I was far from the only person to do it. I suppose there is no direct evidence to support the idea that a female counselor being well-liked would not have raised an eyebrow, since there were simply no female counselors that summer that were as loved by their campers as I was (not arrogance, just honesty), but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, if I were a woman and Amy were a boy, the assistant director would never have jumped to the same conclusion about the Splish Splash question.
While this is by far the most egregious double standard that I have encountered at that camp, it was not the only one. Groups at that camp were co-ed (with two exceptions summer of 2020 due to COVID and group size restrictions), and traditionally had one male counselor and one female counselor. The only exceptions to this were the two aforementioned single-gender groups (which had two counselors of the same gender as the campers), large groups that had three counselors (always with two counselors of one gender and one of the other), and, inexplicably, the group of three and four-year-olds the past two summers. That group had two female counselors. Not only was the gender balance violated, but it was done for the group of campers that are largely incapable of changing for the water slide on their own—meaning that one of the female counselors had to go in the boys’ changing room with them and help them change. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this on its own, but can you imagine the outrage if a male counselor went into a changing room with young girls and helped them dress and undress every day? Not only would the camp never have allowed it, but the parents wouldn’t have either.
Even though I feel much more appreciated as an individual at the camp I worked at this past summer, the institutional sexism is probably even more pronounced than at my previous camp. My new camp segregates campers by gender from Kindergarten to sixth grade, with co-ed groups for the preschoolers and those in seventh through tenth grade. (I am firmly against separating children by gender, but that’s a topic for another time.) For the older campers, the genders of the counselors make sense: Seventh through tenth-grade campers have a mix of male and female counselors, Kindergarten through sixth-grade girls have female counselors, and third-grade through sixth-grade boys have male counselors. “But what about the Kindergarten through second-grade boys?” You may ask. “And what about the preschool-age campers?”
Despite the groups having both boys and girls, male counselors are not allowed to work with preschool-age campers. These groups only have female counselors, the reason for which I can only assume is either that they think that women are inherently better at taking care of young children than men, or that men cannot be trusted to take care of young children (due to concerns either about abuse or some other issue.) Obviously, both of these potential explanations are nonsensical. Furthermore, the same issue that I discussed in regard to my former camp exists here—women are in the locker room with young boys on a daily basis, helping them take off and put on their clothes. This is seen as no big deal, but would never fly if the roles were reversed. Not only is there a double standard, but they actively choose to have women in the changing room with young boys instead of men. I want to make this point abundantly clear—they could avoid this issue by putting one male counselor and one female counselor with every preschool-age group. They choose to have two female counselors instead and prohibit men from working with the preschool-age campers at all. My first two summers as a camp counselor I worked with a group of campers between the ages of three and six, and it was a blast for all parties involved. If I had started at my current camp instead, I never would have been able to have those experiences, for no reason other than the Y chromosomes in my cells. Even more strange is that women are allowed to be counselors for all-boy groups up until third grade. Needless to say, there are no circumstances in which men are permitted to be counselors for all-girl groups.
Even though I worked in the travel program, which is co-ed, I still felt the ripple effects of the blatant systematic sexism. Our group was large, and whenever we had to break down into smaller sub-groups to make it easier to get around whatever place we happened to be, the immediate course of action was always to split into boys and girls. I, of course, was always expected to go with the boys. This actually led to some of the campers thinking that, even though there were four counselors, only the two with the same reproductive organs as them were their counselors. Our tips reflected this, as I was snubbed by a few girls that tipped my female co-counselors, and many of the girls that did tip me didn’t give me as much as they gave my female co-counselors. I don’t care about the money, but I do care about the thought process behind it. I went out of my way to spend time with the girl campers as much as I could, but I couldn’t overcome the fact that my supervisor kept forcing me to only be with the boys, nor the emphasis on gender that the camp had intentionally or unintentionally instilled in both the campers and their parents.
Most of my experience working with children comes from summer camps, but I have spent some time working in schools as well, specifically as a substitute teacher. Admittedly, the double standards are not nearly as bad in education as they are in childcare, but they certainly do exist. I am frequently reminded to never be alone in a classroom with a student, because, as a male teacher, I don’t stand a chance if a student decides to accuse me of something. Additionally, I had a situation where a female student grabbed my cell phone out of my hand and proceeded to find my Snapchat username. The next few days I had numerous students try to add me, most of them girls, and I was informed by multiple teachers that they overheard students talking about finding me on Snapchat. This happens to female teachers too, but for them it’s mostly just annoying. For me, it’s dangerous. I had to shut the situation down immediately, because I knew that even conversations about my social media accounts would be enough to raise eyebrows, even if I didn’t add any students back. Having to explain to them why it could be a problem for me, as a young male teacher, was not a fun conversation to have.
Now it may seem like I disliked the three places of work I’ve talked about, but that is not the case at all. I’ve had great experiences at all three, and, for the most part, enjoyed the work I did at each. I didn’t discuss my experiences there to tear down those places, but rather to explain the effects of a much larger societal issue. That being said, everything I’ve discussed up to this point has been purely anecdotal. It certainly sounds like sexism, but these could just be isolated scenarios. There’s technically no evidence to suggest that the things I’ve experienced are indicative of a wider phenomenon. So I conducted a survey. Now, I’m not Pew Research or Quinnipiac. It was a Google Form, not a scientific study. I’ll tell you exactly how I gathered my data, and you can draw your own conclusions about how much you value the results.
I posted a link to the survey on my Twitter account, r/samplesize, the Binghamton Review GroupMe, and a community Facebook group for the area that I grew up in. My mom also posted it on her personal Facebook. The total number of respondents was 116, with 82.8% identifying as female, and 17.2% identifying as male. The age distribution was fairly even, with 45-54 being the most represented age group (31.9%), followed by 35-44 (24.1%), then 25-34 (15.5%), then 55 or older (13.8%), then 18-24 (10.3%), and finally younger than 18 (4.3%). I did not ask respondents to indicate their race, but considering where the link was shared and the demographics of the area I grew up in, it’s very likely that the sample is predominantly white. Survey takers were given a series of statements, and were asked to indicate if they agreed, strongly agreed, disagreed, strongly disagreed, or had a neutral opinion for each statement.
Given how unavoidably obvious it was that I was looking for double standards, I expected most respondents to indicate that gender did not matter to them, even if they actually felt differently. Surprisingly, many respondents had no problem admitting that they have a gender bias. 54.3% of respondents said that they either agree or strongly agree that women are inherently better at taking care of children than men are, with 25% having a neutral opinion, and only 20.7% indicating that they either disagree or strongly disagree. 81% of respondents agreed that they would hire a female babysitter or nanny for their daughter, with 61.2% strongly agreeing that they would do so. Similarly, 77.6% agreed that they would hire a female babysitter for their son, with 57.8% strongly agreeing. Are you ready for the numbers for male babysitters? 77.6% drops down to 52.6% of respondents agreeing that they would hire a male babysitter for their son (30.2% strongly agreed), and 81% drops down to 31.9% agreeing that they would hire a male babysitter for their daughter (19% strongly agreed).
The same trend applies to daycares. While 87.1% of respondents agreed that they would send their son to a daycare run by women (with 64.7% strongly agreeing), only 48.3% agreed that they would send their daughter to a daycare run by men (27.6% strongly agreed).
“But wait!” I can hear you confidently exclaim, “significantly more women responded to your survey than men! Surely that influenced the results!” Well yes, and no. The sample size for men is much lower, that is true, but the responses I do have are nearly identical for both men and women. 80% of men agreed that they would hire a female babysitter for their son or daughter, but only 60% said they would hire a male babysitter for their son, and only 35% would for their daughter. These numbers are indistinguishable from the overall sample. I also looked into respondents that have children and those that don’t, and all I found was that people without children indicated they were less likely to hire babysitters in general (which I suppose makes sense). The difference in opinion between male and female babysitters is less staggering, especially for male children, but it still certainly exists.
In the interest of transparency, I will make the survey results available to anyone that wishes to view them. Feel free to fact-check me, or draw your own conclusions.
The consequences of this way of thinking aren’t just limited to it being harder for men to find work, or that they may experience sexism while working, like the anecdotal examples I provided earlier. Men that work with children have to constantly be thinking about things that likely never cross their female coworkers’ minds. Things like “is there someone else around right now to be a witness in case this child decides to accuse me of something?” or “can I give this girl a band-aid on her thigh or is that considered inappropriate touching?” or “even though what’s happening right now is completely innocent and normal, how would a parent feel about it if their child mentioned it to them without context, or with only some of the details?” My co-counselors this past summer joked about how I didn’t like it when campers touched me, but this awareness that I am forced to have (which was heightened by the incident with my assistant director at my former place of employment) is why it made me so uncomfortable.
I also gave survey takers the option to write comments at the end of the survey, and I’d like to conclude by sharing what one person wrote. “My concern with a male childcare provider is that something is deeply abnormal with a man who chooses an occupation that requires training but provides little income. Normal men seek jobs that provide high income relative to the amount of training required. This is because men require the status of a higher income in order to attract a spouse. If a man does otherwise, then he is not a mentally normal man. If childcare required no training, or if it paid as well as brain surgery, then we could expect normal mentally healthy men to choose it as a profession. It would be viable for attracting a spouse and supporting a family. Given the low pay relative to the training requirements, something really isn’t right with a man who chooses that career. My immediate thoughts are LGBT and pedophile, which isn’t OK around my kids. (not even around the kids of a sex that would be safe from direct abuse, because of the bad influence of demented thinking) In general it goes beyond the sexual stuff though. If a man chooses a childcare occupation, maybe he just isn’t smart. Maybe he smoked a lot of weed in college. Whatever the case may be, his mind isn’t functioning like the mind of a healthy male.”
There is a lot to unpack here, and I will let you do that on your own. I think this response gets my point across perfectly. Sure, this guy takes it to an absurd level, but his way of thinking is simply an exaggeration of the societal norm. Men that work in education or childcare are not treated fairly, and until we start addressing it the same way that we address sexism against women in other fields, it will continue to be a problem.
Thumbnail Credit: Scottish Government, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/scottishgovernment