Nordic men for the care sector

2011-03- 22 Men are also capable of providing care. This, however, is a rare sight in the labour market. New research report presents Nordic examples of efforts made to attract men to the typical “women’s jobs” – industries in which the future job opportunities are predicted to be better and more stable.

Denmark’s 2010 chairmanship of the Nordic Council of Ministers called attention to men as the losers of the financial crisis. This has e.g. resulted in the publication of the report Nordiske mænd til omsorgsarbejde! – en forskningsbaseret erfaringsopsamling på initiativer til at rekruttere, uddanne og fastholde mænd efter finanskrisen (Nordic men for the care sector! – a research-based summary of experiences gathered from initiatives to recruit, educate and maintain men after the financial crisis), edited by Steen Baagøe Nielsen at Roskilde University.

The comprehensive report includes contributions from gender scholars from the entire Nordic region. It scrutinises experiences from both completed and ongoing Nordic projects that all share a focus on the dissolution of gender barriers through attracting, educating and maintaining men in a care sector dominated by women.

The effects of the financial crisis – an instrument for recruiting men to care?

In international comparative studies of the gender equality state of affairs, Nordic countries often stand out as progressive countries. But as far as the labour market in all of the Nordic countries is concerned, it is more segregated than is the case for far more gender-conservative societies. This paradox is both well-known and long-standing.

But the question generating renewed interest in the politics of gender equality – as a consequence of the dwindling employment opportunities in industries dominated by men, such as construction and factory work – is whether a larger proportion of the male workforce is ready to migrate to the more future-proof care sector jobs currently dominated by women?

According to the report, the theory of a dramatically increased influx to the care sector as a response to financial crisis-induced unemployment does not suffice as the only explanation. Firstly, the unemployment situation for women and men respectively differs between the various Nordic countries. Secondly, the impact of the financial crisis is also country-specific.

Steen Baagøe Nielsen believes that the discussion about men in the care sector ought to include a more general problematising of the status and prestige of care sector jobs in our society.

– The recruitment difficulties within the senior service sector do not only reflect the fact that the work there is unattractive to men. Research clearly indicates that the general salary and working conditions, the vocational aspects of the work and the lack of status characterising the sector play an important role, partly because of media coverage of scandals, he says.

The Norwegian case from the senior service sector delineates such problems, while experiences from kindergartens are much more positive.

8,400 men in Norwegian kindergartens

During the past 15 years, 8,400 men have found jobs in Norwegian kindergartens. Today, a soaring 10 per cent of the staff is male. How was this achieved?

– As far as the Norwegian project is concerned, it is characteristic that it is a project of longer duration with centrally established objectives involving many actors ranging from the national political level to the kindergartens of the smallest fylkes in Norway. The recruitment success should also be viewed in light of the favourable labour market conditions with many new positions. Thanks to these, it has not been necessary to oust older and more experienced employees. Even though this recruitment sounds impressive, the project has not fully realised its ambitions in terms of the politically established objectives. However, in light of the magnitude of the efforts that have been put into a host of other projects which have little to show for them, the Norwegian project can be said to be rather successful, says Steen Baagøe Nielsen.

According to Steen Baagøe Nielsen, the bright example of the many male employees within the Norwegian child care sector may be understood in a broader perspective.

– The Norwegian results also point to the fact that the option to recruit men for the care sector must be seen in connection with the potential to involve men in the push for gender equality on a larger scale. Norway has seen some controversy at the workplaces and in the media over the many younger men who have seized the opportunity to make use of the reserved paternal leave. No doubt, this has created the impression that men’s potential for intimacy is possible, desirable and completely legitimate. It is evident that such controversies and discourses rub off on younger men’s wish and motivation to apply for a job that involves interactions with children on a more professional level.

But the priority to attract more men to the care sector does not rank equally high in all of the Nordic countries.

Swedish dilemmas

The report’s focus on Swedish experiences tells a slightly different story. Here, difficult problems pertaining to the relation between the means and ends of the politics of gender equality conflict. According to the author of the section on Sweden, gender scholar Marie Nordberg, no – or hardly any – national initiatives aim to attract more men to the care sector. This distinguishes Sweden from Norway. Steen Baagøe Nielsen elaborates:

– It was Sweden that – historically early – launched official political strategies to attract more male students and employees to the child care sector. However, favouring male applicants for e.g. nursing education meant that female applicants who were better qualified professionally speaking were rejected. As seen from an equal treatment perspective, the discussion of more men in women’s jobs also entails certain pitfalls, he says.

Thus, Sweden has moved away from affirmative action and male quotas for education and positions.

Room for masculine self-realisation?

According to Steen Baagøe Nielsen, the option to recruit men for the care sector must be seen in connection with the potential to involve men in the push for gender equality on a larger scale.

Steen Baagøe Nielsen points out that logically, a dilemma exists between the means and ends of gender equality. It is evident that the recruitment efforts of many projects highlight men’s special qualifications. This may be said to have a certain effect. Sometimes, it is completely legitimate to invoke the specific life and work experience that many men may contribute. For instance, it will seem natural and fun to a lot of male kindergarten employees interested in soccer to play with the children. Similarly, men have typically found employment in the after-school centre workshops. Nevertheless, Steen Baagøe Nielsen admonishes that such de-feminisation strategies should be used with caution.

– Simple and stereotypical renditions of masculinity do not convince. And even less so when masculinity and manly virtues are depicted as detached from professional requirements such as competences. Professionalism remains pivotal for the job as early childhood worker or basic health care staff. This also goes for soccer in kindergartens which should be justifiable and find its place in a professionally responsible manner, he says.

According to Steen Baagøe Nielsen, thematising gender is an important, but also demanding and knowledge-based task. The endeavour requires critical gender awareness within the entire food chain of the labour market. This applies all the way from upper secondary counselling through matriculation and maintenance at tertiary levels to the conscious effort to motivate different types of men, young as well as older ones, to pursue new and untraditional careers.

The report “Nordiske mænd til omsorgsarbejde!” (Nordic men for the care sector) is available at the campaign website of the Danish Ministry for Gender Equality (only in Danish).

By Peter Ussing

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