Child Care Teaching as Women's Work: Reflections on Experiences

Article excerpt

Child care teachers' experiences and their gendered understandings of their work were explored in this study. Two female child care teachers were interviewed individually and asked to describe their work as women's work. Analysis showed that teachers essentialized child care teaching, recognized the paradoxes of being a child care teacher, constructed images of a good teacher, and held contradictory beliefs about their work. The findings are discussed in terms of the ways teachers construct their gendered images as good teachers and the factors related to teachers' paradoxical thoughts about their work. Implications for further research and teacher education practices are discussed.

Keywords: child care, teaching, gendered conception


Child care teaching is a feminized profession. Ninety-nine percent of early childhood teachers of 3- and 4-year-olds in the United States are women (Saluja, Early, & Clifford, 2002). Those in occupations filled predominantly by women, such as teaching, nursing, social work, and librarianship, have often faced barriers in seeking professional status (England & Folbre, 2005). Workers in these occupations receive low pay, lack benefits, and receive little social recognition and respect (Ackerman, 2006). Those occupations have been called "marginal professions" or "semiprofessions" (Etzioni, 1969). Regardless of some recent efforts to increase child care workers' compensation, such as state and federal financial support for developing training programs or employee benefit programs (Ackerman, 2004; Montilla, Twombly, & De Vita, 2001), child care work is still one of the professions where poverty is increasingly feminized (Moghadam, 2005).

Caring for young children in group settings has been considered a natural domain for women, similar to mothering, and devalued as women's work (Nelson, 2001). Mothering in the U.S. culture is assumed to entail intimate bonds between a mother and a child, which are associated with a mother's willingness to respond to children's physical and emotional needs with no expectation of being paid (Acker, 1999; Leavitt, 1994; Nelson, 2001). Nurturance is often linked to a maternal instinct that, supposedly, automatically allows women to rear and care for children (Nelson, 2001). This essentialist belief views women as genetically and biologically determined and thus naturally nurturing and caring, especially in comparison to men (Cole, Jayaratne, Cecchi, Feldbaum, & Petty, 2007; Schneider, 2004). Essentialism is challenged and considered problematic by social constructivists due to its contribution to gender inequity and the lack of conceptualization of socially constructed aspects of gender (Diquinzio, 1993).

"Gender is situated 'intersubjectivity' both as a social construct and a powerful social force" (Dillabough, 1999, p. 387). Gender is present in the daily lives of teachers, even though teachers are not always conscious of gender as they work in school settings (Biklen, 1995). The fact that more than 95% of child care workers are women (U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau, 2008) suggests that gender is a primary force that shapes the child care teaching profession (Tuominen, 2003).

Investigating child care teachers' understandings of their work as gendered work is important, because it helps us understand why a discrepancy exists in early childhood education: the ways that individual early childhood teachers perceive and commit to their profession are at odds with the ways the profession as a whole is considered in political, regulatory, and social contexts (England & Folbre, 1999, 2005). Early childhood teaching is a profession in which teachers are working with "professionalism without professionalization" (Lindsay & Lindsay, 1987, p. 91). Irrespective of training standards, teachers receive low salaries (Ackerman, 2004, 2006; Blau, 2002; Sumsion, 2007; Whitebook & Sakai, 2003), whereas, individually, they demonstrate high levels of job satisfaction, exhibit strong commitment to their job, and believe in the significance of their job (Shpancer et al. …