Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

`A Feeling of Not Being Welcome': Subtle Discrimination in Early Childhood Education

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

`A Feeling of Not Being Welcome': Subtle Discrimination in Early Childhood Education

Article excerpt

This article focuses on male early childhood educators' experiences of subtle discrimination within the profession. Using a typology developed by Benokraitis (1997), it draws attention to often unintentional and easily overlooked forms of discrimination, which nevertheless can have an adverse impact on those affected. The article concludes by urging early childhood educators to work together to develop appropriate responses to discriminatory incidents of this nature.

In recent years, gender issues in early childhood education have received considerable attention. Much of this attention has focused on interactions between adults and children (e.g. MacNaughton, 1997) or between children themselves (e.g. Fleer, 1998; Sims, 1997). In contrast, there has been relatively little discussion of gender in the interactions and relationships between adults working in children's services or involved in early childhood teacher education programs. The purpose of this article is to heighten sensitivity to these issues and particularly to the discrimination which males may encounter as a small minority group in this highly gender-segregated profession.

Research design

This article draws on three interrelated studies (Sumsion, 1998; Sumsion & Lubimowski, 1998; Sumsion, in press) which focused on men's experiences in early childhood settings and teacher education programs. These studies involved 13 participants, all enrolled in an early childhood teacher education program at a NSW university. Six of these men had considerable experience in children's services prior to entering the program, and all but one worked in children's services during their enrolment. The most experienced participant had worked in children's services for a decade, including four years as a director of a long day care centre. Data were collected through a combination of in-depth, one-to-one interviews of approximately one hour in duration, most conducted by the male research assistant involved in this project, and open-ended surveys. The interview transcripts and survey responses were analysed using Benokraitis' (1997) typology of sex discrimination practices.

Sex discrimination

Benokraitis (1997) refers to sex discrimination as a continuum of `unequal and harmful treatment of people because of their sex' (p.7). At one end of the continuum, she argues, overt or blatant discrimination is quite visible, may be intentional or unintentional, and is easily documented. At the opposite end of this continuum, covert discrimination is almost invisible, often maliciously motivated, but difficult to prove. Although some men in the three studies referred to above encountered blatant and covert discrimination, in general they found subtle discrimination far more prevalent.

Subtle sex discrimination

Subtle sex discrimination involves what to many people are `normal', `natural', or `acceptable' behaviours and responses (Benokraitis, 1997). Because subtle discrimination is often unintentional and perceived as trivial and harmless, it tends to be overlooked and rarely documented. Benokraitis (1997) identifies nine different forms of subtle discrimination, using labels which highlight the incongruity between discriminatory behaviour that may be good-natured and well-intentioned, but nevertheless pernicious in its impact. These forms are described briefly below and illustrated with excerpts of data from the three studies of male early childhood professionals referred to previously. This is not to imply that all participants in these studies encountered all forms of subtle discrimination, or that discrimination pervaded these men's experiences of the profession. Rather, the intention is to alert early childhood professionals and teacher educators to the presence of discrimination and how it can `play a critical role in how we are evaluated and treated' (Benokraitis, 1997, p.2).

Condescending chivalry; the first form of subtle discrimination identified by Benokraitis, involves often well-intentioned and protective behaviours that nevertheless ultimately disempower the recipient. …

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