In Season 2 of Stranger Things, Steve Harrington won hearts with his transformation into the ultimate babysitter. The positive response generated by Steve’s character development begs the question, “Would Nancy (his girlfriend) have received the same praise were their storylines reversed?”
The novelty character of the man babysitter is a trope that consistently appears in popular media as a comedic plot device. Examples include Daddy Day Care (2003), The Pacifier (2005), and The Spy Next Door (2010), where Eddie Murphy, Vin Diesel, and Jackie Chan respectively grapple with the ‘perils’ of child-minding. While seemingly harmless, these dynamics foster strict gender divisions regarding parenting and childcare where these are understood as the main responsibility of women and depict men wrestling with them as heroes.
Although it is easy to critique Ross Geller’s reluctance to hire Freddie Prince Jr. as his childminder in Friends’ famous episode “The One with the Manny” as a unique character flaw, Ross’s discomfort with a cisheterosexual man working as a nanny in this instance is far from unique even in the 2020s.
While it is somewhat common knowledge that women usually bear the majority of the burden for unpaid childcare, what is less publicised is the extent to which the professional childcare industry is unbalanced in terms of gender identities. A report of the Fatherhood Institute published in 2015 stated that only 1-2% of early education and childcare workers in England are men. This is far from a unique phenomenon with men constituting less than 1% of the childcare workforce across Europe. While this is already problematic, many also highlight the undervaluation of childcare where many childminders earn significantly less than the rest of the population. Here, ‘soft skills’ such as childcare are socially less regarded because typically associated with the unpaid labour of women within the household, assuming that someone (read women) will carry the work anyway.
It should be noted that some countries are taking proactive steps to gender balance the childcare workforce and that while progress is slow, it remains an encouraging move towards gender equality. Norway for example, had a figure of 3% men childcare workers which rose to 10% in 2008, which is perhaps largely attributable to the legal responsibility imposed on employers to work towards a workforce consisting of 20% men.
However the pandemic has had a catalytic effect on the division of unpaid labour within the household. A study conducted by Dan Carlson, a sociologist at the University of Utah, showed that the number of couples reporting sharing the care of young children rose from 42% pre-pandemic to 52%. Nevertheless, another study highlighted that globally women took on 173 additional hours of unpaid childcare in 2020, compared to 59 for men. This gap widens even more in low-and middle-income countries. It remains to be seen how the culturally transformative experience of the pandemic will affect the professional childcare industry in terms of gender balance, but the breakdown of traditional gender roles and the eradication of the breadwinner mentality is a good place to start to open up increased professional opportunity for all.