“If it’s not led from the top, it doesn’t happen.”

That’s how June O’Sullivan MBE, chief executive of London Early Years Foundation, summarises her role in establishing one of the most consistently high proportions of male staff of any early years provider organisation in the UK.

LEYF employs 751 staff across its 38 nurseries; of these, 58 are men. For contact roles (which includes staff who are not teachers, but who have direct contact with the children, e.g. chefs), men currently make up 6.12% of the workforce.

This is lower than it has been in the past, but is still twice the national average.

“Our peak has been 7.5%,” June explains, “but we’ve been consistently around the 6 to 7% mark. So we’re way above the average, but of course that’s nowhere near good enough and we need to keep working at it.”

June has been a vocal advocate for men in early years education for many years, instituting a range of measures to try to encourage more men to join her team. As well as signing the MITEY Charter, these include:

  • Marketing apprenticeships in ways that make them more attractive to men
  • Changing the language of recruitment adverts
  • Building positive links with the fathers of children who attend LEYF nurseries, and listening to what they say about the valued relationships they have with male staff
  • Surveying male recruits during their induction period, about what worked and what didn’t in the recruitment process
  • Creating a Men in Childcare network, to which all male staff within the organisation are invited; and instructing managers that male staff must be released from normal duties to attend network meetings
  • Setting up a ‘male buddy’ system so that men feel isolated in their setting, they can look beyond that and connect with others in the same shoes.

Welcoming men into the workforce is not without its challenges, says June.

For the men themselves, isolation is a clear and present danger – which is why LEYF always puts two male staff together on a team wherever possible. “Otherwise if you have just one it’s too easy to slip into him being like the ‘special boy’ in the staff room,” June explains.

For the women, it is important to learn to adapt their behaviour and accept a new team dynamic: “The women need to stop talking about women-only stuff sometimes, because he’s there and it’s not ok to force him into being the ‘honorary woman’, as if that’s something he’d aspire to be.”

And myths and stereotypes need to be challenged, June says. “We need to stop being held back from talking about the real aspects of men in the workforce. Let’s name and deal with the stigma and anxiety about homosexuality, for example; there are lots of gay men in the sector and sometimes that’s a challenge, where you have colleagues or parents whose belief systems don’t sit well with that.”

Over-representation of men in management – not an issue in LEYF – is a problem that needs more attention generally. “Men don’t get pregnant so there’s a continuity of service and that lines them up for promotion more easily. Psychologically sometimes men are probably more comfortable at selling themselves than women are, and that needs work,” says June.

“But at the same time we also need to recognise that sometimes men don’t want to be managers – they’re really just interested in child development, and that can be true of women too. I’ve had men take on management roles and then decide they want to go back into direct work with the children, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t treat that as a demotion, it’s just a different role.”

What about parents? Listening to their views is an important way to ensure the organisation presents its values in the best possible way, June argues. A recent LEYF survey of more than 500 parents at 36 nurseries found that 84% said yes to more men in childcare. “Among those who said no, there were various reasons given, some around men not being safe around younger children and some around them being less caring or nurturing or natural at those things. This has made us decide to make our marketing more about showing men in nurturing roles, rather than engaged in activities so to speak.”

But there must be limits to ‘parent power’ too, she says. “Over the years we’ve had parents saying that they’re happy to have a man taking an active role, but they don’t want him to change their baby’s nappy. In other places they might say ‘OK we’ll have two people do that task – or we’ll do the changing in an open space’ but I won’t have that. I tell them if that’s what they think, it’s not the nursery for them.”

June’s approach marks her out as a ‘thought leader’, creating a LEYF pedagogy, writing blogs and a column in Nursery World, giving speeches (here’s her TED Talk about how nurseries tackle the injustice of poverty), holding public debates and commissioning research – looking at men’s experiences of working in female-dominated settings and, more recently, a study by the University of Wolverhampton’s Dr Helen Perkins, looking at children’s views on the gender of the practitioners who look after and educate them.

Defining and pursuing clear values – and being prepared to take people into a ‘zone of discomfort’ – are key, she says. “That’s what we did when we brought in drag queens to our nurseries read to the children. Staff were uncomfortable, not to mention parents, and I had to explain that the main reason we were doing this was about the theatricality, rather than anything to do with sexuality or gender.

“The values of the organisation take precedence, and I make no exceptions to that rule,” she stresses. “So nobody gets time off to pray, or gets special treatment or gets the ability to object to things because of their religion. We take inclusivity very seriously.”