Researching mixed-gender workforces: an interview with Dr Joann Wilkinson

What’s the one question you most want to answer through the GenderEYE study?

For me it’s the question of what is the value of mixed-gender workforces. I know there are a lot of questions in our study – why aren’t men taking up this career, what are the obstacles that stand in the way of progress and so on. But for me the bigger picture is to get a better sense of the benefits of a more fluid workforce.

I want us to get a better understanding of the benefits of having different genders working together. There seems to be a focus on achieving a 50/50 male/female workforce, or on men filling a gap, but I think there are lots of gaps filled by lots of different men and women. By answering this question, the study will allow us to bring in more diversity. I think it’s about moving the emphasis away from equality, and more towards diversity.


How have you chosen the case study sites?

We’ve got our four designated research hubs (London, Southampton, Bristol and Bradford), so that defines where we’re working. We will produce two case studies in each area. We are trying to get a range of settings – some with a high number of men, some with just one man, and perhaps some with 3-4 men.

Sometimes settings say they have a high number of male staff, but in fact they don’t have many working full-time and/or on the payroll – or the men in question might not be working directly with children. They might have a male chef or people volunteering, for example.

There are other criteria too. We want some individual settings, and some that are part of a larger nursery chain. We would like some to be in more affluent areas, and some in more socio-economically deprived locations; some urban, some rural. It would be interesting to think about cultural differences, so things like having high numbers of different languages spoken.

We want to see whether different areas might react differently to having male practitioners, and what kind of influence the local culture has on recruitment. Are people in some areas more receptive to early years practitioners from diverse backgrounds, for example, and how does that play out with respect to gender? In more affluent areas are men doing more fathering, and does that make the families more receptive to male staff?

The aim of the case studies is really to look at what conditions make a mixed/diverse workforce work well. Even if there are only small numbers of men, what is it that makes things gel, and allows the mixed-gender debate to take place? We spoke to one woman who told us that in her previous setting, female staff had to wear pink shirts and men blue, and there was no dialogue about gender. Now she works in a setting where staff can talk about it, and that’s important as a basis for change.


What are the key factors in producing a successful case study, in a study like this?

Communication with the setting must be good. The researcher has to understand well the constraints that affect staff. The relationship rests on us defining what we’re looking for and what they can give us. It’s always a balance and a negotiation. It’s a bit fragile and needs a lot of flexibility on our part.

It’s very important to have buy-in from the manager. We’re asking quite a lot of these settings – we spend three days there and sometimes staff may need  to give up their lunchtimes, or take part in interviews after work and so on. As a general rule we do eight interviews with members of staff – 1 or 2 from management level and then the other practitioners. We also do two focus groups.

The setting needs to believe in what we’re doing, and that it’s going to make a difference to them in the long run. A couple of settings we approached to be case studies said they can’t ask their staff to give up their time. It’s a challenge.

Interestingly, settings with male staff may not always be advanced in their thinking on gender. It might be that when we come to them, our study helps them start thinking about it, and when they’re working on their own and not connected to others around this agenda, they’re ripe for these kind of connections.

Trust between the researcher and the manager and staff is also important. They’re sharing their world with me, and for some people that might be difficult. Managers have to be quite confident about what they are doing, and the potential for staff to be negative about a setting. Also, female staff might feel aggrieved that there’s this focus on men, as if they offer something  special, something women can’t. It might sound a bit naff, but we all bring something special and different, which brings us back to the focus on diversity rather than equality.


What’s the biggest ethical challenge you face?

There are two big ones.

The first is how to observe staff without them feeling uncomfortable, or changing their behaviour in any way. As a researcher I need to think when do I make my notes, for example. Should I do it at the time of observing, or afterwards – the latter makes the observation feel more natural, but then I risk not remembering something important. It’s important that the people I’m observing feel reassured that this is not about anyone picking them up for good or bad practice.

The other one is the danger of reproducing the special status of men, and devaluing the work the women do. The challenge is to make sure everyone is aware that this is a project about gender, and  about producing a better workforce. It’s also about the children,  and for me it’s about getting the people into this work who are the best at it, and most interested in it.

Men are the catalyst to moving gender diversification forward, but there is a risk of alienating the 98%. What about the women who have drifted into this sector because they are seen to be better at caring or better with children? I bet there are a few who would quite fancy doing a bit of lorry driving or learning to be a plumber!


Dr Joann Wilkinson is Research associate on the GenderEYE project. She was interviewed by Jeremy Davies.

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