"Why does my eldest son already think scientists are generally men and teachers are mostly women? The truth is he gets it from everywhere," writes Paul Chai. Photo: Stocksy
I asked my eight-year-old son Dash the other night if he thought there were any jobs that were just for girls, and he was lightning fast with his response. He named nursing, teaching and daycare as three professions that were "for girls".
I was a bit taken aback. We are a pretty progressive household; not "knit your own granola" left, but I think we split the care-giving duties as evenly as possible. I freelanced from home for a year-and-a-half when the kids were younger, and do plenty of pick-up, drop-off, clean-up and hose-down duties.
Why then does my eldest son already think scientists are generally men and teachers are mostly women? The truth is he gets it from everywhere. There was just one male in his daycare centre, and when, in kindergarten, he got a male teacher, everyone at the school told us how lucky we were that we "got the man", as if we had won the teacher lottery.
So, why aren't more men doing jobs that are considered the domain of women?
Gillian Barclay, director of Moreland Community Child Care Centres in Victoria, is one person trying to change the perception of her industry, one of the most female-centric workforces in the country.
"We call them our 'Eight Percenters'," says Gillian with a laugh. "We have eight per cent male staff at the centres, which is a pitiful amount. But the committee has set an aspiration target of having 20 per cent by 2020."
It's a bold aim in an industry that has fewer than one per cent of males across the board. Gillian says that changing the makeup of her workforce is about more than just numbers; she firmly believes that by a small shift in percentage, the knock-on effect for the kids they look after could be huge.
"We're a community-based organisation so we feel really strongly that our workforce should reflect the community that we're in," she says. "It's about getting the message to boys and girls that jobs are not gender-based, that if you have the skills you can do any job. The other important thing is around role-modeling and how it is really powerful for boys and girls to see men in respectful nurturing roles."
Gillian refers to the TED Talk given by Gary Barker a few years back, that cites Norway is one of the few countries that's experienced a decline in violence against women. Barker believes that that drop is directly related to more men being in care-giving roles.
In the 1980s, Norway started its big push for gender equality with lengthy paternal leave and more workplace gender equality and 20 years later, when they checked in on what was happening, there was one stat that popped out.
In households where men did equal amounts of work, family violence declined by a third. It was this statistic - at a time when Australia's gender-based violence stat recently doubled to two women killed by a man every week - that stood out to Gillian, and was further fuel for her scheme to recruit more males to child care.
But she accepts that there are challenges. The first of which is finding the men, because as she points out, her child care centres are not being overrun with applications from male staff.
"You really need to get boys around Grade 10 and 11 and plant the seed and promote the area of child care as a profession with a clear career path," Gillian says.
Gillian's "boys" are doing their bit though, recently attending a child care conference to talk about their experience. The next step is to take their presentation on the road to other child care centres across Australia.
As she points out, even the Scandinavian countries have yet to reach double figures with men in care-giving roles and it is a fight that is being fought on many fronts: education, quotas and targets. But it is fighting against an ingrained patriarchy that sees some jobs as 'girly' jobs, jobs that men simply do not do.
Occupation segregation is just old thinking and we should not put on gender blinkers when it comes to career choice.
For my part, I started my own conversation with my eight-year-old, asking him if he would consider taking a job in child care or nursing.
He said he would, that it might even "teach him to be more gentle". But then Dash's job today is as a "grass hairdresser", and I am not even sure what gender dominates that particular profession.