The ‘sum total’: Reimagining early childhood care and education through a gender perspective on the profession – Education International

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‘Education’, suggested Austrian psychoanalyst Siegfried Bernfeld in 1925, ‘is the sum total of societal reaction to the fact of ontogenetic development’ (Bernfeld, 1973, 1925). His wide-ranging definition has profound implications as we endeavour to reimagine education for all in the 21st century: education begins at birth (‘ ontogenetic development’), education is more than schooling (‘ the sum-total’), and education is political (‘ societal reaction’). Unfortunately, in early childhood care and education, the societal reaction is a task that is not carried equally. Women, and regularly women from disadvantaged classes, are doing the heavy lifting.

Investing in public early childhood care and education (ECCE) is probably the most effective investment any country can make to sustain the common good, ensure prosperity, social cohesion, equity, and sustainable development. Education is foundational to children’s healthy development, wellbeing, fulfilment of their full potential, and their lifelong prospects. Being valuable in its own right, education also has a multiplier effect—that is, education helps position children to secure their other rights during childhood and subsequently as adults.

The value of early childhood care and education is now widely recognised. International agreements and frameworks like the Tashkent Declaration and Commitments to Action for Transforming Early Childhood Care and Education (UNESCO World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education, 2022) clearly link the realisation of children’s right to education from birth to adequate and sustainable public funding (recommended: 10% of the overall education budget), and to the existence of a qualified, well-paid, and professionally recognised workforce of early childhood educators and carers.

The recognition of young children as holders of rights and the gains achieved at this level have been possible thanks to the vision, commitment and tireless work of women educators and the struggles they have maintained for the rights of women and the youngest children.

These are welcome developments. However, as a recent report by UNESCO (2021) states, early childhood care and education) around the world presents enormous and varied challenges related to the teaching profession.

An overwhelmingly feminised ECCE workforce

It is undeniable that, in most countries of the world–and between countries and global regions–, ECCE is unequal, fragmented and diverse (UNESCO, 2021). This is also reflected in the work, conditions and qualifications of the staff working in the various services and programmes.

Almost all early childhood educators are women, in any country or region of the world. Explanations why that is the case often focus on the working conditions and unsustainably low remuneration–poverty wages. However, even in high income countries with secure employment, unionised workforce, and comparatively well-paid jobs, it has been impossible to attract a significant number of men to working with young children, let alone achieve anything near gender balance. This suggests deeper reasons. Gender stereotyping seems hard to overcome. Women are seen as and expected to be natural mothers and carers. Deep-rooted biases persist: while ‘men in childcare’ are often seen as potential ‘saviours’ (much needed male role models for children), they are simultaneously perceived with doubt, e.g. as lacking their manliness (including assumptions about their sexual orientation) and/or ‘monsters’ (potential sexual abusers). Whatever their motivation for choosing early childhood education as a career, there must be something wrong with them!

The global picture leaves no doubt: looking at educators in pre-primary (ISCED 0) only (the only part of ECCE we have reliable data for), it is evident that women predominate in the early childhood teaching profession. According to information provided by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), 94% of pre-school teachers worldwide are women, reaching as high as 100% in some countries.

However, official data only cover a small part of the ECCE workforce. Many, if not most of the youngest children are cared for and educated in settings outside the education system, in informal settings, or services provided by non-state actors. Taking this into account, the gendered make-up of the workforce is overwhelming.

Addressing the gender dimension to value and recognise the ECCE profession

Work in ECCE is strongly influenced by tasks linked to childcare, which has an impact on social and professional recognition and attractiveness. Persistent gender stereotypes have assigned care tasks to be women, which has contributed to reinforce the gender division of labour and the unfair social organisation of care, as structural nodes of gender inequality (for LAC, cf. Thus, the younger the children are, the worse the working conditions are for those who care for and educate them, and the fewer men are involved in this work. Care is perceived as a domestic practice, a child-rearing practice that can be carried out naturally without requiring professional qualification or, sometimes in undignified conditions and with low pay or no pay at all. The flip side of this statement is related to the belief that child development can reach its fullness naturally through maturation.

Care is work, but it is also an ethic because to care is to take care of the new, the newcomers to the world, as Hannah Arendt put it. However, although in early childhood, educating and caring are inseparable and necessary praxes, the tasks of caring are not always valued and recognised, as numerous feminist studies indicate.

Valuing early childhood educators requires acknowledging and strengthening the pedagogical aspects of educational work in early childhood, especially in the early years, where services and provision are often outside the formal education systems. The intentional nature of the actions carried out by educators necessarily requires qualification, professional knowledge, pedagogical criteria and a clear ethic. Educational work, as Paulo Freire reminds us, is a social and political practice guided by public purposes and criteria. It is linked to the dense developments in pedagogy which, among other things, indicate that educating a child requires specialised knowledge that allows the cultural horizons of early childhood development to be broadened and enhanced (Fairstein & Mayol Lassalle, 2022).

Where to start

From the political dimension, the early childhood profession is part of the struggle and resistance for the extension of rights to all human beings. Historically, the development of public policies for ECCE has rarely emerged from the highest levels of power and governments, rather, governments have been reactive to social movements and societal change. The recognition of young children as holders of rights and the gains achieved at this level have been possible thanks to the vision, commitment and tireless work of women educators and the struggles they have maintained for the rights of women and the youngest children.

Where does this lead us? What are the challenges ahead for the teaching profession and their union representatives, as we engage in realising the right education for all children, their right to just and equitable outcomes, and the right to recognition and decent work conditions for their educators?

First, we suggest it will be necessary to broaden the scope of what we mean by education, and who we understand to be a teacher or educator. It will require both critical introspection and proactive outreach by teachers’ unions, and a strategy to recruit and represent all members of the early childhood workforce, with special attention to the vast majority that are not traditionally recognised as teachers.

Second, one of the guiding principles and strategies for transformative ECCE of the Tashkent declaration, related to the ECCE workforce, is to ‘ enhance the attractiveness of the ECCE profession and provide opportunities for career advancement’. To this end, it is urgent that states honour their commitment to strengthen ECCE systems, with a focus on recruitment, qualifications and working conditions of all ECCE personnel, and a critical examination of the overrepresentation of women in the sector, ‘ addressing gender biases related to the responsibilities of care, education and upbringing of children in society’ (UNESCO WCECCE, 2022).

Third, the recognition of a child’s right to education from birth requires an alignment of international goals and targets. It will be critical to expand our concept of early childhood education beyond the current wording of Sustainable Development Goal 4.2 (‘one year of pre-primary’).

Fourth and finally, we believe that education today, at all levels, can no longer rely on 20th century conceptualisations, practices, and certainties. Education in and for the 21st century world we live in must be education in the broadest sense: holistic education in and for uncertainty, peace, democracy, and survival (Urban, 2019, 2022). As early childhood educators, scholars, and advocates, we have much to contribute to this debate: ECCE is grounded in communities, grows out of social and feminist movements for change, and has a political, anti-fascist consciousness (Malaguzzi & Cagliari, 2016).

As we reimagine the ‘sum total’ of society’s responsibility for all young children, a global trade union federation like Education International, we believe, can and should be leading the debate!


Bernfeld, S. (1973). Sisyphus or the limits of education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Fairstein, G. A., & Mayol Lassalle, M. (2022). Educación y cuidado en la primera infancia. Pedagogía desde el jardín maternal. Buenos Aires: Editorial Paidós Educación.

Malaguzzi, L., & Cagliari, P. (2016). Loris Malaguzzi and the schools of Reggio Emilia : a selection of his writings and speeches, 1945-1993. London ; New York: Routledge.

UNESCO. (2021). Right to pre-primary education. A global study. Paris: UNESCO.

UNESCO World Conference on Early Childhood Care and Education. (2022). Tashkent Declaration and Commitments to Action for Transforming Early Childhood Care and Education. Paris, France: UNESCO.

Urban, M. (2019). (E)Utopia: the local, the global, and the imaginary in early childhood education. In S. Faas, D. Kasüschke, E. Nitecki, M. Urban, & H. Wasmuth (Eds.), Globalization, Transformation, and Cultures in Early Childhood Education and Care. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Urban, M. (2022). Scholarship in times of crises: towards a trans-discipline of early childhood. Comparative Education, 58(3), 383-401. doi:10.1080/03050068.2022.2046376

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