Atlanta — `HELP WANTED: Child-care workers. Men need not apply.'' No day-care center would run this fictional advertisement to attract new employees. But the women-only slant points up a concern among some specialists in the field, who worry that news-media attention to the proliferation of sex-abuse cases involving day-care employees is driving men away.
``The tenuous foothold of men in child-care services appears to be in danger,'' says Robert W. Weinbach, a professor of social work at the University of South Carolina. Sensational accounts of sexual abuse have increased public mistrust of day-care providers, he notes, with men being most suspect. ``The combination of suspicion and perceived harassment may be resulting in a hostile environment in which male caregivers are saying, `It just isn't worth it.' ''
Speaking at a national conference on women's issues sponsored by the National Association of Social Workers here recently, Dr. Weinbach discussed the ramifications of what he calls the ``refeminization'' of child care.
``If the current uproar over problems of sexual abuse has helped to identify child abusers and resulted in safeguards to protect children from them, this can only be viewed as a positive step,'' he says. ``But as more and more men leave, I fear whatever defeminization of day care had occurred over the years might be reversed. The replacements are likely to be women. And as the relatively few men in child care leave, a major loser will be children.''
Historically, he points out, children have encountered few men as elementary-school teachers. Thus men working in child care ``offer a unique form of interaction that is informal and that involves a male who is neither a parent nor other authority figure.''
In addition, Weinbach says, ``children come to believe at an early age that some jobs and activities are `for women' or `for men.' This society can ill afford another generation of males -- and sometimes females -- who routinely typecast work as gender specific. Yet the absence of males in child care could contribute to this result.''
Statistical evidence of a male exodus is hard to pin down. Women have always formed the overwhelming majority of child-care staffs, accounting for 95 to 99 percent of all child-care workers in 1984, according to United States Department of Labor statistics. And because of low pay and low status, turnover among caregivers, male and female, is extraordinarily high -- an estimated 40 percent annually nationwide.
``Our field is feeling a teacher shortage in general,'' says Barbara Willer, director of information services for the National Association of the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C. ``I have no data that men are leaving more than women, or that men are leaving out of fear.''
Still, when staff members of the Child Care Employee Project in Berkeley, Calif., conducted a study of full-day child-care centers in northern Alameda County last winter, they found that 10 percent of teachers and 9 percent of assistants were male. Two years earlier, 15 percent of teachers and 17 percent of assistants had been male.
``It's unclear whether that's just a fluke of sampling or if that reflects both the working conditions and abuse-related problems,'' says director Marcy White book. ``I think there's some reason to believe it's true that men are leaving. But I also think it would be a mistake to think it's just the sex abuse.''
In the '70s, she explains, ``there was a great deal of emphasis on men and women both doing nontraditional sex-role jobs. The young men of that generation who were taken by that are now pushing 40. As people push 40 they begin to think, `How am I going to make a living?' If you're going to answer that question, you probably should get out of child care.''
If men do get out, whatever their reasons for leaving, Weinbach warns that the effects could be long-lasting.
``You will have another generation of young men who will dare not enter because of the social stigma,'' he says.
Already some observers see signs of a shift in public perceptions of male child-care providers.
``There was a brief period,'' Ms. Whitebook recalls, ``when if you said, `There's a man in the classroom,' people would say, `That's interesting.' Somehow the male presence brought positive energy to the occupation of child care. There was a sense that this is really important work and it's valuable.
``Now the male presence brings negative attention or suspicion. Today if a man works in child care, people wonder, `What's wrong with this man that he's doing women's work?' ''
That attitude must be changed, Weinbach insists. ``Parents need to know that there is nothing inherently strange or weird about men who choose to work with children,'' he says. ``Men should not have to work under a veil of suspicion.''
Lifting that veil, he points out, will require the collective efforts of numerous groups.
``Parents need to know what they can and should expect from child-care workers and what should not be tolerated,'' he says. But, he adds, social workers and day-care providers should also examine rules, policies, and procedures that may be viewed as harassment, especially by male employees. They can ask, ``Are these within the area of what is reasonable, given what we know of child sexual abuse? Combined with other safeguards, are they bordering on `overkill'? And are there other ways of accomplishing the same objectives without humiliating or casting aspersions on employees?''
Taking appropriate steps to encourage qualified men to work in child care can have far-reaching benefits, specialists maintain.
``It's wonderful for children to experience both men and women taking responsibility for their upbringing and their care,'' Whitebook says. ``Especially where you've got so many children living with their mothers without necessarily having men in their day-to-day lives. There's just something nice about boys and girls seeing men in nurturing roles. I'd like to think that would have an effect on the men and women of the next generation.''