The impact of feminisation, feminism and fragmentation

This wave of feminists often clashed with the proponents of early childhood education exemplified by kindergarten advocates

In a recent chapter on the Australian early childhood workforce (Press, 2015), I described its character as having been influenced by feminism, feminisation and fragmentation, Charles Sturt University Associate Professor at the School Of Teacher Education Frances Press writes.

These three factors have had an impact upon the workforce in complex ways, in some cases working against the achievement of pay equity for early childhood teachers. In the following article I briefly outline some of these impacts, starting with feminisation.


The Australian early childhood workforce is, and always has been, predominantly female. The numbers of men working in early childhood settings are extremely low comprising approximately only 3% of the contemporary early childhood workforce. Unfortunately, there is no doubt that the highly feminised nature of the workforce has been a key factor in suppressing wages. Initially the wages for women working as kindergarten teachers were low, in keeping with the lower wage rates of women comparative to men until the introduction of equal pay in 1969. Further, the origins of early childhood education and care (ECEC) provision in philanthropy resonated with widespread views about the caring nature of women. Take for instance, the observation of a commissioner in a 1969 NSW industrial hearing, who noted that early childhood staff were “motivated by a desire to make some contribution to community service” and thus not reliant on wages (cited in Smith and Lyons, 2006).

Although subsequent pay equity cases have resulted in some improvements to wages and conditions, the specialist nature of early childhood education has been obscured by a popular belief that the care and education of young children is somehow instinctual for its predominantly female workforce, requiring only a caring and maternal disposition. Consequently, there have been times when qualification requirements have come under attack. A former federal government finance minister (from 1984-1990), Peter Walsh asserted that advocacy for teachers in early childhood programs was intended “to make even softer the nests of bachelors of early childhood education and their middle-class well-feathered friends” and that childcare workers were crippling the system with “creeping credentialism” (cited in Brennan, 2008). More recently, the 2014 draft issues paper of the Productivity Commission into Childcare and Early Learning recommended the winding back of reforms designed to raise the qualifications of the early childhood workforce, asserting especially that only minimal qualifications were required for work with the youngest children (Productivity Commission, 2014).


In the face of such pervading beliefs, it is worth reflecting on the role of feminism in the development of the early childhood sector. Australian early childhood education had its origins in the kindergarten movement of the late 19th century. Many of the early proponents of this movement were suffragettes as well as educational reformers and philanthropists – a “formidable network of women working in support of feminist causes” (Huntsman, 2005). Among the founding members of the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales in 1895 – the first kindergarten association formed in Australia – were women such as as Margaret Windeyer and Maybanke Anderson. Both women were active in the Women’s Suffrage League and were well known public speakers and advocates for social and educational reform.

Kindergarten proponents were firm in their belief that teachers of young children required specialist knowledge and skills. In the early 20th century, kindergarten associations established kindergarten teachers’ colleges independent of state teacher training institutions. On the one hand, kindergarten teaching expanded opportunities for young women’s further education and employment, but on the other hand, it was poorly paid. The philanthropic objective of the early kindergarten associations to provide free kindergartens in poor neighbourhoods, coupled with their limited resources, served to dampen teachers’ wages. The tension between channelling resources into establishing and maintaining kindergartens, and increasing teachers pay, was evident in the earliest days of the movement and continued for decades to come. It is perhaps not surprising then that teacher shortages have been documented since the inception of kindergartens in Australia.

While kindergarten advocates were primarily focused on providing preschool education to children over three, the plight of the children of working mothers was largely left unaddressed until the formation of the Sydney Day Nursery Association in 1905, “an institution started by fellow women, who fully realise the difficulties that beset the paths of working mothers” (cited in Huntsman 2005, p.9). However, kindergarten training colleges were not amenable to addressing the needs of children under three in their courses, arguing that their students were “to be trained as teachers not nurses” (Brennan, 1998). Hence specific nursery school teacher education emerged in the 1930s, and for many years kindergarten teacher training and nursery school teacher training followed distinct paths.

Feminism’s renewed impact was evident again when, in the 1970s feminists fought for the expansion of childcare as part of a platform designed to achieve women’s social, economic and political equality. This wave of feminists often clashed with the proponents of early childhood education exemplified by kindergarten advocates. The latter believed, by and large, that childcare was not good for children. They did not approve of the mothers of babies and young children entering the paid workforce, and felt that the long days of attendance that childcare offered were too long. The division between childcare advocates and preschool advocates resonated for many years pulling early childhood policy and practice in different directions. One result of this division was reflected in the education and preparation of the early childhood workforce. In the mid 1970s a new early childhood qualification emerged – the two year Child Care Certificate. This precursor to today’s diploma was taught through vocational training, not through the established kindergarten teachers colleges (and later, universities). Like the Nursery Teacher’s College had done some years before, this qualification attempted to address the needs of children under three and the long day care experience for children overall.


As is evident, a consequence of the historical development of ECEC in Australia, has been fragmentation of the field. ECEC services can be home based or centre based, run by not for profit entities, government departments or commercial organisations. Different policy frameworks for child care and preschool, different education and training pathways and different qualification requirements have abounded. It is only in this century that governments have worked with some success toward policy coherence for child care and preschool through the Early Childhood Reform Agenda. Prior to these important reforms it was common to find policy for ECEC split between health, welfare and education portfolios. And despite the advances of the Reform Agenda, its somewhat precarious nature is exemplified by the fact that the child care portfolio has still found itself shifted from education, to social security, and back to education once more.


Over time, there have been a number of initiatives that have aimed to make explicit the professionalism of the early childhood workforce: Early Childhood Australia’s Code of Ethics and the national Early Years Learning Framework, have successfully garnered strong support within the early childhood field. In a number of cases, the philanthropic bodies that once sought to keep wages low, have supported improvements to wages and conditions in order to sustain a knowledgeable and stable early childhood profession. Nevertheless, factors continue to compound relatively poor pay and conditions.


Brennan D 1998, The Politics of Australian Child Care: Philanthropy To Feminism And Beyond. (rev. ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brennan D November 2008, Re-assembling the Child Care Business. Inside Story

Huntsman L 2005, For the Little Ones, the Best SDN Children’s Services 1905-2005. Retrieved June 1 2014. Sydney: Hippo Books

Press F 2015, The Australian Early Childhood Education and Care Workforce: Feminism, Feminisation and Fragmentation. In V. Campbell-Barr & J. Georgeson (eds). International Perspectives on Workforce Development in Early Childhood Education and Care: History, Philosophy and Politics. Northwich: Critical Publishing

Productivity Commission (December 2013) Childcare and Early Learning: Productivity Commission Issue Paper. Retrieved June 1 2014.

Smith M and Lyons M 2006, ‘Crying wolf? Employers, awards, and pay equity in the New South Wales children’s services industry’, Employment Relations Record. 6 (1): 49 - 63.