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Battling stereotypes … preschool worker Craig d'Arcy has set up the Males in Early Childhood Network Group. Photo: Greg Mace
As a young man eager to get into a boom industry with a robust future, Craig d'Arcy spent several years as the only male studying childcare alongside more than 100 women at TAFE and university in Newcastle.
Early in his career, his childcare centre boss told him parents had highlighted in yellow on their child's enrolment form they wanted no male worker to go near their offspring. Two decades on, as founder of the national Males in Early Childhood Network Group, d'Arcy has heard about centres that ban men from changing nappies and is used to people thinking those who want to work with the young are either gay or have evil intent.
So he easily recognised the vein of fear about male contact with children that popped up when two men went public recently about their embarrassment over airline staff moving them away from unaccompanied minors.
''The stereotype is that men are predators who are looking for opportunities to abuse young children,'' says d'Arcy, who is co-ordinator of a Mullumbimby preschool and has six children of his own. ''There seems to be that automatic assumption.''
Most of the 2900 men who make their living caring for under-fives butt up against these assumptions regularly in a way that their 100,000-plus female counterparts do not, he says.
''It's a very common story,'' d'Arcy says.
Most paedophiles are relatives or trusted family friends but, as more perpetrators are caught awareness grows and, with it, a fear that can become out of proportion to the danger.
A Newcastle University lecturer on family issues, Richard Fletcher, knows of a school principal who wanted to cancel a program allowing grandfathers to run playground activities for children when one of the men had too much to drink, spooking the staff.
An underlying attitude that ''men are dangerous and we can't manage them'' also grips staff on some maternity and neonatal wards, where fathers ask to sleep near their partners and newborns, says Fletcher.
Anecdotally, in at least one Sydney babysitting co-operative, parents made it clear that they did not want a father to turn up alone to care for their children.
Predator fear has been woven into numerous airline policies. Virgin Australia's was revealed when a flight attendant asked firefighter Johnny McGirr to move away from two young boys, saying it was policy that men should not sit with unaccompanied minors. McGirr said he felt stripped of respect.
Nurse Daniel McCluskie said he felt he had a sign above his head that said ''child molester'' after he was shifted from his seat on a flight from Wagga Wagga to Sydney because of Qantas policy. He must pass annual checks on his suitability to work with children, but the policy apparently does not take that into account.
When the Herald asked Qantas about the origins of its policy, the company re-issued a statement saying its policy was consistent with those of other airlines around the world, is designed to minimise risk and that it reflects parents' concerns and the need to maximise children's safety.
Virgin Australia, which introduced its policy seven years ago, has now employed an organisational psychologist to conduct a review. It will include, in quaint Virgin-speak, ''researching guest feedback''.
''I understand why airlines have policies, but there is a more subtle way to enforce them than to march up to a guy and make him feel like a paedophile when he just sits in a seat,'' says crime novelist Michael Robotham.
As the father of three daughters aged 12, 15 and 18, he blames the 24-hour news cycle for the heightened perception that males are inherently dangerous to children.
''Only a month ago, I had a pool party for my 12-year-old's birthday. She had all her girlfriends there. There were 11- and 12-year-old girls jumping around the pool in bikinis. I wanted to take photographs, but in the back of my mind I was thinking: Can I take photographs?''
He no longer pulls out the camera at the beach: ''I feel I should be able to but I think society is saying I can't.''
Robotham's latest novel, Say You're Sorry, about two 15-year-old girls who go missing during their summer holidays, connects to deep fears about violated children. But he does not agree with helicopter supervision of children or the men in their lives.
''Even though I write the sort of novels that involve young girls in jeopardy, I am a complete realist when it comes to the crux of the matter. Crime statistics show that per head of the population, there is no marked increase in violent crime, child abuse and other attacks than there was 10 to 20 years ago. When there is an incident where someone tries to pick up a child, there is saturation coverage. Twenty-four hours a day, the stories dominate the headlines and the public has the perception that every second child will be snatched off the street and we have to be ever vigilant [because] our child could be next.''
Thus, when he found a four-year-old girl lost in a shopping mall, he quickly looked around for the first woman who could help because of the possibility that he would be considered a paedophile, he says.
At his Mullumbimby preschool, d'Arcy ensures a colleague is watching while he assists any child who has a toileting accident, or comforts them following a fall.
''Over time, I've learnt how to protect myself. Whenever I meet a new family my standard spiel is: I am married. I have my own children. I'm saying to them: I'm normal. I'm here for the right reasons.
''It's about being aware of that. It's something your female colleagues don't have to think about. You have to prove yourself as a male and build up trust.''
He is lobbying the federal Ministerial Council for Education, Early Childhood Development and Youth Affairs to work on lifting the proportion of men working with very young children above the 2.6 per cent it is now.
It is good for children to see men nurturing, caring, teaching and working with their female colleagues, he says.
And eventually men might be spared the experience of the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, whose account of a past flight was recalled by Forbes magazine writer Joshua Gans this week.
Johnson was delighted when the British Airways flight attendant announced he had to move away from the two restless, difficult children beside him.
''A man cannot sit with children,'' she declared.
Whereupon the children stymied his escape by declaring: ''But he's our father.''
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/national/male-presumed-dangerous-20120817-24dtz.html#ixzz241K8y6dP