Professional childcare has traditionally been viewed as a job for women, yet an increasing number of men are now interested in carving out a career in nursery schools, playgroups and after-school clubs.
According to research by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), which last year examined sex-role stereotyping in five occupational groups, including plumbing and childcare, the skills-starved pre-school care sector could benefit enormously by tapping into the latent skills of men. It claims that current careers advice is out of step with changing attitudes towards male and female occupations and fears that training opportunities in childcare tend not to be offered to men.
The staffing figures for the pre-school and out-of-school sector are stark. With the Government firmly set on expanding childcare in the coming decade - in part by the introduction of extended school hours to benefit working parents - the Department for Education and Skills estimates it will need a further 163,000 workers in the sector over the coming few years. This will effectively increase the size of the current labour force by more than 50 per cent.
Far from assuming that men are unwilling to broach the largely female-only world of nappy-changing, finger painting and nursery rhymes, the EOC believes that with positive support from careers advisers, more men would be willing to consider childcare as a long-term career.
According to Anne Madden, the Commission's project director for occupational segregation: "Our research shows that nine out of 10 new fathers are as confident as their partner in looking after a baby and four in five say they would be happy to stay at home as full-time parents.
"This new confidence in child-rearing is reflected in the numbers of men who are now willing to look after other people's children as a job and to study for appropriate qualifications."
She adds: "Male attitudes towards caring for young children have changed, but in some ways, the careers advice sector - which tends to label jobs such as childcare as women's work - perhaps hasn't. In our research, it is teachers and careers advisers who appear to be the most negative."
The EOC's study finds that as many as 25 per cent of teenage boys are "interested" or "very interested" in entering the caring profession as a whole, while 27 per cent of older men would consider working in childcare; perhaps as a "second-chance" career. Despite their enthusiasm though, men comprise just two to three per cent of the childcare workforce at present.
Aside from meeting chronic skill shortages, the recruitment of more men into nursery schools and playgroups would also bring valuable new skills into the whole sector, says the EOC.
"Children would benefit from a more diverse and representative workforce and would benefit too from more male role models in the caring professions," Madden argues, adding that the increased opportunities in privately run childcare that are likely to come with the Government's expansion plans will help attract more entrepreneurs of both sexes into the sector.
What of parents' attitudes to men working in nurseries though? "There is no resistance from parents that we have detected," says Madden, "and in fact, three quarters of them say they would actively like to see more men working in nurseries, play centres and after school clubs."
She adds that most parents and childcare employers believe that an influx of men in the workforce would raise the profile of childcare and help improve its overall standing. "We have not encountered any fears about sex abuse," she says.
In the view of Beth Reid, campaigns officer for the Daycare Trust, a national children's charity, it is often men themselves who fear that a job in childcare will prompt charges of abuse.
"Although research from a couple of years back indicates that only one man has ever been charged with sex abuse in a British nursery, many men are very wary of how others will perceive their career choice.
"We need to offer positive images of men working in childcare and comprehensive support and even mentoring for men who do enter the sector," she adds.
With the average full-time pay in childcare a very modest £12,000, the EOC recognises that poor salaries will have to be re-examined if childcare is to become an attractive option for the number of recruits now required.
The EOC's recent research into five different sectors where gender stereotypes still hold sway - construction, engineering, IT, plumbing and childcare - has revealed that the average wage in the other four, male dominated sectors is at least double that received by predominantly female childcare workers.
"Given that the average gardener gets paid more than the average nursery school worker, it is clear that the long-term devaluing of childcare as a career must be addressed," says Madden.
"With better pay, a more even mix of men and women and a firm trend towards upskilling, professional childcare could become a very attractive option for both sexes," she adds.
'To me the job is second nature'
Tariq Mahmood, 35, is a Pakistan-born manager at the Sheffield Children's Centre, which looks after around 130 children. Before joining in 1991, he worked in a UK-based refugee centre, where he looked after Pakistani child abuse victims. He has achieved qualifications in primary education, food and hygiene, and life saving as well as NVQ Levels 3 and 4.
I have worked with children for 14 years and although other people sometimes think it a strange job for a man, to me it's second nature.
In Pakistan, I looked after my niece and nephew while my sister was at work and I enjoyed it. There was no organised childcare in the country and it was common for other family members to help out.
I was scared of the women at the Sheffield Centre at first, but they were very supportive. Nowadays, we have a 50:50 ratio of men to women so I don't feel so uncomfortable.
At the beginning, there were problems with some parents, particularly the Muslim ones, who objected to men changing their daughters' nappies and even picking them up when they fell over. These same parents are my friends now.
Nappy-changing and potty-training are part and parcel of the job - not nasty, just something that you would do for any child. I see my work here as a great training ground for when I become a father.
Some of my male colleagues have left to set up their own nurseries, but I'm not sure I would want that responsibility. If I hadn't gone into childcare, I'd have chosen economics. Better pay perhaps, but not nearly as rewarding. My colleagues and the children here are like my family and I feel very settled and happy.