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2 August 1999

When Mary Poppins has a hairy chest

When Michael Durhamemployed a male au pair he found another side to sex discrimination

By Michael Durham

Here is a conundrum for our times. A young man and a young woman both want a job looking after children. The young man is 19, caring and kind, clean, tidy, practical and efficient, with a positive outlook. Nobody will give him a job. The young woman, the same age, is a reluctant housekeeper, can’t cook, doesn’t much like kids, is obsessed with her appearance and secretly anorexic. But she is blonde, pretty and female, and she walks into a job as an au pair.

Who is the biggest help around the house and the best role model for the children? No prizes for guessing. The man, clearly; and the hypothetical example is not as extreme as it sounds.

We got our first male au pair six months ago. Jiri – George – is 22 and from the Czech Republic. Not only does he wash the dishes and clean the kitchen, he happily collects the children from school and reads the four year old a bedtime story.

George is a new man – or at least a New Male Au Pair. Male au pairs are becoming increasingly common, even fashionable. But there are undoubtedly far more young men out there who would, like George, choose to combine a bit of globe-trotting with au-pairing than who actually achieve it. Male au pairs are discriminated against. Au pair agencies don’t like to take them on, because they can’t shift them. Families don’t want them. And why don’t families want them?

Jane Wilton, who owns an au pair agency, says that “the main reason is that husbands and fathers don’t want them”. Men, it appears, feel threatened by a younger man about the house. Perhaps they feel it will corrode their authority or simply open the door to a sexual rival. Or perhaps having a man cheerfully coping with childcare and household chores is too uncomfortable to contemplate.

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Mothers, too, can be reluctant to admit men into the household. As Wilton found, most clients – and 80 per cent are the mother in the family – argued that they would feel uncomfortable with a male washing their underwear.

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When George arrived in our household – the first male au pair in the neighbourhood – the reaction was one of curiosity and disbelief. Only one family took against him, a traditional Muslim household, whose father politely informed us that they would no longer be able to send their young daughter to play at our house. So our daughter now plays at their house instead. There is a generation gap, too: the reaction of my 83-year-old father to the news of George’s appointment was: “You’ve checked him out with the police, haven’t you?”

We have not checked him out with the police. Why on earth should a 22-year-old man, deeply attached to his London-based Czech girlfriend, pose any more risk as a child abuser than a bored and anxious young woman? Look at all the recent high-profile cases of baby-battering by nannies – all women. And even if we wanted to, there is no means of checking, as au pair agencies admit: the best that families can do is read the references and apply some astute character judgement.

My father’s next question was: “Why would a young man want to work with young children anyway?” As if there is something unnatural about it. Au pairs themselves supply the answer. Simon, a Swedish au pair, said: “The main reason I wanted to be an au pair is that I really love kids. I am going to study to be a high school teacher.” Simon added that being a male au pair was no challenge to his self-esteem. “When you meet girls, they just think you are the cutest when you tell them you are a nanny.”

The Internet could prove to be the agency that does most to ease the logjam for male au pairs looking for work. A large number of Internet sites devoted to matching families with au pairs already exists, and a high proportion of would-be au pairs posting messages on these sites are male.

As women have known for generations, being an au pair is one of the easiest ways of learning a language, getting to know another culture and seeing more of the world. You get to live rent-free in one of the world’s greatest cities; and because you do not need a work permit, au-pairing is often the only realistic way of travelling.

There are downsides – but these apply equally to women. Au pairs can themselves be abused, hideously exploited, bullied and treated like slaves. “Mike”, now an eminent academic in a New Zealand university, recalls his days as a male au pair in Europe in the 1970s, doing household chores for wealthy disciplinarians with two teenage daughters. As the hours got ever longer and the work more demanding, he found himself fined for accidental breakages, including a ghastly chandelier.

He left, disillusioned. “My au pair experiences affected me morally, mentally, physically and financially because I was a novice trying a totally new kind of job. Oh, well . . . I might have smashed the chandelier but at least I crashed the sex barrier.”