PETER North is like many parents who have opted to look after their children rather than pursue full-time careers. He looks for part-time work that he can combine with parenting. Helping to run his children's playgroup is an obvious choice. But in Hong Kong male involvement in pre-school education and formal care is almost unheard of. Even the expatriate-run Pre-School Playgroups Association (PPA), which encourages boys to join girls in playing with dolls and girls to take part in woodwork, hesitated before offering him a job as a play-leader. He was given an uncommonly tough interview before the association took the plunge and employed its first man. The PPA was concerned that some women wouldn't welcome the intrusion of a man in what are women-dominated parent and toddler sessions. It was also worried about the possibility of sexual abuse. 'The gut reaction of mums is we must be sure, which is not entirely unhealthy given that men have a reputation in Britain of messing around with children,' said Liz Moakes, chairwoman of PPA's parent and toddler group. The checks would have been even tougher if Mr North had been applying for a job in the community playgroup for three-to five-year-olds, where play-leaders had greater contact with children. In local kindergartens, too, there are hardly any men. A spokeswoman for the Professional Teachers' Union said there were no male kindergarten members of the union. 'Most kindergartens want females. Chinese society won't accept men,' she said. Dr Sylvia Opper, divisional director of early childhood education at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said she believed there were five men teaching at this level. She knows these men are making a valuable contribution to the classroom, in the types of activities they pursue and as male role-models for children who often have little contact with their fathers. 'They are very good and the children love them,' she said. She explained why there were so few: 'The men themselves do not apply because the pay is low and working in a kindergarten is considered low status - because of the pay and because it is seen as a woman's job.' She also said there was reticence among employers, because they thought men were less patient with children than women. 'There is a little stereotyping going on there,' she said. Sexual abuse was not a concern, because kindergartens were so open, with teachers usually working in pairs. Dr Opper would like to see more men applying for kindergarten posts, believing they would create a more balanced teaching environment that was closer to real-life. 'If I was an employer I would be looking for a person with certain attributes, who is patient, enjoys children, is caring and responsible,' she said. 'This could be a man as well as a woman. What men specifically could bring in is an interest in male activities, like wood-working, and big block building. 'In Hong Kong kindergartens there is very little of this type of activity going on, because most of the teachers are women. You always have a house with dolls and teapots, a very female thing. Why not have a male corner too?' Having a male role model in the classroom would be a bonus, provided he had the right character and qualifications, she said. Men might also be able to relate more easily than women to the interests and skills of little boys. The French have fewer qualms about recruiting men to teach small children. At the French International School's Moyenne Maternelle, two of the three teachers in charge of four-to five-year-olds are men - Herve Hubert and Bernard Boulic. Both teachers have female assistants. 'We have both presences,' said Mr Boulic. 'The children can choose. We do not work differently from the female teachers - we have the same training. But it is a plus to have a male presence in the classroom. 'The difference may be in the personalities. Children need to have someone to refer to. We have to set an example, especially for the boys and if the father is away from home.' Mr Hubert said: 'Sometimes we can act more like mothers than women. 'When a four-year-old falls down and is crying we can provide a little tenderness too.' Frenchmen were finding the kindergarten teaching increasingly attractive - Mr Hubert believes about 15 per cent are now male. 'In France more and more male teachers would like to teach in kindergartens,' he said. For him, it was a particularly rewarding age group to teach: 'The children change so much between September and June. You can really see the development.' They also enjoyed the greater freedom for innovation in the classroom. The fact that French kindergarten teachers receive the same training as primary school teachers had helped put teaching under-fives on a more professional level, increasing its attraction for men. The two men have found no prejudice against them among parents. 'Usually we have very good relations with parents,' said Mr Boulic. Many opt for their children to join their classes. Anice Tam, whose son Thibault attended Mr Hubert's class, said: 'He really liked his teacher. But it is essential to have a woman assistant in the class, to keep a balance.' For her, the personality and skills of the teacher were more important than the gender. But in England, Mr North was the only man in his classroom when he took a City and Guilds caring for children course, which he attended to improve his parenting skills and qualify him for jobs in playgroups. 'If you get a man in playgroups the women start to worry a bit,' Mr North said. 'They think: 'Is he a pervert? Is he going to molest our children?' This is fair enough given the number of cases of sexual abuse there have been. But it is unsettling that they think I could be like that.' He pointed out there had also been cases of abuse involving women. When children were involved, all applicants should be checked thoroughly, he said. Given the openness of playgroups, the possibility of such abuse is unlikely. In Britain, the notorious cases of abuse have occurred when men are looking after older children in residential care. After starting work at PPA, Mr North was soon accepted by the mothers in the parent and toddler groups. 'I didn't find any problems with the mothers,' he said. 'They want to check you out: your background, how many children you've got. It could be a problem for women whose cultures don't have a place for men in looking after children.' The children also reacted positively. 'They come up and look at you in awe,' he said. 'You can see them thinking, 'he's here and he's going to play with me'. There should be more men in pre-school education so that children can see that men can look after them too.' Ms Moakes said: 'We did have to consider this application a bit more than normal because I had to take into account the reaction of the groups with him. But in the end we only had to think about it in terms of whether he had the right qualifications and the right personality. When we were recruiting he was the best qualified. 'I really do think it is a matter of personalities. We don't get many men willing to do this work. And yes, it's obviously valuable for the children to see a male figure who is interested in them.'