Gender and Social Work – What is Gender? – Opinion piece by Prof. Brigid Featherstone – #SWSCmedia debate

Join us for a Special Evening with Prof. Brigid Featherstone & Prof. Jonathan Scourfield on Tuesday (17-July-2012) at 8:00 PM UK / 3:00 PM EDT @SWSCmedia.

  • What is gender? There is a huge literature on this but it is worth explaining what I think is the most useful understanding for social work. I think gender is very much linked to our practices in interaction with others, what we do, rather than simply what we are.  We do and undo gender through the practices we engage in, we construct what it is to be a man, a father, a woman and a mother and we can, of course, challenge constructions that we think restrict us. Having said that, there is of course a stubbornness to the constructions that are available and legitimated in our society.  Men are often expected by themselves, women and workers to act in particular ways so it is not a simplistic case of discrimination, for example, when they are not engaged with in relation to the care of their children.  It’s a bit more complex than that.  There are costs and privileges for both men and women attached to different models of masculinity and femininity.
  • Gender intersects with class, sexuality, ethnicity and disability which in effect means there are multiple masculinities but it does appear that one model is often dominant (that of the white heterosexual middle class, physically active man). Boys police each other particularly in relation to producing a heterosexual identity which causes a great deal of pain for gay adolescents often. Local contexts will throw up their own relations of dominance and subordination though and there is research evidence showing in some school settings the dominant model of masculinity is that of the ‘cool’   African Caribbean boy who is good at sport whereas Asian boys are seen as inappropriately masculine. These relations of dominance and subordination do not translate to the wider society where young black men continue to be seen  as ‘dangerous’ and disproportionately subject to police attention.
  • UK society has become progressively more unequal in terms of the  income gaps between different groups since the 1980s (for latest statistics see  Social mobility has ground to a halt.   However, until the economic crisis at least the dominant narrative was that ‘anyone could make it, and if you did not you were a loser’. In very unequal societies, individuals deal with their feelings of shame and failure by either engaging in self-destructive activities, acting destructively against others or projecting through racism for example.   This is at the heart of what social work is all about and poses everyday dilemmas for workers who do not see innocent victims acting nobly and resisting their oppression  but rather angry and unhappy people who may be destructive to themselves or others.   Social workers today often do not have the tools to put the suffering of services users in a wider context, in my opinion, and to be helped to deal with their relationships with service users.
  • For boys and men, their feelings of shame can be hidden behind a facade of the ‘hard man’ and this can cause difficulties in communications with social workers.   Research on young fathers, for example, would suggest that it can take time to get behind the facade or indeed even to get beyond their appearance on the part of social workers. There is a good dvd available from the Family Rights Group which has fathers talking about these issues and is a good training tool (
  • Whilst there has been a really significant upsurge in young women globally getting involved in feminist activism, my experience has been that the majority of female students coming on social work courses do not identify  with the word feminist. When asked about their views, it is, of course, a different matter – none of them think, for example, that it is ok to pay a woman less than a man for the same job or that women are inferior to men.    So perhaps it does not matter that they don’t identify with the word. I think it does matter because, as Jonathan’s piece notes, it cuts them off from helpful tools with which they can understand many things in our society. Feminism, for example, has done sterling work in understanding and explaining the gendering of poverty and in unpacking the causes and consequences of poor care policies and supports. .
  • Not engaging with feminism can also cut students off from understanding the ways in which both men and women can imprison themselves and be imprisoned within practices that do not serve them well. Mothers can assume total responsibility for the welfare of their children in conditions which are often very difficult for them  where they are struggling with inadequate income, poor housing and little support services. Workers operating with similar constructions to the mothers can see those who ‘fail’ as neglectful. This is not just to do with gender but also to do with the dominance of a child protection paradigm which does not see mothers or fathers as service users in their own right but merely as conduits to facilitating the welfare and protection of their children.
  • While gender matters it is not all there is by any means. In order to understand the causes and consequences of the material inequalities that are part and parcel of many service users’ everyday lives, we need to engage with   the intersection of gender with class, ethnicity and disability.

Join us for a Special Evening with Prof. Brigid Featherstone & Prof. Jonathan Scourfield on Tuesday (17-July-2012) at 8:00 PM UK / 3:00 PM EDT @SWSCmedia.  

Prof.  Brigid Featherstone (@Brigid39) is a Professor of Social Care at the Open University and a member of our Expert Panel @SWSCmedia.


One thought on “Gender and Social Work – What is Gender? – Opinion piece by Prof. Brigid Featherstone – #SWSCmedia debate

  1. This is an excellent and very helpful piece, which needs reinforcing to all social work and probation service practitioners and also to policy makers and managers. The article would be much stronger if instead of saying
    “individuals deal with their feelings of shame and failure by either engaging in self-destructive activities, acting destructively against others or projecting through racism for example. This is at the heart of what social work is all about … Etc…” Brigid Featherstone had written, ‘This is at the heart of what probation and social work is all about … ‘

    As with Jonathan Scourfield’s article it would be improved with a clear acknowledgement that basically Social Workers and Probation Officers practise the same trade in different circumstances but in frequently similar, domestic, political, administrative, institutional and especially geographical, venues.

    I consider Brigid Featherstone summation of social (and probation) work above to be excellent. I wonder if it would be made complete by the addition of the word ‘greed,’ so that we might read: – “individuals deal with their feelings of greed, shame and failure by … etc…”?

    This is not to devalue Brigid Featherstone, or Jonathan Scourfield’s academic status of which we are told before we read a word of their articles, but academic prowess and status is not everything. Furthermore, it is sad that so many senior managers and academics in social work and probation do not continue to have front-line experience of practical situations and client pressures.

    Academically I am merely the holder of a CQSW but more importantly to me, a Diploma in Social Work from the University of Liverpool, and English probation service experience, including family court welfare in inner city, urban, semi rural and institutional locations including submitting assessments to and being examined by Criminal and Family Courts from Juvenile/Family Magistrates to the House of Lords. I think that the medical profession has the advantage over social and probation work where, by and large, senior teachers retain a professional practice as do some senior managers.

    Posted by essexandrew | July 16, 2012, 9:27 am

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