Gender and social work: What matters? What works? – Opinion Piece by Prof. Jonathan Scourfield – A #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.  

In advance of the Twitter debate on Tuesday 17th July, here are few thoughts on the theme of gender and social work. Sorry if some of these are blindingly obvious.

  1. Gender still matters – I guess if you don’t think it matters, you probably won’t be taking part in the debate, so maybe this doesn’t need saying. But in the wider world of social work, beyond those who are interested enough to join in a debate on gender, there is perhaps a job to be done to remind people about the salience of gender. There are ongoing and deeply entrenched inequalities, despite the gains made in some aspects of women’s social status in recent decades. There are enduring fixed ideas about what is appropriate behaviour for men and women which become deeply embedded in people’s identities. So, for example, social workers in the child protection field will encounter some profound inequalities in families which are often linked to maltreatment of children. Domestic abuse, for example, which is over-whelmingly perpetrated by men, can be found in perhaps the majority of child protection cases. And social work practice responses, whilst trying to help, can end up perversely deepening inequalities by making women (mothers) responsible for turning round grim family situations which are primarily caused by abusive men.
  2. Gender doesn’t mean women (obviously) – Again, people taking part in this debate don’t need to be told that men too have gendered identities and men’s behaviour is shaped by gender. But as with the first point above, in the general world of social work, people do need reminding of this. Working with men is still a fringe, specialist and marginal area within social work. People like @brigid39 and I have been banging on about it for some time but it remains a Cinderella topic. It would be a mistake to think that an interest in working with men need imply either (1) that you are a men’s rights advocate who thinks men are now the main victims of the gender order or (2) that men should always be thought of as potential abusers. This kind of dualism is in fact very unhelpful, which leads to my next rather obvious point.
  3. Gender’s complicated but feminism is still relevant – A crude feminism is no help to social work and neither is a crude men’s rights approach. Feminism is a broad church and includes a wide range of ideological positions. We need an approach to understanding gender relations which recognises that real life is more complicated than some simplistic sociological generalisations might imply. So, for example, we should recognise that there are several different kinds of domestic abuse, not all of which are about men terrorising women partners. But at the same time, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, as the core concern of feminism with unequal social relations and a world stacked in favour of men’s interests is still relevant in 2012. So, to use the same example, we need to recognise that most domestic abuse is indeed initiated by men and much of it is linked to the desire to control a woman partner.
  4. We need a better balance of evidence and ideology – Finally, I think that in relation to this issue of gender in social work, we need to spend a little less time on ideological assertions and a bit more time trying to find out what works. There is a tendency – for example in the domestic abuse field – for differences between approaches to practice to be based on what people believe rather than on evidence of effectiveness. The ideological debates are really interesting, I think, but we’ve had plenty of those and perhaps we’ve not had enough debate about which approaches to intervention actually help men and women – improve quality of life and material circumstances, change behaviour where necessary, make people happier. This is a complex issue of course, because there may be interventions which do well for men, but not women or vice versa. And that’s where we need some of the ideology to help us make sense of the evidence. So I’m not arguing the politics are not important, but just that evidence of effectiveness should play a greater role in academic and practice attention to gender in social work.

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. Jonathan Scourfield (@ProfJScourfield) is a Professor of Social Work at Cardiff University and a member of our Expert Panel @SWSCmedia.



3 thoughts on “Gender and social work: What matters? What works? – Opinion Piece by Prof. Jonathan Scourfield – A #SWSCmedia debate

  1. I plan to initiate somehow a Dads group locally in Portsmouth based on the theme ” Iron John Meetings. From Hairy Man to King.” Using Robert Bly and other useful mythologies to get men interacting and talking about their place as Fathers, Sons, Brothers or Partners. Ambitious I know , but if Men don’t start regaining confidence, for want of a better word, Women are never going to get a fair crack, again for want of a better word. Any advice on where to start or contact.
    Fergus Cameron , CQSW etc…

    Posted by fergus cameron | July 13, 2012, 11:25 pm
    • Might be worth talking with local Probation folk who have many male clients frustrated in their role as parents particularly when they go into Custody. I have known of probation folk attempting this sort of work many years ago.

      Also in times gone by, we would have informal gatherings in a local area with the various social work practitioners from different agencies. I recall back in about 1976 getting the responsibility for being secretary of something called Old Swan Social Workers lunch club or something like that. We would meet up monthly over a lunch actually cooked by folk from one of the churches. I still happily remember booking David Sheppard, English Test cricketer and former Community Worker, Mayflower Centre London and then Bishop of Liverpool, a chance where through work I met a childhood hero. Sorry for going off topic in a dyspraxic ramble, but the cross fertilisation that came from meeting up with others boosted my practice.

      Posted by essexandrew | July 16, 2012, 11:44 pm
  2. “Working with men is still a fringe, specialist and marginal area within social work.” is a completely inaccurate statement unless one considers that what probation officers do with their male clients is not Social Work. For several decades, at least leaders in the Social Work profession happily oversaw the training of social workers and probation officers side by side and the State awarded the “Certificate of Qualification in Social Work” as the basic qualification for both professions.

    It served me well for thirty years as a probation officer, particularly when working in a male prison in the late 90’s, where my child care training and experiences as a court welfare officer (used whilst a probation officer) were very useful when dealing with men estranged and separated from the rest of their families for all sorts of reasons. Just because a foolish government who do not understand the ‘trade’ of social work seek to separate us, we do not need our professional leaders reinforcing such nonsense.

    I am glad that Jonathan Scourfield writes “we need to recognise that most domestic abuse is indeed initiated by men” which means we need to go into every domestic situation alive to the possibility that a woman is abusing a man and that domestic abuse is also present in same sex relationships. Stereotypes can be institutionalised making it even more difficult for a male victim of abuse to seek help than it is for a woman. The beginning of getting such help is behaving the fact recognised and therefore all social workers need to create an interviewing environment where it is safe to tell such things and also to create an environment in an assessment where it is acceptable to probe for such possibilities. I recall as a young probation officer in Liverpool when a man revealed to me how his wife took a saucepan to him when he was asleep and caused injury he had been too ashamed to report.

    When allocating clients to a worker the gender of the worker needs to be considered. I had been practising for around fifteen years before during a discussion with a male probation officer colleague about difficulties I was having working with a female client he patiently explained that in 80’s Camden that woman would usually have experienced men in a relationship where the man had power over her. My recently departed 89 yo mother in law always deferred to any man whatever the situation, because that was how she was brought up in down town Walthamstow in the 1920’s and few women were able to express their own desires ever amongst those she met for the whole of her life. Folk such as her always place themselves in an inferior position to any man. My colleague suggested that a male worker with a female client exacerbated the normal power differential, so that consideration should always be given to female clients having a female worker, so that the power differential does not make communication any more difficult than is inevitable in any client professional relationship.

    Consideration also needs to be given to joint workers of different sex especially when working with couples. I particularly benefited from my training with then “Institute for Marital Studies”* in the early eighties where we always worked in pairs with at that time heterosexual couples. I also found it useful to work with a female partner when doing group work with young male probation clients and in Family Therapy Groups as encouraged by the then Institute of Family Therapy.** Within the parts of the probation service I worked there was a period when we undertook family court welfare reports when future arrangements for children were under consideration, or had broken down after divorce or separation. Such work is now sadly undertaken by CAFCASS. I say sadly because my experiences doing such work informed all that I did throughout my career because family break down is a repeating theme, and particularly relevant when working with men in prison. My colleagues of today sadly do not have such experiences to draw on unless their careers have veered in different directions, which is harder now because the practice qualifications are no longer co-terminus.

    * Now the The Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships

    ** Institute of Family Therapy

    Posted by essexandrew | July 16, 2012, 8:39 am

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