The question of how gender stereotypes impact on people’s lives has been a feminist issue for decades and with good reason -- assumptions about the division of labour within the home and in the workplace, have created barriers to women fulfilling their potential and arguably led to an unbalanced society. But this focus on stereotypes about women is only part of the picture.
As a man working in the heavily female-dominated world of the early years setting, I have seen how stereotypes can also have a deeply negative impact on men. Most ironically of all, however, is that these negative assumptions about men are often rooted in the very same ideology that has fought so hard to combat prejudices about women.
My day-to-day experience of working as a social worker in an early years project, was that I was often in meetings and events as the lone male presence and frequently felt like ‘the token male’. The scale of disparity in the gender or sex of practitioners is fairly stark – especially for midwives and health visitors, who are at the forefront of child protection work and among whom I met only one male practitioner in six years. The social work team fare slightly better, although this is still very much a female domain and certainly dominated by feminist theory. And I would argue the dominance of feminist thinking in these professions has some unintended consequences, one of which is a fundamental problem in engaging fathers in child protection work.
'Dangerous, feckless and disinterested'
As a lone worker tasked with the job of dealing with fathers, I gained an interesting insight into the barriers to fathers’ involvement and the impact of gender stereotyping. I entered practice with implicit ideas about the task of working with men, which have changed through my experience of the disadvantage and marginalisation that so many face. The message that was inculcated -- through social work education and through countless policy publications -- was that men are dangerous, feckless and disinterested in family life. My experience taught me that these deep-set ideas were tied up in a dangerous chicken and egg situation -- services were overwhelmingly provided by women for women, and thus struggled to grasp or understand the impact of the inherently negative stereotypes with which men were perceived.
I would go further and suggest that this is compounded in areas of economic deprivation, where the men suffered further deficits through barriers to even fulfilling the breadwinner role -- which continued to often be expected of them by health and social workers, as well as partners and wives, despite the obvious contradiction with key feminist objectives of men taking on greater domestic responsibility, while reducing barriers to women having equal career opportunities.
Towards the end of my time as a fathers worker I ran an ante-natal group for dads-to-be which was designed as a therapeutic space for young men approaching fatherhood, typically the men were in families known to social work. It was in the process of visiting local teams of nurses that I was reminded sharply of the problems facing men in the area.
Failure to engage
The midwifery team told my colleague and I, starkly, that they don’t work with the fathers to be. The health visitor team went further and explained that they tended not to work with fathers and explained that they were scared of the men in the area. A more vivid illustration of negative gender stereotyping would be hard to find. But the real tragedy is the impact on vulnerable children, as the failure to engage fathers by staff, with real discretionary power in child protection decisions, potentially has calamitous outcomes for vulnerable families.
If we try to understand the extent to which these stereotypes are ingrained and perpetuated it is worth considering the work of Dr Gary Clapton at University of Edinburgh. Dr Clapton carried out an audit of social work literature and government policy documents to assess the depiction of fathers and identified a pattern whereby the presentation of healthy family life was overwhelmingly characterised by an absence of fathers.
Dr Clapton found many more images which demonstrate a pattern whereby the stereotype of family life as the domain of the mother is perpetuated by the omission of father. Where fathers were included they were invariably presented negatively.
Again and again professionals and public are fed the message that men and fathers are dangerous, risky or disinterested while mothers protect, provide and maintain healthy family environments alone.
I carried out my own research into men’s experience of child protection which highlighted some particularly harrowing and dangerous examples of marginalisation of fathers. The issue of domestic abuse emerged as a prominent issue for many of the men who were interviewed, their experience in many ways characteristic of an unsophisticated approach to a complex issue, based largely on gender stereotypes.
These men, despite in some cases being victims of serious abuse and attempting to protect their children, were routinely labelled as dangerous perpetrators thus experiencing secondary victimisation at the hands of the state. The public story of domestic abuse is mostly reliant on a stereotyped analysis that can deny or rationalise female abuse and violence while creating a context where it becomes almost expected of men to behave in these ways – even when there is little empirical evidence for this position. That is, the majority of men who have contact with social services are routinely treated with suspicion without due cause, there is a deficit of discernment to accurately assess what is going on in complex situations.
Consider again the response of the midwifery and health visiting teams -- they become entirely rational and understandable when placed in the context of Dr Clapton’s findings and my professional experience working with and researching men.
'Two-hour witch hunt against men'
In my current role with Abused Men in Scotland I have received a number of calls from students who were unhappy about the characterisation of men in their domestic abuse training. One nursing student described the input at her institution as “a two-hour witchhunt against men”. When I followed up this complaint, an NHS spokesperson told me that in the two hours available there was no time to deal with male victimisation and that because the training fell within the Gender Based Violence programme it did not require to address men. This may seem confusing as gender-based violence is generally understood to include male victimisation, but it was clearly interpreted as referring only to female victimisation in this case, which is not uncommon.
Thus the largely female professional body dealing with the front line of child protection and domestic abuse, are fed a continual and overwhelming story of gender which instils in them the most negative and outdated stereotypes about men. It is of vital importance that academic institutions, public bodies and relevant third sector organisations consider this issue as a matter of primary importance. This means reviewing publicity and policy documents thoroughly and grasping the often counter-intuitive reality that the Gender Equality Duty is just that -- it applies to men as well as women.
The fact is that there is a real and devastating impact for many men, women and children of such lopsided and outdated practice. Child protection and early years’ services need to target men positively and nowhere is this more important than in the area of domestic abuse, where male victimisation and the barriers to recognition and support have devastating consequences.
This is the sharp end of the deliberately gendered approach that currently overwhelms health and social services delivery. It is time to overcome ideological differences in order that women, men and their children receive timely, effective support and appropriate intervention as and when required – without fear or favour.
By Nick Smithers
Nick Smithers is National Development Officer with Abused Men in Scotland (AMIS).
Photo source: Children's Panel Scotland
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