Male social workers in child and family welfare: new directions for research.
Subject: Social workers (Demographic aspects)
Social workers (Practice)
Social case work (Research)
Author: Gillingham, Philip
Pub Date: 01/01/2006
Publication: Name: Social Work Publisher: National Association of Social Workers Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 National Association of Social Workers ISSN: 0037-8046
Issue: Date: Jan, 2006 Source Volume: 51 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics; 310 Science & research
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 143163718
Full Text: Men in social work and, more particularly, in direct child and family welfare practice are in the minority (Christie, 2001), and little has been written and researched about their experiences and their contributions to practice with children and families (Camilleri & Jones, 2001; Pease & Camilleri, 2001). In this commentary, I reflect on the developments in theory and research about male social workers in child and family welfare to consider why there might be a lack of research in this area, why more research needs to be conducted, and how such research in this area needs to be refocused.

Given that there are relatively fewer men than women in social work, it is considered a nontraditional occupation for men, and the public perceives it as a feminine profession (Christie, 2001). This characterization of social work has led to speculation that male social workers experience dissonance between their personal identity as men and their professional identity (Williams, 1993, 1995). Male social workers may adopt various strategies to cope with this dissonance, notably specializing in areas that involve the exercise of statutory power, such as mental health and child protection, rather than, for example, aged care and hospital social work. A particularly important strategy adopted by male social workers is to move into management positions, a process assisted by the "glass elevator" which speeds their ascent in comparison with their female colleagues (Williams, 1993, 1995). It has been questioned whether such strategies to reduce dissonance overemphasize the ability of men to negotiate their positions in the organizations that employ them: There may be other factors affecting where men are employed in social work, such as labor market changes and career structures, but there may also be more subtle processes at work (Christie, 1998).

One such subtle process that perhaps explains why men in caring professions tend to become managers quickly is the distinction between "caring for" and "caring about" people (Camilleri & Jones, 2001). Caring for people involves intimate and personal relationships and is perceived as a task for women, whereas caring about people is an intellectual activity that does not denote intimacy, indeed the opposite, making distance integral to the process of taking an objective view. Hence, in welfare agencies that reproduce the patriarchal relations of society, caring about people becomes a "male" task. The female task of caring for becomes devalued, whereas the male task of caring about is elevated by its association with rationality and knowledge. Through this process men are more likely to end up in positions associated with the allocation of resources and the exercise of power and control.

The position of male social workers in direct practice in child and family welfare is contentious given that men commit the vast majority of physical and sexual assaults against women and children. This contention has been heightened in the United Kingdom following major inquiries into allegations by children in state care that they have been sexually and physically abused by male care staff (Christie, 1998). Debate has ensued about whether the practice and roles of male social workers should be restricted and even whether men should be employed in areas of practice involving vulnerable children (Pringle, 2001). The motivation of male social workers has been questioned: Homosexual social workers report that their motivation for wanting to work with children is called into question because of their sexuality (Hicks, 2001). The experience of heterosexual male social workers may be similar, given that they and their female colleagues are more aware than most that (apparently) heterosexual men are statistically more likely to sexually abuse children (Scourfield & Coffey, 2002). Consequently, male social workers in child protection practice may have to cope with antimale sentiment from female colleagues, victims of child abuse, and the parents of children (Hood, 2001). The involvement of male social workers with children and families has been overshadowed by what has been constructed as their "potential" to abuse (Christie, 1998), albeit that this potential resides only in their identification as male.

More positive opinions about the role of male social workers in child and family welfare have emerged from the other side of this debate. For example, a strong and recurrent theme in critiques of child protection practice is the gendered nature of practice that constructs women, as mothers, as solely responsible for the protection of children from potentially abusive men (D'Cruz, 2002; Farmer & Owen, 1998; Scourfield, 2002; Stanley & Goddard, 1993). Such practice tends to exclude men from the lives of children and, in doing so, only provides short-term protection; long-term protection might be better achieved by trying to improve relationships between men and children (Hood, 2001). Such practice also fails to engage with violent men to address the reasons for their violence toward women and children. Male social workers may have an important role in addressing this omission (Hood), although they would have to go further than just engaging violent men, they would also have to challenge notions of hegemonic masculinity that sustain oppression by men over women and children (Hicks, 2001). Male social workers can also provide balance to an investigative team and to "the investigated" by adding another perspective; they can ensure that the men in children's lives are included and provide positive role models of how men can care for children (Hood).

Reflecting on why there is so little research about male social workers in child and family welfare, three main reasons (or challenges) emerge. First, the simplest reason might be that male social workers in child and family welfare are such a minority that they are not of sufficient interest for research. Second, support for such research may be restricted by the debate about the involvement of male social workers in direct practice in child and family welfare: both from organizations that employ male social workers (not wanting to enter the debate) and from male social workers (embattled as they are in dealing with challenges about their motivations). Third, male social workers in the field of child and family welfare present a challenge to traditional models of masculinity, and any research in this area is likely to become entangled in much broader debates about what it means to be male. This avoidance of the broader issue of masculinity is exemplified by much of the research to date that focuses on why men choose not to practice in this area, rather than why some do.

Given that male social workers may be well positioned to address some of the deficits in current practice in child and family welfare, none of the reasons stated in this column should hinder future research. As noted, theory and research about male social workers has tended to focus on why they tend to avoid practicing in child and family welfare (except as managers). Clearly, some male social workers choose to work with children and families, and current explanations for their choice of work range from a redefinition of their work to a questioning of their sexuality (Camilleri & Jones, 2001; Hicks, 2001). Such explanations, however, are grounded in a discourse of hegemonic masculinity that place caring for in opposition to being male and being homosexual as being less male.

If we are to encourage more male social workers to work with children and families, then our focus in research needs to shift from the negative question of why male social workers might choose to not work in this field of practice to the more positive approach of asking why some male social workers do. The focus of such inquiry should be the opinions and experiences of male social workers who have chosen to practice in child and family welfare. But, to engage in such research we would need to leave behind our fixed ideas of hegemonic masculinity that restrict us to a single view of masculinity. We would have to welcome and intellectually engage with the challenge that male social workers in direct practice in child and family welfare pose to traditional models of masculinity. We would also have to accept that some men are capable of and satisfied with caring for roles in child and family welfare.

Original manuscript received June 1, 2004

Accepted April 11, 2005


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Philip Gillingham, BA, CQSW, is lecturer in social work, Deakin University, Waterfront Campus, Geelong, Victoria 3220, Australia; e-mail: The author is a white, heterosexual man who spent 16 years in social work practice with children and families. The theme of this commentary arose from the author's experience of having to justify his choice of career and deal with suspicions about his motives and challenges to his identity as a man (challenges made by others who could not understand that being a man and caring for people, especially children, was possible).
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