Male Social Workers in Child and Family Welfare: New Directions for Research

By Gillingham, Philip | Social Work, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Male Social Workers in Child and Family Welfare: New Directions for Research


Gillingham, Philip, Social Work


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).

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