Challenging Gender Roles: The Impact on Female Social Work Students of Working with Abused Women. (Special Section: Domestic Violence and Social Work Education)

Article excerpt

THE AIM OF THIS ARTICLE is to describe and analyze how gender roles and couple relationships of social work students are affected through the process of intervention with battered women. Such process serves as a constant catalyst in reexamining personal life experiences, worldview, and identity-related topics. By the term gender role we refer to "cultural expectations of one's behavior as 'appropriate' for a female or male" (Kessler, 1998, p. 14).

The helping process can be conceived of as an ongoing negotiation of reality between the worker and the client, shaped by personal, social--political, and cultural contexts within which both sides live and act (Gergen, 1994; Omer & Alon, 1997). Because intervention is an interactive process, the intersubjective component of the dialogue between participants is stressed (Anderson & Goolishian, 1992). In these interactions, the worker and the client are constantly changing and mutually influencing each other. Thus, the everemerging narrative co-created by the participants has implications for both sides, as it reshapes their individual stories throughout the encounter. Such changes may affect the worker's personal and professional development.

A narrative refers to the coherent thematic form by which life experiences are assumed to be processed and constructed. Brunner (1990) suggests that people, as meaning makers, use narratives in order to express life events, sensations, and their overall stream of consciousness. The narratives people construct are assumed to connect past and present significant relationships and experiences, guide future behaviors and feelings, and construct the ongoing formation of worldview and personal identity (Brunner, 1990; Lieblich, Tuval-Mashiach, & Zilber, 1998; Ochs & Capps, 1996; Widdershoven, 1993). Whereas many experiences go by unobserved without challenging the basic narratives, in some cases, when experiences are being evaluated and judged as important, threatening,

or unusual, they need an integration, explanation, and incorporation in the existing narrative (Stiles, Honos-Webb, & Lani, 1999).

The personal and social identities of professionals are considered to be inseparable (Bograd, 1991; Warburton, Newberry, & Alexander, 1989). They merge together in many aspects, such as gender roles and power inequality, that are considered essential in both family organization and the dynamics of intervention (Avis, 1989; Bograd, 1991; Goldner, 1988; Storm, 1991), thereby influencing the professional attitude of the worker (Avis, 1989; Prouty, Thomas, Johnson, & Long, 2001; Register, 1993). Experiences in the family of origin are another important dimension of the professional milieu (Kottler, 1991, 2000; Kottler & Parr, 2000). Kottler and Parr present the family of origin as a valuable resource for the worker, but point to the possible "blind spots" or unfinished issues which may come up during the encounter with client narratives.

Many have argued that intervention with partner violence (i.e., between intimate partners, both married and unmarried) evokes the basic issues related to gender asymmetry and power relationships, and therefore induces intensive involvement of the worker (Buchbinder & Goldblatt, 1999; McCallum, 1997; Register, 1993). The current literature is limited concerning the impact on social workers of working with family violence, including all types of intrafamilial forms of violence. It deals mainly with countertransference, vicarious trauma, stress, and burnout and their impact on worker functioning in professional and private domains (e.g., Azar, 2000; Brown & O'Brien, 1998; Dekel & Peled, 2000; Dutton, 1992; Figley, 1995; Iliffe & Steed, 2000; McCann & Pearlman, 1990; Miller, 1998; Schauben & Frazier, 1995). Some writings warn against the danger of vicarious trauma for workers who are vulnerable to the impact of clients' traumatic experiences (Figley, 1995; Horwitz, 1998; Iliffe & Steed, 2000; Neumann & Gamble, 1995; Schauben & Frazier, 1995; Werk & Caplan, 1998). …