In his book, The Future of Men, the author Dave Hill
writes:”In the Eden of the future, things will be very different
between Adam and Eve.” He argues that new technology, shifts in
employment patterns, changes in the structures of families and the
voraciousness of consumerism have all played a crucial part in
separating men from their former certainties and old
conventions.1 He suggests the king of the castle who
fought wars and brought home the bacon has been rumbled, especially
Men are under increasing scrutiny as individuals, as well as
parents, partners, workers and friends. But what are the
implications for social workers in their work with male service
users? Should we be taking a more critical or compassionate look at
men’s emotional illiteracy and the intricacies of working with
Overall male socialisation in our society is not good for men – an
assertion supported by the narrowing gap between rates of
psychological distress in men and women over the past 30 years.
Men’s mental health has deteriorated relative to women’s, shown by
the startling increase in male suicides over the past 10 years.
More men, especially the young, feel bad about themselves, about
their relationships with partners, their children, or each other,
and about not being able to work or working too hard. Stereotypical
maleness is epitomised by the cultural ideals of masculinity as
competitive, dominant, authoritarian and aggressive.
Masculinity involves a complex relationship between power and fear
– often a fear of emotion. Describing his experience of being male
since the 1940s, psychologist David Cohen writes: “When I was a
little boy I was often told to be a man. When my marriage was
breaking up my mother told me ‘to be a man’. Being unforgiving and
hard was the proper posture for a proper man.”2
Recently, his son Rueben Cohen told The Guardian: “The
conditioning you go through as a male in this culture is not
something you can avoid by knowing things on an intellectual level,
or even by example. Despite being committed to a belief in
equality, I’ve probably defaulted to sexism many, many times. In
fact, I know I have. Everyone does.”3
Male social workers, please note.
So how can we encourage and support men to change their behaviour
so that their lives are less dominated by the dysfunctional effects
of conditioning? Efforts are being made to understand male gender
role conditioning and to explore some of the interpersonal
consequences of masculine stereotyping. One example is Trefor
Lloyd’s identification of a series of practice themes in relation
to developing work with fathers.4
The most important aspects are:
- Having clarity of purpose.
- Reaching fathers through more traditional “male” routes, such
as radio, sports settings and pubs.
- Liking fathers and having a positive attitude towards
- Defining services in a way to attract a particular “type” of
- Accepting that recruitment takes a time and is labour
- Understanding fathers’ motivation.
- A diversity of workers’ skills and attitudes.
- Accepting fathers as men.
- Increasing the use of mainstream services by fathers.
This last theme is based on Lloyd’s view that a valuable
component of initiatives for fathers is the need to challenge men’s
attitudes towards support services and help-seeking, and also
mainstream agencies’ attitudes towards fathers and men
As long ago as 1994, at an East Midlands men’s health forum, Lloyd
also highlighted more non-traditional approaches to working with
These include the need for:
- More anonymity. Most callers to helplines are men, particularly
in relation to health issues.
- Accessible services, such as helplines.
- Community-based services available at times of crisis and
- Privacy. Men are particularly ashamed of seeking help and
regard it as a sign of weakness.
- Discreet entrances and waiting areas.
- Male-friendly environments, for example positive images of boys
and men around.
- More information about services.
- Culturally sensitive services.
Also pertinent is the use of appropriate language. For example,
a move from “thinking words” to “feeling words” between the first
and subsequent contacts. We must also accept that men are more in
touch with feelings – other than anger or lust – than we may
Although not every problem presented by male service users is
gender-related; many men I work with are constrained by rigid
societal prescriptions that dictate how they should and should not
act and think.
More attention also needs to be paid to the dynamics of males
working with males, including the use of male workers as positive
role models. I have been struck by the way in which the anxieties
of male social workers mirror those of male service users. A
recurring theme can be that, like other men, male professionals are
burdened by a painful vacuum where relationships are concerned,
often compounded by the experience of a distant, dispassionate
father. This can result in an underlying homophobia, reflected in a
general reluctance to demonstrate care and support to other
What most male social work managers and practitioners have learned
about being male may not necessarily help them in the workplace.
Many of the values and skills they learned as boys –
competitiveness, autonomy and independence – are less important in
today’s organisations. Psychotherapists Janet Perry and Richard
Wood write: “Organisations dominated by male attitudes and values
are characterised by task and problem orientation, goal-setting,
fast results and competitive practice.” They suggest organisations
with female values are “process-oriented, emphasise co-operation
and connectedness, are characterised by exploration of feelings and
value individual experience as part of the method of
For female workers, a tendency to adopt the role of care giver,
especially as a mother figure, can result in a reluctance to
challenge male power. Alternatively, some men report that women
workers punish them for the sins of other men. For male and female
workers alike, being open, honest and understanding towards the
experience of being male can provide important learning
opportunities for all, alongside unique therapeutic benefits. How
the male social worker sees himself as a man and how the female
social worker sees herself as a woman have significant implications
in the helping process.
Finally, and perhaps crucially, for many social workers, links
between what constitutes maleness and male violence cannot be
ignored when considering issues around work with men. For example,
concerns about the abuse of children, domestic violence, and
violence carried out by separated fathers during contact with
children all contribute to a belief that all men are a safety risk
to women and children.
There are several reasons why social workers avoid or ignore men in
child protection work. The most common cited by social studies
academic Kieran O’Hagan6 are the public and professional
perceptions of the roles of men and women, hostility and distrust
of men, and lack of training. There are no easy answers but
listening to women and children, and to those men who can and do
give an honest account of their violent behaviour, and their
success at giving it up, would be a start. Taking account of the
social context of male power and not separating out violent men as
examples of individual problematic behaviour, independent from the
social origins of and support for male violence would also
It is no wonder that, faced with the typical male, most social
workers find it easier to work with women. Social work with men is
happening, but it is still work in progress.
John Roberts is a social worker with male service users
at Leicester Family Service Unit. Contact him on 0116 254 3352 or
1 Dave Hill, The Future
of Men, Phoenix, 1997
2 David Cohen, Being a
Man, Routledge, 1990
3 Kira Cochrane, “Children
of the revolution”, The Guardian Weekend, 1 March,
4 Trefor Lloyd, What
Works with Fathers, Working With Men, 2001
5 Janet Perry and Richard
Wood, “Gender issues”, The Care Guide. A Handbook for the
Caring Professions and other Agencies, p206-13 Cassel,
6 Kieran O’Hagan, “The
problem of engaging men in child protection work”, British
Journal of Social Work, p25-42, 27, 1997