By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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It is well documented that child protection social work tends to focus on mothers whereas fathers inclusion is partial, or non-existent. When fathers are included, they are often represented in terms of risk. In this blog I draw upon a paper that looks at empirical data, social-cultural factors, stereotypes, and evolutionary psychology to consider the reasons why we are more inclined to view men through a ‘risk lens’, at least compared to women. It provides an underlying explanation for how we evaluate risk in a way that adds a piece to the puzzle in understanding this important and persistent problem in social work of working with fathers. This has implications for how we understand the difficulties fathers experience, and the meaning we attribute to their difficulties and thus our engagement and support we provide to them.
Social Work and working with fathers:
Studies and Serious Case Reviews have found that fathers details are often missing on case files and they are often not invited to key meetings, including Child Protection Case Conferences about their children (Strega et al, 2008, Bayne & Holland 2010, Roskill 2011, NSPCC 2015). Despite it being widely recognised that the exclusion of fathers is considered detrimental due to their potential as a resource being untapped, not least, their ability to help with the care of their children (Maxwell et al 2012, Featherstone et al 2014) this problem has been stubbornly resistant to change. A key challenge to working with men is the common perception of them being a risk to their family (Maxwell et al 2012). A label that is sometimes legitimate but not always. Scourfield (2003) has found that attitudes and conversations in social work offices office reveal that fathers can be construed useless, dangerous or absent. Or a father can be labelled negatively without the social worker ever having met the father (Brandon et al, 2009). Featherstone et al (2014: 123) astutely notes, ‘while men resist social workers, literally by not engaging or disappearing, social workers also ‘disappear’ men.
Echoing this, common themes identified from interviews with men about their views on social care found that they feel included as a last resort, labelled as difficult, and not getting a fair hearing (Brandon et al, 2017 cited Research in Practice 2017).
Clapton (2009) argued that a negative portrayal isn’t just evident in social work practice, but is more pervasive. It is evident in key policy documents and social work texts as well. For example, some prominent key social work text books provide several case examples all with very difficult, dangerous men seemingly with no redeeming features. Clapton (2009: 22) observed, ‘textbooks not only render fathers invisible or marginalize them, but when fathers are included in the literature they are regularly depicted as abusive’. Ferguson and Hogan report that ‘there is something in the very nature of social work and how it is organised and done which is currently antithetical to adopting a more holistic, father-inclusive form of practice’ (Clapton, 2009: 24 cited Ferguson and Hogan 2004, 9).
What is this ‘something in the very nature of social work’? Could it be wider than social work?
In one of their (always brilliant) briefing papers on working with men, Research in Practice (2017) described the cultural shift in recent decades, in which the father is no longer just the ‘breadwinner’ and ‘playmate’ but an important parental figure in his own right. However, ‘these positive cultural shifts are neither linear nor straightforward’ (RIP 2017: 4) with men still being considered less competent as a parent. A view that has potentially been internalized by men. Perhaps then, there is socio-cultural residue from before changes have occurred where the division of child-care was much more one-sided. Professionals therefore, make presuppositions about men’s competence devaluing their importance. For fathers, this may reinforce pre-existing feelings of inferiority with respect to parenting that they have acquired from society and culture.
In a paper by Georgia Phillip and colleagues (2018), she reported that men faced similar difficulties, and had similar needs to women, such as housing, employment, mental and physical health and substance misuse, although highlighted that they also had difficulties with violence. Of note, Philip et al (2018) found that professionals tended to view women’s difficulties as “vulnerabilities” whereas similar characteristics for men are considered “risk’ factors. This can negatively, albeit tacitly, influence levels of empathy, expectations with accountability and capacity to change. Therefore, another reason may be that we over-attribute risk to men and fail to account for their vulnerability and level of need, in a way that we are more readily able to for women. Recently, I read an interesting paper that I believe sheds light on this issue from an angle I had not previously considered.
Sex-differences and Moral evaluation
In a paper titled, ‘Man up and take it’: Moral Typecasting, Tania Reynolds et al (2020) explores the role of gender and how it affects moral judgements. Reynolds et al (2020: 160) refer to research in cognitive psychology which has found that we have ‘a host of automatic cognitive processes constructed by natural selection to facilitate rapid, reflexive decision making’. The mental shortcuts are used even in applying moral judgements, for example when evaluating the harm caused to others. However, these mental shortcuts often contain unrecognised biases that distort judgement and undermine rational evaluation. Reynolds et al (2020) identify one such shortcut, derived from the work of Gray and Wagner (2009) called moral typecasting. Moral Typecasting proposes that we instinctively divide moral behaviour between people in two, 1) the intentional ‘agent’, that is, the perpetrator responsible for deliberately inflicting harm and, 2) the suffering ‘patient’, that is, the helpless and vulnerable victim (Reynolds et al, 2020: 161).
The assignment of “perpetrator” or “victim” has implications. The “perpetrator’s” behaviour will be construed as purposeful, malevolently intended, and deserving of blame and punishment. Whereas the “victims” will be construed as helpless, mistreated and deserving of sympathy, support, and protection (Reynolds et al 2020). Drawing on this, Reynolds et al (2020) hypothesized that in scenarios of evaluating harm between genders a bias will be evidenced as a result of gender stereotyping meaning that men will be more readily cast as “perpetrators” and women will be more readily cast as “victims”.
This is predicted, in part because of empirical data demonstrating that men (on average) are more aggressive and violent (Pinker 2002, Williams, 2008) whereas women (on average) are more affiliative (Hrdy 2009, Schmitt et al 2008, 2016) as well as socially constructed stereotypes, but also because of evolutionary derived psychological differences. For example, Reynolds et al (2020: 122) note that ‘Women responsible for pregnancy, childbirth and lactation, and therefore contribute substantially to reproduction…the discrepancy in men and women’s reproductive contribution may have favoured motivations to protect women… people feel a stronger motivation to help women over men, but this gender bias disappears when considering toddlers or elderly relatives, life stages when women are not fertile… This particular pattern suggests that the preference to protect women over men may stem from evolutionary pressures to insulate reproductively valuable individuals from harm’.
Reynolds et al (2020) did a series of ingenious experiments exploring gender bias in moral typecasting (some of which are nicely summarised in a blog here). These experiments found the following:
- We more readily place women into a victim role and feel more warmly towards women’s suffering.
- Even when women are perpetrators, they are still given the qualities of a victim.
- We more easily recognise harm to women compared to men.
- We are more willing to punish men even for the same harmful behaviour shown by women.
- We more harshly judge those who inflict suffering onto women than those who inflict suffering onto men.
This leads Reynolds (2019) to argue,
Implications for Social Work:
Social work has a rich literature on the history and social and cultural factors in understanding human behaviour, but perhaps including ideas from evolutionary psychology we can develop a more holistic and integrated understanding, for example, of how sex-differences affect behaviour, and our judgement of others behaviour. If we recognise that we may have a socio-cultural and evolutionary-derived bias for treating men and women differently, then we can perhaps counteract our in-built tendencies. We will be able to recognise that we are more likely to interpret women’s distress sympathetically and offer more compassion, whereas we are less sympathetic to men’s suffering, more likely to punish them for digressions, and thus, less likely to offer support. In doing so, we can form relationships with men and fathers that recognises not only their risks but also their vulnerability and importantly their need for support to ameliorate their suffering.
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should offer women less sympathy and support but recognise that our ability to provide this for men may be unintentionally and without awareness undermined by our biases (Reynolds et al 2020).
There are multifaceted and complex reasons as to why fathers are treated differently by social workers, in particular why they are considered to be a ‘risk’, instead of a resource, or both, as advocated by Featherstone et al (2014). Examining these reasons might help us understand the barriers and yield more inclusive practice. As pointed out by Rosenberg and Wilcox (2006: 25 cited Clapton, 2009: 31)
Simply put, it is impossible to be without biases and preconceptions about fathers. For any professional working with men, especially caseworkers in the very difficult and emotionally charged realm of child protective services, it is important to recognise and understand one’s own biases and preconceptions.
After accounting for this, we also need to adjust the way we support fathers. On this issue, I return to the work of Georgia Phillips, and her colleagues who make the following suggestions:
- ‘Openness to responding to… fathers as vulnerable (not just ‘risky’)
- A focus on “containment” and emotional regulation, particularly in terms of how pain, loss and shame are experienced by men
- The adaptation of parenting support (not necessarily manualised parenting programmes) for fathers without a child in their care
- A holistic or “wraparound” service to respond to all aspects of a father’s life
- A personalised or key worker approach, to build trust and broker links with other organisations that can help.
- Some element of men only space, and/or men-to-men peer support, as a way to challenge behaviour and facilitate change’ (2018: 23).
On a final note, improving our work with fathers isn’t just about fathers, but also their children, and mothers and families and communities. Failure to do so has significant consequences. Firstly, it limits the positive impact fathers could have on their children’s life. Secondly, it reduces the likelihood of the father’s family and friends being utilised as a resource. Thirdly, it overburdens mothers who are unfairly made responsible for caring for children, emotionally, practically and financially and if social care are involved, the mothers can become subject to professional scrutiny (instead of the fathers). Finally, it prevents fathers from accessing interventions to address the more concerning aspects of their functioning, and thus make the changes to be a more responsible and reliable parental figure (Linehan, 2014).
Recommended viewing: A powerful video filmed by a hidden camera showing the how members of the public react differently to a women being attacked by her boyfriend compared to a man being attacked by his girlfriend.
By Richard Devine (09.04.21)
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