By Simon Billenness
I have been involved in youth work for 17 years and have had many wonderful and terrific opportunities to work with a broad range of different people whilst working with young people. It has been my privilege to work alongside some very capable and effective female youth workers. When I think of all those I have worked with I tend not to ponder for a long time on their gender rather on the character and the skills they project to the work. I am not trying to deny that gender is a real issue what I am saying is that it doesn’t have to be what defines a ‘good youth worker’, if such a thing exist! In my experience there are times when gender identities can get in the way and confuse workers roles and responsibilities. An example of this is when I have planned an evening event and the question arises of who will be able to prepare the refreshments, I have automatically looked towards my female colleagues. Of course they are very capable in this area but by making the assumption that they will be best suited to this role is indeed sexist and limits the possibilities for everyone. If I continually ask, cajole and convince my female colleagues to take on a traditional role this will send out a message to the young people, male and female alike. In fact the very idea of a role being given out is laden with power and it requires a more consider process of dialogue and negotiation. Now when I approach the issue of assigning tasks I try to think past my initial reactive thoughts and look further at who will gain something from this task and how will this impact on the young people.
An example of how taking different roles can impact on young people is when I worked in a new centre with a female colleague; in fact she had a slightly senior role to myself. On meeting we began to share interests and the direction that we wanted to take the project. It soon became clear that Chris, my colleague, had a flair for sport and I had more of a leaning towards using art. To be perfectly honest I am not the greatest sportsman and probably never will be. This has never stopped me showing an interest, taking part somewhat badly or encouraging others. Once we had negotiated how we were going to work we set out our programs with the young people. We could both instantly see the impact this was having by taking on these roles. Although the young people didn’t come and say it, you could see that we had confused them by not following the traditional gender role. By Chris taking an active role in developing physical activities and organising football competitions with the young men made them realise that this is not solely a role for a male worker. This also had an influence on the number of young women who were then encouraged to participant more in the sports hall activities. In the same vain I managed to encourage young men to express themselves through art and that this was an acceptable male pursuit. It challenged them to consider that the activity be it sport or art does not have to be dominated by one gender group. The opportunity for learning from this one action was great and allowed us to set out clear expectations from the young people around participation.
Well, you may be thinking, he’s got it so sorted and clearly never puts a foot wrong. That is far from the truth, it is a constant process of thinking first before alienating everyone. However sometimes obvious mistakes can lead to an improved level of awareness and practice. Whilst working on a road show style event with a very good team of youth workers (both male and female) I learnt a valuable lesson from a female colleague. We had been working hard getting everything ready from preparing lighting to folding leaflets. I went to check my computer for a programme list and my computer disk decided to fail. You know what it’s like when your back is up against the wall you have 100 young people coming from far and wide and you hit a snag. Without this list no one would be aware of what was happening and when, panic began to creep in. Jenny stepped up she offered to speedily type the notes and save the day. Being a secretary by day Jenny had no trouble getting the job done and crisis averted. I was very grateful and she had certainly saved my bacon, as it had been my responsibility. I thanked her and then she said that she wanted to get her clothes ready for the evening. At this point my brain switched itself and my mouth took over “Typical woman” I said with a friendly but sarcastic tone. At this she turned and quite justifiably tore strips off me and stated she was not a typical anything. Brain decided to turn on again and I apologised. She did accept this apology and we moved pass this but this incident although brief taught me a valuable lesson. My sexist remark, although intended as a fun jibe, hurt. It hurt because it was disrespectful and undermining. Of course it is possible to laugh and joke about gender but we cannot forget that it is a serious issue. There has been times when I have been at the receiving end of a sexist comment. Working within a female dominated environment I have suffered remarks such as “men can’t do two things at the same” & “typical man”. This does little to improve the situation for either gender group. For this I learnt to at the person female or male and value them and their work without prejudice. This sounds kind of simplistic however difficult it may be it is important not to fall into the trap of assumption. By assigning characteristics and behaviour to people purely based their gender robs that person of their individuality.
Since that turning point I have tried to encourage colleagues to work in areas that they want to develop rather than follow an accepted pattern. Sometimes this is not as easy or welcoming as you might think. I have had to work quite hard to encourage some workers to take a lead or to do something they want to do but are afraid of the reaction of others. I had one female colleague who was quite sophisticated and enjoyed to engage with the young people talking about art, fashion, latest trends and so on. I then encouraged her to accompany me on a kayaking trip. Margaret was keen to come and support the young people but was quite adamant that she was not going to get on or in the water. She says she is happy to come do a little sun bathing and chat to the girls etc…As it happens not all the young people turn up and there was a spare place to go kayaking. I know that some of the girls are little reticent about going in the kayak for the first time so I turn to my colleague to see if she has changed her mind and in the spirit of empowering these young women would go in. It took some persuading but Margaret took up the challenge and set the example that really influenced the rest of the group to participate. I think it was real turning point in terms of her relationship with the group, and they began to see her in a new light. Margaret did have an air sophistication but underneath as I long expected was a real sense of determination. On this trip the group saw this side of her character and the respect for her went up considerably. Needless to say the trip was a success and apart from being a little wet was enjoyed by all including Margaret. But encouraging her out of her assumed role both Margaret and the young people learnt something. Margaret learnt she could kayak and that she could relate to the young people in a different way. The young people learnt that Margaret, a female youth worker, had a lot of skill and determination in an area that had not previously associated her with. We all make judgements, we can’t really help it. What we can help is relying solely on our judgement and being prepared to see what lies beyond it.
Some female youth workers have told me that their main interest is in working with young women and setting up a young women’s group. I feel that this can lead to some feeling of collusion amongst some male colleagues and young men. This could be due to a sense of insecurity and from a concern about what could be said about them. I have had the opportunity to lead a young women’s group and it was a great eye opener. I had to ask the group’s permission for me to be able to work with them as I respected the fact that they may not wish to have a male leader. They agreed that I could work with them with the arrangement I would leave the room should a subject arise that they didn’t feel comfortable discussing in front of me. With this proviso in place I began asking them what they wanted to do, cooking, art, trips out, make up evening. Oh dear, on my first evening I was put in my place as they wanted to make a difference in their community, they wanted to raise some money and they wanted to create better links with the Asian community. I must say that I was really made to work hard with this group but it was incredibly rewarding and successful. They planned a history project with a launch and press release that attracted countywide interest. Again I learnt a valuable lesson about gender stereotyping which although having done several training courses when you are under pressure to deliver targets and get projects working you can slip up. I feel that I contributed to the learning process for this group of young women by engaging in conversations around their expectations of men. By offering a male perspective it challenged their assumptions and made them think about how it might be for young men. The gender issues are moving and it not simply of sticking to one principle and one simple message. Many young men are facing issues of style, fashion and image to a level that was present a decade ago but not to same now fierce status. An example of this is that more people seem to be interested in David Beckham’s hair than his football. So now both male and female share some of the gender issues and it now seems to be our role as youth workers to bridge the gap and face the issues together. So the question of whether male worker can work with young women and female workers with young men is that they can. The interesting question is more about how young people react to workers and how this might impact on the workers. When I joined the young women’s group they made assumptions about what I was interested in and what I wanted from them. I observed the same response when female workers have engaged with young men and had lengthy conversations about sports. When workers decide to challenge young people on stereotypes it can produce very interesting and exciting results. Whilst working as a detached youth worker I worked with a team of female part time youth workers. They were all very different and brought different strengths to the project. One day we were out on an afternoon session meeting and working with groups who had just come out of school. It was a friendly atmosphere and we were making a good connection with a small group. Then they started to walk off one by one, I must say does this little for the confidence of a detached worker, so we began to investigate what was occurring. As soon as we turned the corner of the street we saw what was the source of the distraction, a fight. Two young men had started an argument which had attracted a crowd and this had spurred the two into a fight. I carefully assessed how we should intervene and I turned to my colleague and she had already entered into what was now a chaotic scene. Standing between the two young men she got them to part and told everyone to go home. I remember the shock of the look of the young men, not because of the blood that had been drawn, but that a small but confident woman had told them off. When I look back on this session I often wonder what would have happened if I had been the one to break things up. The risk of being hit comes to mind as well as being seen as a bigger threat to deal with. I have no doubt that in this instance being female helped to defuse and calm the situation. We need to remember that regardless of own sense of identity young people will primarily judge us on what they can see. The sight of a woman to these warring young men may be reminded them of a mother or sister and it stopped them in their tracks.
In terms of ministering to young people I have often been in awe of the capacity of my female youth work colleagues to connect with a situation. Often I have started a session unaware that young person is upset and a female colleague has already dealt with the matter by the time I realise that something is not right. We all have strengths to bring to the work that we do with young people and there should not exist a hierarchy of youth work skills. If we only value leadership this could end in disaster with many needs going unmet. The same can be said for listening, sometimes it is only through action that our message and compassion can be understood. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, women played an important and respectful role often at the most poignant times. He often used gender to challenge others and reinforce his message of God’s all embracing love. As a man I am often made to think of how the women in my life personally and professionally who have influenced and informed my decisions and challenge my perspective. In some respects some of the learning I have received from female youth work colleagues made a greater impact because of their female perspective. By listening and respecting the experience of female colleagues has enabled me to deepen and expand my ability to relate to others.
If as a worker we remain entrenched in our gender stereotypes we are then placing a limit on future possibilities for ourselves and for young people. By endorsing the gender identities i.e. male workers in the sports hall and female workers in the kitchen sends a closed message to young people about gender. If we actively encourage and challenge the gender roles and identity it starts a dialogue with young people and an openness to explore the world without prejudice.