Saturday, December 17, 2005

From Mars: Practical advice for female youth workers

I believe in discussing issues openly and fairly however contentious they might be. Sometimes this can be uncomfortable for all sides, however by tackling this ‘uncomfortableness’ we can begin to get at what people are thinking and feeling. By exploring what others think about gender can open up some opportunities to delve into other areas such relationships. The gender issue is not going to go away and if we choose the option of sticking our heads in the sand it is only bring about deeper anxiety and ambiguity.

Where do you begin? you might ask. Well, there is no place better to start than with yourself. What is the baggage you are carrying and what prejudices do you hold onto? Give yourself some time to think about where you stand and how you feel. Next, you could start with your colleagues by, perhaps gently at first, raising this as a discussion can begin the process of reviewing how it affects them and the work you do. It is then important to involve young people in this dialogue, as they will bring a further perspective to the process. Don’t start expecting that you will end up with a definitive answer and a group of totally enlightened individuals. Rather look at valuing the process of developing the dialogue and seeing where it takes you.

When you are at the stage of setting out your youth work programme think carefully about how gender roles might affect this process. A programme full of sports such as rugby, football and wrestling it may send a gender bias to the young people. Of course the programme will need to be negotiated with your young members but don’t forget about those who do not attend but might like to. If your group is dominated by young men, for example, do explore alternative activities. This will enable them to try something different and discover a new interest it may also attract others who may be drawn by these opportunities. I am not saying that an action packed programme is out of the question, perhaps it is more about how you promote it to the young people. We may want all our young men to do cooking and our young women to be out playing football but we have to go at a reasonable pace and not push people too far out of their comfort zones. Sure after you have worked with a group and pushed the boundaries I am confident they will start asking, or may be demanding, more of the same.

Effective challenges
Shouting through a megaphone at a male colleague about how they have been sexist would not be my advice. I know some male colleagues who although trained youth workers still struggle with challenges from women. This is an issue they need to resolve but any help they can be given can only be a good thing. It is also about challenging young people’s views on gender as they can perpetuate the traditional roles of youth workers. If young women only approach female workers to start up a cookery group and young men always turn to the male workers to set basketball tournaments then the workers might feel obliged to fulfil these roles. By building positive relationships can give us all a chance to challenge more effectively. If you know the person you will know how they will respond and how far you can push them towards change. Negative experiences of challenges that leave individuals feeling guilty and exposed in my experience rarely affect change in behaviour or attitudes. A calm word over a coffee can make the world of difference. The processes of sharing how being female/male can be a very powerful one, so think carefully about how and where you do it.

Get support
Beginning this process of dialogue and challenge can leave you feeling vulnerable and possibly isolated. Find a friend or colleague who will help you and encourage you. Speaking as a man it is very easy to become complacent about my gender. When someone, anyone, begins to challenge me I do sometimes react defensively and see the process as an attack rather than as positive change. It is often difficult to deal with this sort of irrational, emotional response and you will need to be ready for it. It isn’t personal although it may feel like it. Be patient and prepared for questions to follow. It is often easy to allow others to own the issue and sharing goes out the window. It is important to encourage others that the gender issue is something that we all own and to not walk away from it.

Many projects have some sort of policy around equal opportunity and ground rules on acceptable behaviour. If you haven’t got one then this can be your starting point. These are valuable but all too often are left as merely posters or in filing cabinets. Get your management committee to begin thinking about how this might be linked to some positive action. I am not suggesting marches but may be something more small scale like a gender awareness programme. Once you encourage them to make this link they will certainly think carefully about what the policy says and may be what it doesn’t say.

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