OPINION: Men can do Girls' Work after all

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Tony Taylor once wrote a short but influential article on anti-sexist youth work with young men. The gist of his argument was that there was not much point in women workers beavering away on assertiveness and girl power in the youth club while the male workers are sharing sexist jokes with the lads outside. Male youth workers had a parallel responsibility to engage with young people on anti-sexist practice.

Even at the time I was a little worried about the strict gender divide, but there was no discussion as to whether women should be working with the lads or vice versa. Some years later, the crunch came. A colleague was organising a girls' weekend.

As the time approached, it transpired that they did not have a driver for the minibus. My colleague consulted with the girls who were going and they decided to ask me.

This took me by surprise. They insisted on only one ground rule: if matters of embarrassment or sensitivity came up, I had to leave (wherever we were, whatever the weather). This suited me as I was rather apprehensive about the whole thing. I quickly cast my role as no more than the driver, the fetcher and the carrier. The professional stuff I would leave to my colleague.

Of course, it did not turn out like that. It was a four-day programme and the first day was clearly one in which a lot of boundaries had to be determined - or breached. We sat around the table in the evening for six hours. Brothers, boyfriends and fathers were prominent in the discussion.

I said very little, but listened intently. For a time, I did not feel that I was even there. I was not involved in the conversation, and it became more profound and troubled. By the third day, however, I was the male ambassador, fielding a host of questions about why men behaved as they did towards the girls. Not once was I asked to leave the group and go outside.

It was an exercise in trying to find explanations, not excuses. The girls were rarely surprised at my responses, but it gave them food for thought.

They had shed their make-up on the second day and bared their emotions on the third. By the fourth day, they had become children again, playing freely on a rope swing and washing their hair in a stream. They had no image to maintain, no men to impress or fear.

A few days later, one of the girls, one whom I did not know very well, came up to me. She said that she really had not wanted me to go on the trip, thinking I would affect, even disturb, the dynamics of an all-female group. Of course I did, but, she told me, only in a positive way. Given appropriate sensitivity, I now believe it is possible for men to engage constructively in 'girls' work'. Others, no doubt, will have a different view.