Gender issues in Detached Youthwork- Why boys dont let girls speak

One of the things that remained constant in delivering detached youthwork in the small (ish) urban setting of Perth, Scotland , and initially surprising ( revealing perhaps prejudgement of the situation) was that in the main there was almost a 50/50 split between the number of females to males out in the public areas of the town. Im comparison, in a rural town, the groups are predominately males.

However, its not the proportion or quantity of the genders that became interesting, it was how as we, as detached youthworkers, ‘operated’ within these public areas and involved ourselves in conversations with them that sociological hierarchies occured, within and between the groups, and these were often gender related.

Before i head into some of this, it would be fair to say that this is nothing new, yet often what is written about gender focussed youth work appears in the literature about buildings, centre or church based, and i wonder if there could be such things as gender nuanced detached work amongst young people? given that the contesting of the public spaces takes a different course depending on gender.

As to the ‘new ness’ – Goetschius & Tash in 1967 discuss their reflections of how after conducting observation sessions, and beginning to get to know groups, that how they worked with males & females had to take a different stance, yet implied was the almost intacit notion that ” boys would bring them (girls) or that they would be comfortable to come on their own ( to the coffee bar/stall)” (G&T 1967)  – the same treatment is not offered to the boys, by definition the space became something the boys would be comfortable with, or that they would dictate as such. Status was fulfilled, then, when the boys competed over them, giving them ‘much needed attention’ . And whilst these antiquated views have been much critiqued/challenged recently ( hopefully) , they went on to provide a picture where the girls in the groups they interacted with developed almost mumsy behaviour towards the boys in that they; “supported the boys with money, cigarettes , bus fares… subsided occasional trips, made excuses to employers, spoke to mums, tried to prevent run ins to the police” Yet G&T realised that there were boundaries to the extent at which they could help the girls, or at least help the girls in relation to their relationships with the boys, which could be ascertained as a threat to the boys, even for the girls to have their own group was seen as a threat. Yet their work overall with the girls groups was dependant on the reluctant acceptance of the boys to let the designated worker create this space for the girls, and it not be a threat.

Ok, so whilst alot has supposedly changed in 50 odd years, some of the power dynamics within the genders remain the same, especially in detached work, and especially if unchallenged.

One of the most nuanced, is the control of the conversational space.

Often in approaching a mixed group, permission is granted through the eye contact, body language between lead worker and self appointed group leader, and taking the first example of male workers and all male groups, this all follows a regular pattern. usually with the boys being provocative, lewd and nonsensical ( commonly known as ‘banter’)- trying to impress or lying. If there are a few girls in this group, often they will remain silent/quiet at first.

However, should the occasion arise that in a mixed group, or an all female group ( that’s near to a group of boys) that the females are encouraged by the detached workers to speak, chat or have an opinion, its often the case that either the process of them speaking, or the opinion itself is derided, distracted from or shouted down by the boys. Often males would try and speak over the girls, or take the attention away from the girls ( especially if they have something to say) back to themselves. The Girls are often shouted down, or when a girl speaks the males do what they can to distract the attention from it. It becomes really difficult to ignore them, but its something that does have to be done, especially when it is realised.

It takes some skill as the worker to deliberately ignore the attempts by the males to distract the worker and focus on the words, questions or story that the female has to offer in that space. watch what happens when you try this – the attempts to distract get even more fervent….. but by challenging we are communicating to the boys that a) we see what they are doing and b) that this is unnacceptable, that ultimately the girls have a voice too.

Its as if the conversational space is the arena of action, the theatre, where character, actors, audience and script are all up for grabs. Yet it is a place where the gender values of society are outplayed in a ‘value neutral’ space, a space recreated, and contested by the young people themselves. How the time, content and direction of conversation occurs, and the relationship between young person ( group of) and youth worker emerges,  can reflect the gender dynamics of the young people themselves, their attitudes to societal views towards each other.

We began to find in Perth that the groups of girls would be quite protective of each other, and protective of the space, against other groups of girls. But would react differently to the boys, as it was often the older males who ultimately controlled the supply of drink or other substances. This was another obvious way that the boys could be powerful, yet at times they would leave the girls to it, but just supply at arms length. On other occasions young brash powerful males strutted around like heads of the proverbial pride with ‘gaggles’ of subservant girls around them. On these occasions the male is very threatened if the girls could be in any way listened to or given the space to talk, and only done so with his  permission. The girls in this situation are his.

I am unsure if these situations are idiosyncratic to Perth, or Scotland, or detached youthwork per se, but in the light of recent challenges to cultural hegemonies in the public sphere regarding gender (no to page 3, lads mags etc) – these things caused me to think about how the detached youthwork spaces, or at least in the contested spaces of the public parks and streets are environments where subtle and cultural gender values are outplayed. And how when we as detached youthworkers involve ourselves in this space we have a responsibility to see what is happening before our eyes, and also challenge the status quo where appropriate.



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