‘Within my work environment I don’t see gender as an issue’: Reflections on gender from a study of criminal justice social workers in Scotland

AuthorEve Mullins,Steve Kirkwood,Viviene E Cree,Trish McCulloch
Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
PRB939153 8..27
The Journal of Community and Criminal Justice
Probation Journal
‘Within my work
2021, Vol. 68(1) 8–27
ª The Author(s) 2020
environment I don’t
Article reuse guidelines:
see gender as an
DOI: 10.1177/0264550520939153
issue’: Reflections
on gender from a study
of criminal justice social
workers in Scotland
Trish McCulloch
University of Dundee, UK
Viviene E Cree, Steve Kirkwood , and Eve Mullins
University of Edinburgh, UK
Community justice professionals operate within deeply gendered territory, yet there
has been little attention to how gender is understood and embodied by the workforce.
Building on findings from a mixed method study, this article explores professional
perceptions of how gender plays out in criminal justice social work (CJSW) in Scot-
land. Our findings demonstrate that gender is an important but neglected dimension
of CJSW. We conclude that advancing gender in this field requires a more inclusive
theorising of gender in professional education and research, a more practical com-
mitment to gender equality in policy and practice, and more routine opportunities for
dialogue on issues of gender and justice within and across these domains.
gender, community justice, social work, probation, professional, criminal justice,
Corresponding Author:
Trish McCulloch, Social Work, School of Education & Social Work, University of Dundee, Old Medical
School, Dundee, DD1 4HN, UK.
Email: p.mcculloch@dundee.ac.uk

McCulloch et al.
Criminal justice social work (CJSW) in Scotland operates within a landscape
which, until the present time, has been underpinned by a set of ideas and
assumptions about gender that have been largely taken-for-granted at all levels.
As a social work service, it sits within a sociopolitical frame which has been
characterised as a women’s profession since its inception. Social Work is
carried out largely by women, with women clients and with a gendered raison
d’etre that places women’s need for protection at its core. Criminal justice, in
contrast, is traditionally cast as a male enterprise, as criminal courts and justice
systems, staffed heavily by men, interact with what is a mainly, though not
exclusively, male client group, including in ways shown to punish and promote
hegemonic masculinities (Haney and Dao, 2018). Feminist analyses, while
drawing attention to issues of power, have done little, we will argue, to unsettle
binary ways of thinking, and instead, have provided new, essentialist expla-
nations for treating women and men in the criminal justice system differently.
Today, contemporary justice systems are beginning to acknowledge the need
for a more inclusive approach to understanding gender, while, at the same
time, grappling with particular gendered challenges in the form of increased
reporting of domestic abuse, ‘record levels’ of sexual offences and a drive
towards gender responsivity in the service’s work with women (BBC, 2019;
Burman and Gelsthorpe, 2017; Scottish Government, 2019). The competing
agendas here are, at the very least, tricky to negotiate, if not downright con-
tradictory, and yet gender remains an underexplored dynamic within criminal
and community justice, particularly in respect of how gender is understood,
experienced, and embodied by these workforces.
Our focus in this article is on the question of how gender plays out in the
patterns and practices of CJSW in Scotland. The impetus for our research was
the 50 year anniversary of the 1968 Social Work (Scotland) Act. In Scotland
and beyond, the 1968 Act is widely recognised for bringing together disparate
services into one generic social work service for the first time, oriented around a
duty to promote ‘social welfare’. As McAra (2008: 489) notes this included
placing social work at the heart of the criminal justice enterprise by abolishing
the older specialist probation service and transferring its functions to newly
created local authority social work departments. Scotland’s arrangements for
the community supervision of people who offend remain distinctive (McCulloch
and McNeill, 2010); responsibility for providing ‘offender’ services to the
criminal justice system, in the form of assessment, supervision, and throughcare,
rests with local authority social work departments located within a frame of
social welfare. However, this development was not universally welcomed at the
time. There was significant opposition from the largely male probation services
about joining what members saw as a largely female social work workforce. In
an interview conducted in 2010, Keith Bilton, former general secretary of the
Association of Child Care Officers, expressed this as follows:

Probation Journal 68(1)
There was a very strong commitment from the Home Office that probation officers
should be qualified in social work, but there was a powerful, largely male older group
of NAPO [National Association of Probation Officers] members who thought that
probation was an upright, no-nonsense man’s job and social work was a rather soft
sort of thing in comparison. (Ivory, 2010: 22)
We have no way of knowing how prevalent this attitude was in Scotland at the
time, or of how representative Bilton’s views were of mainstream probation
workers across the United Kingdom. What we do know, is that as a conse-
quence of this and other pressures, the rest of the United Kingdom did not bring
probation into a generic social work service. As a result, CJSW in Scotland
provides a particular context in which to explore gender, both historically and
in the present day.
As CJSW and probation services across the United Kingdom and beyond
continue to grapple with gendered questions of identity, purpose, and method
(Porporino, 2018; Robinson et al., 2016), located within broader global
debates about how to conceptualise and advance justice within post-socialist
neoliberal territories – where values of individualism, responsibilisation, and
social control now dominate (Arruzza et al., 2019; Fraser, 2005), we set out to
ask: how do gender issues play out today in CJSW’s identity and practice? We
explored this question in three ways: through a review of archival, doc-
umentary, and research literature; a Scottish-wide online survey and three focus
group interviews with practitioners in two local authorities in Scotland. Our
findings reveal the compartmentalised, differential and contradictory ways
issues of gender and justice are understood and embodied by criminal justice
social workers today.
We begin with a review of the extant literature, followed by an outline of our
research methodology. We then present findings from our empirical study of the
views of CJSW professionals. We conclude that gender, critically conceptualised,
is an important but neglected dimension of CJSW and probation. Advancing
gender equality in these fields requires a more inclusive theorising of gender (and
justice) in professional education and research, a more practical commitment to
gender equality in justice policy and practice, and more routine opportunities for
dialogue and reflection on issues of gender, equalities, and justice within and
across these spaces. Fraser’s (2005) theoretical work on social justice provides
one integrative frame for understanding and advancing these issues, demon-
strating that gender work can and should be coherently constructed as justice
Review of the literature
Two key concepts underpin this study – gender and work – and it is the intersections
between them that inform our approach.
There has been extensive writing on gender in recent years; there is not space to
do more than draw attention to key themes of primary relevance to our study. In the

McCulloch et al.
1960s and early 1970s, feminist scholars first drew attention to what they saw as
a distinction between sex (a classification based on biological difference) and
gender (a socially constructed categorisation that is based on, and exaggerates,
biological differences) (e.g. de Beauvoir, 1972; Freidan, 1963; Millett, 1971).
They argued that women were discriminated against because of their gender;
powerful patriarchal structures existed to keep women in their subordinate, ‘sec-
ond class’ state. By the 1980s and early 1990s, feminist standpoint theory (e.g.
Haraway, 1988; Harding, 1991) took this idea further, arguing that as an
oppressed group, women had more complete insight and better understanding of
social conditions and of knowledge as a whole. Postmodern feminists disagreed
with this characterisation, drawing attention to the differences between women
as well as the many experiences that women and men shared in common, as,
for example, people who were also Black or gay or disabled or working class.
They also challenged ‘top-down’ ideas of power, arguing that power is
embedded at all levels in society; thus discourses (everyday ideas and prac-
tices) ‘frame’ what we believe to be ‘true’ and ‘normal’, including our ideas
about men and women and the relationships between the two. For example,
Butler (1990) argued that gender is, in reality, ‘performative’, and because of
this, the genders ‘woman’ and ‘man’ are contingent and open to interpretation
and ‘resignification’. Abbott (2000), however, was more circumspect. She
argued that while gendered relationships are not static and may be open to
challenge, women’s agency is ‘constrained by structures – unequal and con-
trolled access to opportunities’ (p. 65).
The second key concept under investigation is work, that is,...

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