The Father Factor

3 Reasons it May Be Hard for Female Staff to Engage Fathers [Part 1 of 2]

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Jan 29, 2019

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You undoubtedly have female staff who work in your organization and interact with fathers and families to deliver your services. What's great is that we’ve heard time and again that both men and women can effectively work with fathers to help them understand the important role they play in their children’s lives – in fact, we encourage it!

We’ve also heard from fathers that it can be helpful for them to hear a women’s perspective on father involvement. (I harken back to this blog post about female staff being effective fatherhood program facilitators.)

With that said, it may come as a surprise to you that some female staff can have either overt, or unconscious, mental and emotional barriers that discourage them from encouraging father involvement.

Pause. Ponder that for a moment. Especially if you are a woman reading this.

Yes, it’s true. In some cases, female staff may be aware that they have these barriers, but in most cases, they’re not. And often times, female staff members are on the frontline of serving families so it could be affecting your organization’s ability to effectively serve fathers.

Let’s dig into this concept in a bit more depth.

According to the United States Department of Labor, 81 percent of social workers in America are women.[1] Given that most social service programs and organizations focus on women and not men, it’s not surprising that the social service field is an overwhelmingly female one. Therefore, when it comes to serving fathers, it’s important to recognize some of the challenges that an overwhelmingly female setting and culture can create when staff try to effectively engage fathers.

There are 3 things we’ve learned that can hinder some female staff from engaging fathers:

1: Gender-based differences and past relationship challenges.

One of the primary reasons for the challenges female staff face in working effectively with fathers is the tendency for people to gravitate toward, spend time with, and be most comfortable around others who are similar. This fact extends to gender. Research in early childhood programs, for example, shows that women are more comfortable working with women.

This quite natural gender-based tension can extend to relationships between female social workers and the men and fathers their organizations serve. This tension can also be heightened by the personal histories women have with the men and fathers in their own lives. Female social workers may unconsciously bring “baggage” from poor relationships they have with men and fathers in their own lives into their work with the men and fathers served by their organizations.[2]

2: The rise in single-mother households.

Another critical contributing factor to the tension mentioned above is the rapid rise in the past several decades in the number and proportion of households headed by single-mothers. Social workers are often unsure of how to effectively work with fathers in these families. And frankly, sometimes, it is easier for staff to not involve the father(s) because of tenuous relationships and past hurts that the mother (client) may have.

The challenges these families present include:

  • Tensions between mothers and fathers, especially when those relationships have a history of abuse or violence.
  • Locating and maintaining contact with non-custodial and non-residential fathers.
  • Lack of knowledge about the desire of most fathers to be involved in the lives of their children and the challenges these fathers face in becoming involved.
  • Relationships mothers may have with men who are not their children’s fathers (e.g. boyfriends who live with mothers) and how those relationships can complicate the relationships between mothers and the fathers, as well as, the relationships between the fathers and their children.
  • Working with mothers who have children by multiple fathers.

3: An existing, and sometimes long-standing, women-dominant organizational culture.

As we shared earlier, the predominance of female staff in social work could be a hindrance to working with fathers based on the sheer nature of a female-dominant environment. Intake forms, programs offered, and even how the lobby and waiting area are decorated can also unintentionally convey a more female-dominant environment. In addition, female leaders could be unintentionally sending messages of non-father-inclusion by not having their staff bring fathers into the fold whenever possible.

However, changing the culture of an organization requires courage. Helping female staff to more effectively engage fathers often requires changing the culture of the organizations in which they work. This fact isn’t an indictment of women in social services or the organizations that employ them: quite the contrary. Think, for example, how long it has taken for women to break into the male-dominated world of sports reporting and broadcasting. Only in recent years have women assumed major roles as sports reporters and anchors, and there is still a long way for them and the industry to go in establishing equity. Because social services were created primarily to focus on the well-being of women, mothers, and children, the need for this change in most social service agencies is simply an artifact of good intentions.

In Closing

All three of the above factors make it much easier for program staff to default to working primarily or exclusively with mothers and not reach out to fathers or other significant men in children’s lives (e.g. father figures).[3] Unfortunately, this reluctance to reach out can have negative consequences for mothers, fathers, and children.

Mothers miss out on a healthier relationship with their child’s father and the additional support fathers bring that will give them more energy to be better moms. Fathers miss out on skill building opportunities that can help them be more involved, responsible, and committed fathers. Children miss out on the unique and irreplaceable role that both mothers and fathers bring to the parenting process. It also makes social service programs less effective than they can or should be.

How do we work toward change and what tools are available to help? Stay tuned for this Thursday’s blog with Part 2 of this series: Tools to Help Female Staff Engage Fathers−Even Better.


[1] United States Department of Labor. Quick stats on women workers 2010. <http://www.dol.gov/wb/factsheets/QS-womenwork2010.htm>

[2] Fagan, J. (1996). Principles for developing male involvement programs in early childhood settings: a personal experience. Young Children, 51 (4) 64-71.

[3] Wardle, F. (2007). Men in early childhood: fathers and teachers. Early Childhood News.

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