Inclusivity is critical

Elizabeth Bates is Chair of the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society. Her research interests centre on male victims of female perpetrated partner violence as well as the broader issue of domestic violence and abuse; in addition, she’s committed to ensuring that her students have the best possible experience at university, and the greatest chance of employment. She talked to Ian Florance.

I knew very little about the Male Psychology Section before interviewing Elizabeth. ‘That’s not surprising; it is relatively new having been recognised formally by the Society in 2018. Apart from that there are a lot of misconceptions about it. That’s why I was particularly pleased to be asked to do an interview: to spread the word and to try to clear up those misunderstandings.’ 

First, what does the Section focus on? ‘Studying and researching psychological factors which have an impact on the thinking, emotion and behaviour of men and boys. There are issues that disproportionately affect them – suicide, homelessness, addiction, imprisonment, and educational underachievement. Both private and public sector organisations could address these areas more effectively. My own particular area of interest, male victims of domestic violence, is underreported to the extent that many people have difficulty in believing it happens.’

Challenging misconceptions

What are the misconceptions about the Section? ‘Firstly, that we are undermining women’s issues and, at their most extreme, that the Section is misogynistic. The issue of power imbalance is also critical here. Of course there has been a lot of inequality in men’s favour throughout human history but there are still issues that affect men and boys that we need to focus on. There may be a suspicion that this Section is trying to undermine the work of other member networks. This couldn’t be further from the truth. For instance, our interests and those of the Psychology of Women and Equalities section are complementary and we hope to work with them in the future.’

I asked Elizabeth to expand on these areas. ‘Many people don’t realise that three quarters of suicides are by men, and that boys have been falling behind girls in education since the 1980s. The preponderance of homeless people are men. Men seek help much less than women do and, in certain circumstances, either keep silent about issues or self-medicate with alcohol. One suggested explanation for these ways of behaving is that “masculinity is to blame”, but on our area of the Society website we raise the issue of whether there are unacknowledged obstacles to men seeking help, just as there are for other groups. For example, does therapy need to be made more friendly to men needing help?’

I asked Elizabeth what these sort of changes might be. ‘Two issues have arisen in my work on domestic abuse. I’m a trustee of the male victims charity Mankind Initiative. Their helpline is anonymous and 64 per cent of callers said that this was the key issue in deciding them to call. Men seem to need anonymity in these initial stages of disclosure. A second point is that, when they’ve suffered domestic violence, men are often referred to homelessness associations because there simply aren’t enough safe houses for them. Society suggests the solution to many of these problems is to ask men to change so that they can access the system, but another approach might be to adapt how we offer help and support; even more basically we need more research information on what is actually going on here, rather than stereotypical explanations. For instance, stereotypes suggest domestic violence is only experienced by women but evidence suggests one in three victims are male. It also shows that a significant proportion of domestic violence is bidirectional; where men and women report as both victim and perpetrator. This requires more research into the motives for violence, but also what the risk factors and therapeutic needs are.’

Ensuring appropriate help for everyone

Presumably, the issue of gender identity and the language used in this context increasingly affects how you’re viewed and how you position the Section. ‘I don’t advocate gender neutrality as I don’t think this it is possible. We prefer to work in a gender inclusive and gender informed way. But our emphasis on inclusivity stretches beyond the binary conception of gender. I’ll talk about this in terms of my own specific interests but to give an example: there are barriers for some trans people in accessing support, with some organisations not supporting trans women. An ultimate goal is to ensure appropriate help is available whatever your gender identity or sexual orientation. We’re simply focusing on one area to complement what other people are doing.’

I wondered how Elizabeth had got interested in the area. ‘I can pinpoint it exactly: a third-year lecture by Professor Niki Graham-Kevan (who went on to be my PhD supervisor) looking at the issue of women’s violence. It was a revelation to me and I became fascinated. It’s become both an intellectual challenge and an issue of social justice to investigate it further and make a contribution.’ 

Social justice concerns also inform Elizabeth’s interest in pedagogy and student experience. ‘Initially I wanted to become a dedicated researcher, nothing else. That has fed into the fact that the integrity of my and my students’ research is very important to me. But when I was studying I did some paid teaching and loved it. Teaching and research inform each other and, in turn, I wanted students, whatever their background or identities, to receive the best chance to succeed at University. So, in 2012 I co-wrote a paper on the tuition fee rise and I’ve looked at transitions to Higher Education and student satisfaction among other areas. I’ve also studied student volunteering in the local community which is an important initiative at the University of Cumbria where I’ve been lucky enough to work for the last 11 years. Volunteering helps students find out what psychology is like in the real world, contributes to the local community and increases employability to students not studying a vocational subject.’

What do you hope to achieve as Chair of the Section? ‘To continue to raise its profile and correct the misconceptions I’ve discussed. We need wider membership, including students and those who are also members of other sections and divisions. Networking with other chairs is a major focus since we’re looking at issues of interest across the Society.’

And your own work? ‘I’m so lucky to work in the Lake District, which is the most beautiful countryside in my view. I work with such brilliant colleagues as well. I want to continue publishing and researching here. I’m currently collaborating with Dr Julie Taylor on research with children and their fathers who have lived in abusive homes.’

‘I work in an exciting and difficult area. Fundamentally gender norms and stereotypes are so ingrained that they’re difficult to challenge. Our Section is attempting to do this in one area, complementing the work of many other organisations.’

Male Psychology Section Conference – 20/21 June

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