Working with men and cultural diversity

The purpose of this topic is to argue that although there is a growing emphasis on men’s involvement in family life, there has been little application to the diverse needs of men from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds and their families. Little information exists about how professionals can engage men from CALD backgrounds and respond to issues relating to male service users.  The topic aims to shed some light on the issue and highlight the need for further research. The names of these clients have been changed for this topic.

Applying generativity care to refugee experiences

This topic will also discuss the socialisation and migration issues that arise when working with men from culturally and linguistically diverse communities. These issues are:

Engagement Strategies

Generally, cross-cultural literature offers fewer therapeutic strategies and tools specifically designed for working with men from CALD backgrounds. More importantly this literature lacks research knowledge not only about how to work with men from CALD backgrounds, but also about cross-cultural practice as a whole.

Cross-cultural literature has little focus on how to engage and retain men from CALD backgrounds. However, the authors have found that working with CALD men has many similarities to working with men in general except that the engagement issues are intensified due to early socialisation and migration experiences.

The most effective position for community service/health workers, when working cross-culturally and especially when working with men from CALD backgrounds, is to adopt a ‘safe uncertainty’ approach. The worker needs to hold a belief of ‘authoritative doubt’ that values both professional expertise as well as uncertainty. It is also called ‘informed not-knowing’. This approach is consistent with the non-deficit approach (King, 2000; King, 2001; King, Sweeney & Fletcher, 2004; King, 2005; Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997) that identifies the relationship connection between men and other family members, or men and the Worker as the primary opportunity for engagement and change.

A significant component of the engagement process, regardless of the intervention context, is related to the ability of workers to assess, and then work with, each individual’s state of readiness to engage the;

a)      core content

b)      underlying concepts

c)      associated challenges

Language Barriers

The issue of language goes beyond the spoken language and needs to incorporate assessments of comprehension and conceptual understanding. Workers need to allocate additional time and actively seek feedback to assess the service users;  

A group of professionals attending the 2007 Men & Family Relationships Forum expressed the view that the use of interpreters was a subordinate process and suggested agencies should be proactive in providing employment opportunities for bilingual workers thus providing recognition of the Process, Training and Systemic barriers present in current ways of doing things.

It was seen that the use of interpreters can dilute the richness of cross-cultural experience for men, families and the worker. When used, interpreters should have some basic understanding of cross-cultural gender issues. The worker needs to explain the interpreter’s role in the sessions and ensure the interpreter simply translates the spoken word verbatim without engaging the service user. Workers should undertake training in working with interpreters.

Male socialisation experiences

Edgar (1997) argued that male socialisation at a young age develops a high level of survival skills. In early family life and school play ground, boys learn that survival means being stronger, faster and more in control of your feelings. While men have the ability for empathy, there is usually less motivation to be empathetic, than women Edgar suggests that men are trained to conceal, to be cool, not to ‘seem’ sensitive, because sensitivity in a macho world is a sign of weakness. Therefore intuition for men is primarily focused on safety. As men enter new environments, they assess potential threats and attempt to reduce the impact of those things that could harm them or those close to them. When men do start to talk about their feelings, it is often new territory and expressed in less words than how women would communicate them.

Traditionally, this way of being in the world, forged the notion of ‘protector’ as the dominant masculine role men, from all cultures, are influenced by. As men move from adolescence to young adulthood, they need to learn the difference between creating safety and when this becomes controlling others. The greatest challenge in balancing this protector role is the ability to talk with others and learn through feedback. This mentoring experience is vital for young men as they explore this balance through their involvement with sport, work and relationships.   

Case Study

An Iranian man, Mr Shahidi, who recently migrated to Australia with his family, was referred to a fathers group by a counsellor engaged to work with the father’s anxiety and depression. The Father related his inability to speak to his 22 yr old son, Bahrooz, for fear of losing his relationship with his son. The son, a university student, would often bring girls home and refer to them as girl friends, the father had a cultural expectation that this related to girls that his son had intimate relationships with even though, when describing the circumstances, the father had no evidence of anything other then study based friendships. The Father was unable to fully explore those relationships with his son due to his underlying fear and anxiety, and the overriding cultural expectations. For the father this was an issue of respect, Iranian culture contains an expectation that children will accept parental authority until they marry and leave home, even if that takes place well into the child’s 20’s.

When families grow up in severe adversity such as war, persecution or absolute poverty, young boys and men learn to express the protector role in ways that relate to the specific environment that role is learnt and expressed in. Those same boys and men may then face a significant challenge to make the required transition to continue to express the role in appropriate ways and in the context of the changed environment, e.g. reduced adversity, no war etc. Violence, trauma and survival skills that are learnt in the backdrop of war, or for that matter adversity of any kind, will sensitise them to that set of dangers, creating a potentiality to be over sensitive to any perceived threat in changed environments.

Group processes were used to explore the issue of ‘Respect for Parents’, including Mr Shahidi, in the context of when they were growing up in Iran and in the context of their children growing up here in Australia. The group agreed that often fathers expectations around respect were unrealistic in the Australian context because in relation to their own experiences growing up in Iran, respect was often confused for obedience through fear. The following week Mr Shahidi disclosed that he had initiated a conversation with Bahrooz to explore what was actually happening when Bahrooz had his girl friends come over and expressed how relieved he was to learn that he was involved in assessment related study projects with those individual girls. Mr Shahidi also disclosed that he wanted his children’s respect, not the obedience through fear he related to his own father when growing up.

Regardless of the harshness of the environment where boys grow up, there are opportunities throughout life where men often re-evaluate their life and work towards better utilisation of fathering role’s. One of those opportunities is through the care and protection of their children. This is the cornerstone of understanding fathering as a generative experience (King, 2000).

It is a myth that men don’t communicate with their wives/partners (Edgar, 1997). In this research Edgar talks extensively about how those men involved used different communication to express themselves then women and there seems to be an increasing body of research evidence, from all around the world, that supports the notion, that men invest heavily in their wives and families, however that investment is expressed and communicated in ways that are filtered by masculine identity, culture, religious affiliation, educational attainment and socio-economic status or class.

Cultural values and subsequent behaviours may be different for men from the dominant culture as they relate to issues of

Professionals need to talk with their male service users about the impact of their culture and gender on their situation which requires professionals to have more than just an awareness about a service user’s culture and gender. Cultural and gender sensitive counselling practices with men from CALD communities require professionals to make culture and gender a central metaphor for engagement and change.

Case study:

Carlos and his wife Veronica are 40 years old and Argentinean-Australian Spanish.  The local Community Health Centre referred them to a Program. The couple has been married for 16 years and have two children, a 15-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy. Carlos was referred because of his poor relationship with his wife, poor interpersonal skills and anger management problem. Carlos is a caring and family loving person and was very keen to work with the Service.

The word ‘macho’ is often used globally in reference to Latin American males. This word may negatively influence the worker to expect sexist behaviour in Latin American men and this assumption is unhelpful when attempting to engage with Hispanic (Latin American) male service users.

Male  workers might have an advantage in initially engaging male CALD service users as the men may believe that male workers will understand them (O’Brien, 1988). However this is balanced by female workers who are often perceived to be more caring and supportive and men will be more open with them. The male worker explored Carlos’ role in the family, how socialisation affected him, and what was expected of him in his family of origin. The question was asked “What does it mean to be an Argentinean man?” Carlos said he wasn’t socialised to be aggressive and competitive. When asked what he expected from the service, Carlos said that he wanted to talk to someone about his pain. He also stated that he wanted to improve his relationship with his wife, because his wife always accused him of being weak and dependent on her.  

The worker highlighted his strengths by exploring his insight, knowledge and awareness of relationship issues. He was asked “What is that like for you, when your wife says that you are weak?” When his strengths are highlighted, it is easier for Carlos to explore and experience his feelings. Exploring men’s feelings can be threatening, but the experience is valuable when their strengths are acknowledged.

The worker found it helpful to ask questions of Carlos and Veronica about their experience of growing up in Australia. This allowed Carlos to talk about the new ways he care for and protected himself and those he cared about. Both of them improved their understanding of each other and their relationship. They found it useful to focus for a few minutes in each session, on issues about ‘work’ and ‘soccer’, because both play an important role in Carlo’s life.

It was useful to ask Carlos questions like:

7 - Applying generativity to refugee experiences and trauma Part 1

Effective engagement of CALD men

‘Informed not-knowing’ is used here in the sense that Anderson and Goolishian (1992) use it, to mean that we are never ‘expert’, ‘right’ or in full possession of ‘the truth’. On the other hand, when professionals are more informed about the life experiences of people from CALD communities, they can become aware of their own cultural biases and then recognise and harness the cultural narratives of the ‘other’ in truly strength based practise.

Many authors take the position that workers do not need to understand a family’s culture in order to be effective when working with CALD service users. Other’s stress that if the worker is from a different culture than their service user, they will work less effectively with that service user.

However, in the author’s experience, it is not being of the same cultural background, but the ‘informed not-knower’ position that is the most helpful for a worker to use when they work cross-culturally with men. Workers need to be genuinely interested to find out, ‘where exactly have you come from?’ ‘Where is your mother and father?’, ‘Do you have a photo of them?’, ‘I would love to see it’, are examples of an inquiring mindset. The accompanied ‘genuinely interested’ message becomes the medium that draws out the narrative, provides invaluable validation and normalises the service user’s experiences.

When men from CALD backgrounds come to see workers, they believe that the worker has some expertise which will help alleviate their problem.  Workers are more effective when they have already developed some knowledge about their service user’s culture and gender by engaging in dialogue with colleagues, service users and friends, attending cultural awareness training, watching documentaries, reading books, reading feminist writing and men’s writing on gender issues, male socialisation, and so on. Workers are also more effective if they have explored (through professional supervision or training) their own socialisation processes and attitudes to achieving culturally sensitive practice. Workers hear the service user’s story with some knowledge about their background, but not with full possession of ‘truth’. If workers become as informed as possible about themselves and those whom they perceive as different, they will be able to listen in a way that takes into account cultural biases.

This section discusses a number of CALD issues, such as migration, torture and trauma, racism and male socialisation. Case examples are used to illustrate how well workers can engage CALD men and how they can make their practices more effective using cross-cultural gender sensitive practices.

Case study:

A Sudanese Muslim Arabic speaking family was referred by STARTTS (NSW Torture and Trauma Services) to a Men and Family Relationships Program. The family was referred because they were experiencing lots of arguments and the children were experiencing difficulties at school. Izaz and Nasrin (the parents) also reported that they were experiencing relationship difficulties. Izaz shouted at and emotionally abused Nasrin and the couple had frequent intense arguments. Both reported that their relationship difficulties started 4 years ago, however they also reported that they had never enjoyed a good relationship.

They stayed five years in Egypt before the family migrated to Australia one year ago. The family had to leave their country of origin, Sudan, due to political persecution. Both parents were political writers back in Sudan. Izaz had been tortured by the governing regime because of his opposing political views. Izaz is unemployed and believes that their relationship difficulties and family problems were due to the lack of adequate financial resources. The parents and children agree that their two children are not happy in Australia, as Karim and Abdul feel disappointed and isolated.

The parents reported that Abdul fights a lot in school. Abdul said that other children pick on him, say he is ‘black’ and make other derogatory comments which make him extremely angry. Abdul also mentioned that when he sees his parents fighting, he becomes sad and angry. The parents mentioned that Abdul changed from being quiet, to more aggressive. His academic performance has declined. The children report that they support each other, however they would like to see their parents stop fighting and take more interest in the their lives. Izaz was reluctant to attend therapy and Karim was not interested in talking to an outsider about their family issues.

Engagement of men from CALD communities

Engagement is a complex process involving the development of the relationship between the worker and the family. This section focuses on how a worker engages with Izaz (the father) and develops rapport with him. The importance of trust in any therapeutic relationship has long been recognised. In this case, it is paramount because Izaz is a survivor of torture and trauma. Torture occurs within the context of the powerful relationship between torturer and victim. The survivor will continue to find it difficult to trust others (Jaffa, 1993).

To create a positive impact and engage with Izaz, the worker must show empathy, unconditional positive regard and be respectfully curious about the family’s cultural practices.

Engagement starts with Izaz and his family when the worker warmly greets them and offers them a cup of tea. The worker asks Izaz “what do I need to know that will help your family?” For men in many cultures, asking for help makes them feel inadequate. Izaz is unemployed and unable to fulfil the bread winner role. By validating his authority a stronger engagement is crated by inviting Izaz to work in partnership with the worker. It is useful to ask some questions about his country of origin and his cultural practices. This demonstrates an interest rather than simply stereotyping his culture.

The worker needs to be acutely sensitive to the presenting verbal and non-verbal cues. Anything that is said or done should not imply that the worker undermines, patronises or glorifies the service user’s culture.

The father’s story needs to be appreciated. It highlights the struggle of an immigrant who is trying hard to make a new life for himself and his family. Some common interests may be shared, and occasionally the worker may use appropriate self disclosure.


The migration process has seriously affected this family. The migration experience is divided into the following stages (Sluzki, 1979)

  1. preparatory stage (in previous country)

  2. act of migration (movement between countries)

  3. period of overcompensation (initial adjustment to Australia)

  4. period of decompensation (process of full adjustment to Australia)

  5. transgenerational experiences (subsequent generations born in Australia)

During the initial engagement stage, this family was in the ‘period of decompensation’. However, it is important to identify how the father dealt with the previous three phases. In order to cope with the migration, the family managed the immigration experience in different ways. Izaz (the father) focused on dealing with the pressing financial and physical relocation issues (house, school etc). Nasrin (the mother) kept her feelings about the migration experience to herself.

This coping pattern is sufficient during the first few months, however, if the family rigidly maintains these roles, it can create a major crisis in family relationships. Izaz and Nasrin, after one year of migration, are still locked into these fixed roles that have contributed to stress on their relationships.

Izaz has developed stronger networks in Australia due to his focus on the outward issues affecting his family. Nasrin is inward-oriented, focusing on writing letters, making phone calls to her family back in Sudan and mourning what has been left behind in Sudan. Nasrin’s inward-oriented activities contribute to her isolation. The behaviour of each member of the system affects the behaviour of the other and in turn affects the behaviour of the former.

Because of his strong networks outside the family, Izaz experiences his wife, and mother of his children, as relatively ignorant of the norms and customs of the new environment. As his wife has fewer acquaintances and friends this further separates her from community supports and increases the experience of isolation. She may respond either by clinging more to the past or by clinging more to her husband who in turn, will feel too restricted. She also may respond positively if assistance is offered to her by the family worker, for example being invited to join a support group. Izaz needs to be encouraged to support his wife in this venture.

The whole process escalates progressively into a major crisis for the relationship. It is important to discuss the cultural practices, parenting norms, role definitions of the Sudanese culture before any interventions are used. The worker must convey, at all times, that things may be different between the two cultures and countries, but these changes are neither intrinsically good or bad.

Torture and trauma

Torture and trauma has significantly impaired this family’s functioning, with Izaz and Nasrin’s relationship becoming conflictual and in turn affecting his children. The family has received post traumatic stress therapy by a Torture and Trauma Service.

The worker’s approach was to reinforce the authority of the parents and discourage the children from becoming involved in parental conflict. Nasrin’s and Izaz’s own skills were utilised as they started writing and publishing topics about their immigration experience and the politics of Sudan. They found this interesting, enjoyable, and an opportunity to explore the interface between family and community.

The process of migration and the experience of torture and trauma situations contribute significantly to the development of relationship difficulties.

8 - Applying generativity to refugee experiences and trauma Part 2


Racism is an issue for this family. For example, Abdul is the victim of racial slurs and abuse from other children at school and is an issue the whole family has to contend with. Abdul’s fighting with other children is a response to racism and is something that the school needs to address. The worker, if skilled in culturally sensitive practice, will be able to assist the family find strategies to overcome racism. The worker may also need to provide advocacy, on a systems level, to assist this family to find new ways for this issue to be addressed including identifying and recruiting appropriate partners, e.g. teachers, school principle, school councillor.

Workers must be able to validate the positive steps that Abdul uses to respond to the racism. The worker supported Abdul to express his anger and sadness in the session by asking the question “how did that make you feel when other students said you are ‘black’?”  As an advocate, the worker discussed the issue with the School Principal. The worker reinforced messages that black is a proud colour. Many celebrities, including top world athletes and leaders are black.It is recognised that many CALD families enter Australia with a migration expectation of freedom and new opportunity, but this is often tinged with: 

A group of professionals attending the 2007 Australian Men & Family Relationships Forum expressed a significant difficulty identify themselves as skilled when responding to CALD communities as this work was seen as a specialist area. A major challenge identified was the limited access to training in cultural education, awareness and sensitivity both at the practitioner and organisational level.

For those practitioners who had successfully engaged cross culturally the most significant skill identified was the capacity to develop strong working partnerships with CALD communities and ethno-specific organisations. This was achieved through regular community consultation and as one delegate noted to ‘personally invest in the cultural life of the client…from the management to the ground workers in the agency.’

This overall approach needs to be implemented not only in relation to Cultural identity and practise but should include gender identity and masculinities.


This topic has examined the issues of cross-cultural and gender sensitive practices used in services. The non-deficit approach to working with men and the ‘informed-not-knowing’ position is identified as the most helpful approach when workers provide services to CALD men and families.

This topic has demonstrated the need for workers to understand how socialisation affects CALD families. It has also highlighted that workers need a good level of self-awareness of their own socialisation experiences, cultural biases and attitudes to others from CALD backgrounds. Three case examples have been used to provide the framework of cross-cultural gender sensitive family therapy practices with men from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. It suggests that culture and gender are central metaphors for effective cross-cultural gender sensitive counselling practices with men from CALD communities.

Successful workers will be able to empathically appreciate the service user’s worldview and acknowledge and respect differences that may exist between the family and worker. Culturally sensitive workers will maintain an awareness of diversity within family and cultural groups and avoid using stereotypes. Successful workers have an awareness of their own cultural issues and use this to demonstrate cultural sensitivity to service users. It is useful to avoid using generalising male stereotypes and of course, derogatory or stereotypical views about women need to be challenged however that challenge needs to be applied using frameworks that respect and acknowledge the evolving intellect of the service user.

The common base in working with men from CALD communities is the demonstration of a genuine appreciation of and respect for the differences that exist between and among families. It is often useful for workers to build this awareness through accessing training programs for workers about cross-cultural and gender sensitive issues. A core area for development is knowledge about migration experiences and Torture and Trauma issues and what impact these issues have on family relationships. Also workers need to acknowledge the women’s relative economic and socially disadvantaged position in our society and in many CALD communities.

Summary of good things to do

The ‘take home’ message is that when agencies, programs and staff offering services to CALD men, and their families, routinely reflect on their;

  1. mode of practice

  2. cultural and gender sensitivity

  3. agency profile,

along the lines described in this paper, they are more likely to attract, engage and retain CALD men in their programs.

At the Australian 2007 National Men and Family Relationships Forum, the workshop convenors and practitioners identified the following skills to use when working with CALD communities:


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