YOUNG VOICES

How Effective Are Oxford University's Good Lad Workshops?

11/03/2016 16:50 GMT | Updated 21/04/2016 12:53 BST

In 2013, a group of Oxford graduates created ‘Good Lad Workshops' to try and tackle the growing problem of lad culture on university campuses.

Good Lad seeks to promote “positive masculinity”, and in doing so, "enable men to deal with complex gender situations and become agents of positive change within their social circles and broader communities".

It does this by hosting workshops in environments where lad culture is traditionally prevalent, such as sports teams.

But have they worked?

So-called 'lad culture' has been increasingly criticised in recent years, with 37% of female students saying they have faced unwanted sexual advances at university, and 50% of students identifying "prevailing sexism, 'laddism' and a culture of harassment" at their university.

Recent research found that almost half of universities do not have a formal sexual harassment policy, with business secretary Sajid Javid creating a taskforce last year in an attempt to reduce sexual violence against women at universities.

Oxford University sports teams have credited the Good Lad workshops with helping them discuss and understand gender issues.

For the last three years, Oxford University Hockey Club has made it compulsory for the men's first team to attend a workshop.

“The situation-based approach does help to highlight regularly seen scenarios where group behaviour can be intimidating towards women,” Joe Foster, captain of the team, told HuffPost UK.

The 21-year-old theology student said: “The workshops increase team members’ confidence in acting according to a personal set of standards, rather than feeling compelled to adhere to a male sports team stereotype.”

Good Lad says on its website that male sports teams are the "perfect place" to start a conversation about gender equality. “At Good Lad we feel that changes in power start by targeting changes in behaviour within people’s natural social circles.”

Foster agrees: “In some all-male teams a kind of mob mentality takes over where speech and humour is often ill considered and plays up to stereotypes rather than being a reflection of the individuals within the group.”

In May 2015, it was reported that Dr Alice Prochaska, the principal of Somerville College, Oxford, emailed undergraduates warning them of a rise in sexual harassment.

Female students face "excessively harassing and intimidating behaviour", wrote Prochaska in the email.

"Rape is not a joke, as those who have been victims of it could tell you. Any level of sexual harassment is also not a joke," she wrote.

Matthew Courtis was part of the Oxford University Swimming Club when it decided its male members had to take part in the workshops.

“It made me more aware, which in turn subconsciously helped me in my actions in the future,” he said.

Fergus Taylor has taken part in two workshops as part of the Oxford University Rugby Football Club. In the second year of a master's degree, Fergus said that over the past few years he has noticed a greater awareness of sexism in the sporting community.

“I think the workshops are brilliant,” he said. “Rather than exploring complex gender roles, the workshops are really good at just providing an open platform for guys to discuss issues, when they might instead have fallen into the stereotypical male role”.

However, it is precisely this laid back approach which has attracted criticism. Some students have taken the workshops to task for being too male-focused.

“My greatest concern is that what Good Lad seeks to achieve doesn’t go deep enough. They don’t have to really examine themselves hard to get the Good Lad stamp of approval,” said law student Alice Irving.

“Good Lad may in fact do more harm than good, because attendees can leave without really reforming all that much,” she told HuffPost UK.

Irving helped to found the Oxford University Students Union ‘It Happens Here’ campaign. She started to help run the Good Lad workshops by offering advice and input, but soon found that people were approaching her with concerns.

Some of these concerns were allegations of criminal conduct against Good Lad members, she said.

“Men are predominantly the perpetrators of sexual violence. All male led initiatives, targeting males to be the change-makers, risk perpetuating the very power dynamic that feeds sexual violence.

“I hate to speak out against fellow activists, but it is heartbreaking to see this initiative be fêted in the press and be so well funded, when longstanding campaigns led by women and survivors get such limited attention and are struggling to get by,” Irving said.

English student Alexis Brown agrees. Her mixed sports club was recently asked to participate in a Good Lad Workshop.

“At first I thought it might be a great opportunity for us all to talk openly about gender as a club,” she told HuffPost UK.

But then Alexis was told that the workshop would only be open to males, and she would not be able to participate.

The 25-year-old student said: “The very women who would be affected by the kind of behaviour they discuss are excluded from a conversation about it.

“I worry that our current environment is one in which even the slightest effort put forward by men is greeted with unmitigated praise and enthusiasm, regardless of how helpful it actually is.”

Good Lad said in a statement: "The Good Lad Initiative continues to do work that has a strong ethical basis, and is based on sound academic research. We are particularly concerned by the suggestion that there are criminal allegations against a member of our team. No member has ever been identified to the Good Lad Initiative as the subject of any such allegation. All members, of any gender, commit to a code of conduct, to ongoing personal reflection, and to appropriate behaviours in both their professional and personal lives. If any allegation of criminal conduct were made, it would be taken very seriously and dealt with accordingly."

This post was updated on 21 April