Today’s youth are attuned to overlapping systems of oppression and are more likely to identify outside of binary gender categorizations than previous generations. Therefore, it is essential that social work research with youth conceptualize gender intersectionally while also defining gender expansively. This research examines a subset of social work research with youth from the last ten years to determine how the theory of intersectionality and challenges to the gender binary influence discourse on gender in research.
Methods: This research used the methodology of systematic mapping to identify how research on gender with youth published in five social work journals defined and analyzed gender. 691 journal articles from the past decade from social work journals specializing in either gender (Affilia: Journal of Women & Social Work) or youth (Children & Family Social Work, Child & Adolescent Social Work, Children & Schools, and School Social Work Journal) were screened for their compliance with the inclusion criteria. After screening, 79 relevant articles were coded and analyzed in depth.
Results: Approximately one-third of articles applied an intersectional lens to their analysis of gender (n=28, 35.44%). However, only a small portion of articles (n=9, 11.39%) explicitly discussed the theory of intersectionality, with the remaining 19 articles demonstrating an implicit intersectional analysis without acknowledging the theory itself. Articles with a focus on a particular race or races, qualitative studies, and theoretical articles more often applied an intersectional lens than articles without a racial focus, quantitative studies, and empirical articles, respectively.
Only 18 articles (22.78%) recognized gender as more than a binary construction. However, only half of these articles consistently undermined the gender binary, with the remaining half only challenging the gender binary in a limited way. Empirical articles that included gender categories beyond the limited choices of male or female conceptualized gender in a variety of different ways, with no universal conceptualization emerging. Recent articles published between 2016-2021 challenged the gender binary more often than articles published between 2010-2015.
Conclusion and Implications: Social work researchers must incorporate intersectionality theory and resist reproducing gender in binary terms to provide salient research with today’s youth. However, as this systematic map demonstrated, a large portion of social work research with youth treats gender as unrelated to other intersecting oppressions and/or a binary construct. This paper outlines the implications of this oversight while also highlighting exemplar research for social work scholars who seek to incorporate more relevant gender theory in their work with youth. While many barriers exist to conceptualizing gender intersectionally and more expansively, social work researchers must meet the challenge.