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Academic Profile - Gill Kirkman

Tackling relationship abuse among young people

Gill Kirkman joined the University of Bradford in August 2023 as Assistant Professor in Social Work and works part-time. We caught up with her to find out about her research career up to this point, and what’s coming up... 

Can you tell us about your background and how it led to your research interests? 

I have always had a passionate desire to look at social issues and to try to find ways to make a difference to the lives of marginalized and vulnerable groups, particularly children. I started my career as a social worker in child protection for about 14 years, then I went into safeguarding training before starting my academic career in 2007 at Huddersfield University.  

It was difficult to engage with research initially in my early career due to the demands of teaching, course leadership and management responsibilities but in 2016 I was introduced to Professor Adele Jones, a phenomenal, passionate professor at Huddersfield University who’s now retired. Her research was predominantly on gender-based violence, so for instance, she'd worked with UNICEF across the Caribbean looking at child sexual abuse and exploitation. She offered me an opportunity to join a research team looking at domestic abuse and the impact on children, so I spent some time in Barbados and Grenada with the team talking with young women and their experiences of dating violence and abuse, and the role of misogyny and patriarchy that was across the islands. The team then built a computer game to help young people understand what domestic abuse is and how to seek help.  

A profile picture of Gill Kirkman

Gill Kirkman

That kickstarted what became The None in Three Research Centre, which was developed by Prof Jones, and I was a co-investigator. We received a grant of £4.6 million from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to build on the success of our work in the Caribbean and widen it more into a global project which included satellite research teams in Uganda, India, Jamaica and Brazil. 

Can you tell us about the Danielle computer game? 

I led the UK interdisciplinary research team at the None in Three Centre (Ni3) looking at adolescent dating violence and abuse, which has reached epidemic proportions. We interviewed survivors and perpetrators and surveyed almost 3,000 young people on their attitudes towards adolescent dating abuse and their experiences of violence and abuse both inside and outside the family home. Our findings and new knowledge enabled us to work with our Ni3 Games Team (who came from the commercial world) to develop an immersive educational computer game. The game enables young people, in a safe environment, to explore and understand the extensive abusive dating behaviours involved, their impact, and where to seek help We developed a young person’s advisory group who gave crucial feedback on game design as did many experts in the field. The technology used and the online and offline abuse depicted connects with young people’s reality, which is what they loved. Pro-social computer games have shown their ability to change attitudes and behaviours, which is why we chose this innovative and ground-breaking intervention.

In the game, called Danielle, after the lead character, the player faces challenges and activities which mirror those within commercial games making it interactive and engaging. We ensured that young people play as both Danielle (the victim) and James (the perpetrator) to be able to fully immerse themselves in the story and the emotions it stirs. It tells the short story of a young couple at college and how their relationship starts in the honeymoon period’, but over the five chapters the player experiences perpetrator behaviour from gaslighting to manipulation, online abuse, sharing of explicit imagery, physical abuse and sexual coercion, whilst also experiencing James’ behaviour first hand. 

We were clear that we shouldn’t portray James as an obvious ‘villain’, as we were concerned that people displaying perpetrator behaviors themselves wouldn’t identify with him, so he has some abusive traits and behaviours, but he is also a successful, popular student and rugby player. This makes him more credible and realistic, allowing young people to potentially recognise some of those behaviours in themselves or their partner and to recognise the need to change or seek help. 

Having spent four years running the UK project at Huddersfield, it was great to trial the game which we did across seven schools with young people 13+years. I wasn’t sure how young teenage boys would feel about playing Danielle and deciding every morning what she would wear when she woke up and what make-up she would put on, but they really got into it - to hear their experiences of how much they had learnt from playing Danielle, the fun they’d had doing it, and the conversations it had sparked was just phenomenal. The trials showed significant change in young people’s attitudes, so it was a great success.

Can you pick out some other career highlights? 

One highlight was talking with young people in the Caribbean about their experiences and some of the cultural differences in dating, such as: for lots of young Caribbean men, it's acceptable to have more than one girlfriend, but not the reverse, which can lead to jealousies and difficulties amongst the young women, they were angry at the lack of fairness and felt tied by cultural expectations.   

Another highlight was organizing two Ni3 conferences, guest speakers included  the Domestic Abuse Commissioner Nicole Jacobs, the then Shadow Minister for Domestic Abuse Jess Phillips, and the domestic abuse activist Rachel Williams. All of them had seen and taken a great interest in the computer game, giving us their endorsement, which confirmed to me that we had developed something extraordinary and impactful. 

I also hosted a series of six podcasts throughout last year with Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic social workers talking about the impact of racism they've experienced in university, on placement and latterly in employment, it was incredibly powerful and emotional to hear their shared experiences. I hope once they are published, they can become a teaching tool to all organisations and universities, as we simply must do better to deal with racism and discrimination. The project was a collaboration with the Journalism and Media School at Huddersfield University, and we were incredibly lucky to have BBC education correspondent Elaine Dunkley as our consultant. 

What’s coming up for you?

I’m happy to be back at the University of Bradford, where I obtained my first degree (in social work) and I have many happy memories of that time and am looking forward to many more. I’m busy networking and building up my contacts, I’d like to continue my research in Gender-Based Violence and look forward to collaborating with colleagues across different schools. Building innovative tech solutions is a real passion of mine. I’m now the Department's PGR Lead, I co-chair the Gender Forum and I am part of the EDI operations group, so I’ve been busy! The social work team are in a Teaching Partnership with Bradford Social Services and Bradford Trust, so I am collaborating with senior managers and a colleague to develop more meaningful ways to build research into modules for both pre and post qualified students. 

Gill Kirkman standing at a lectern on stage in front of a large presentation screen

Gill Kirkman presenting at Fear Free Valleys conference in Rhondda, South Wales in Nov 23.

My other main role is building impact for Danielle, I work with the Games Director Craig Gibbs, and we work tirelessly to ensure all young people can gain access to the game. We train professionals in how to use it and provide additional teaching resources. Our work has taken us to South Wales, most parts of West Yorkshire and Gibraltar so far. 

In my other part of the week, I have just started a business venture with Craig, and we hope to develop AR & VR for social good, we are working closely with the Police & Police and Crime Commissioners at the moment, so watch this space...