Can men care? Social work as a gendered profession…

…and what charity organisation Frontline is doing about it.

Geographers have long been interested in understanding the complexity of gendered divisions in labour across the world. In the UK, only 14% of children and family social workers are men; despite the fact that over half the children currently enrolled in protection plans are boys. It’s time to ask why this gender imbalance exists, and what we can do to change it. 

Social workers need empathy, but the role does not end there. By forming honest and open relationships with children, workers position themselves to ascertain the views and feelings of the child and assess their situation. Identifying risks from these assessments requires analysis and adaptability and dealing with them needs effective communication. Social workers cooperate with doctors, teachers, the police and a range of other professionals to ensure the safety and welfare of families. Changing lives takes leadership and resilience, requiring the confidence to take ownership of difficult decisions and stand up for families’ wishes. 

Yet despite requiring such a broad range of competencies, social work is continually framed solely as a ‘caring profession’. Such a narrative has led to its reputation as a ‘female’ career path, since societal norms often equate care with femininity; this has effectively deterred some men from considering social work as a legitimate career option.

The common perception of social work as “woman-dominated,” is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly it can be self-reinforcing. With so few men in social work, less men are likely to consider it as a pathway. An American study supports this, revealing that men are most likely to be influenced to become a social worker by another social worker (Fischl 2013). Fewer men in the profession might be leading to fewer recommendations for men to join, a self-defeating cycle. 

Furthermore, as gender theorists point out, the description also conceals the overrepresentation of men in managerial positions. The phrasing ‘woman-dominated’ suggests that within the field women hold more power. In reality, even with high quantities of women in social work, its executive-level positions tend to be filled by men, arguably granting men greater institutional control in the sector (Hicks 2015). 

The depiction also limits our attention to intersectionality. Focusing solely on how gender is affecting social work ignores how the overlapping nature of our various social and political identities shape children’s lives. Statistics show that 66% of UK child and family social workers identify as white ethic origin. 

Diversity in the full sense; not just gender diversity, matters in social work. A quote from Rahim, a 2018 participant of the Frontline’s programme to fast track graduates into social work, sums up why: “you never know what aspect of yourself families will respond to”.

Evidently, the issue of gender in social work is multi-layered and tough to tackle. This is exactly why Frontline are taking on the challenge. The charity organisation recruits and trains talented young individuals as social workers, so that children across the country can receive the care they deserve.

Through their two year fast track graduate scheme, Frontline removes the barriers to the start of a successful career in social work for men and women alike. Determined to bring diversity to the profession, Frontline looks to recruit participants onto the programme who have a diversity of thought, culture and personality. In previous cohorts, up to 24% of its participants have been male, and in 2018, 18% of their participants were BAME. 

Greater male and BAME representation in social work could provide positive role models for children where the ‘man of the family’ has damaged wellbeing, and provide children and families with an increased chance of finding someone they can truly connect to. 

Frontline is also determined to give women equal opportunities to move up into more senior roles. All graduates from the programme gain access to the ‘fellowship’, a network of support allowing members to seek out advice and mentoring from others, as well as attend a range of events and workshops to strengthen their capacity to innovate and lead in the sector.

Matching its commitment to diversity with financial and technical support, Frontline rewards its participants with a competitive salary while helping them gain hands on experience within vulnerable communities. Their “earn while you learn” policy means that participants walk away with both a fully funded postgraduate diploma and a master’s degree. 

With over 400,000 children in need across the UK social workers, of all backgrounds, are needed more than ever. Luckily, by actively challenging the norms of the profession, supporting its participants through the pressures they face in their first few years, and giving equal opportunities to all even past graduation: Frontline is ensuring hundreds more are entering the social work and succeeding in changing the lives of vulnerable children.

By Danny Cronin

Related links

If you want to be a part of Frontline’s movement, applications for places on this year’s programme are open until the 2nd of December at: https://thefrontline.org.uk/our-programmes/frontline-programme/ 

Sign up to the mailing list for hints on putting in a successful application, summer internship opportunities (for 1st and 2nd years) and more: https://thefrontline.tfaforms.net/392296?tfa_3=7010X000000axDZ&fbclid=IwAR2vt-7xWx7_DCf8vxtkQzvo-hqo-ulJR4yo0bUdl6xiejlQY_mezy-haNA

Not graduating for a while but determined to do something to help? Consider volunteering with FreetoBeKids, a charity who run fun outdoor activity weeks to give vulnerable kids the love and care they deserve (https://www.freetobekids.org.uk/). 

Bibliography

Fischl, J (2013), “Almost 82 Percent Of Social Workers Are Female, and This is Hurting Men”. MIC articles. 

Hicks, S (2015), Social work and gender: An argument for practical accounts. Qual Soc Work. 2015 Jul; 14(4): 471–487. 

DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR ONLY AND DO NOT REPRESENT THE VIEWS OR OPINIONS OF COMPASS MAGAZINE AS A WHOLE OR THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE DEPARTMENT OF GEOGRAPHY.

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