As a “helping profession,” social work is often referred to or regarded as a woman-dominated field, commonly grouped with other fields viewed as “feminine”, like nursing and teaching. There are men in social work and many are in leadership positions.
Statistics do indeed show that women outnumber men in social work fields of practice, and females outnumber males as students and graduates of social work. However, the common perception of social work as “woman-dominated,” is problematic in a number of ways, and potentially harmful to the very women who “dominate” its practitioner base.
Men in Social Work: Brief History
Social work is considered by most to have been founded in the U.S. by strong female leaders, such as Jane Addams and Dorothy Height, among others. While men founded most professions recognized today, based on the knowledge production and theoretical perspective of men, “social work, on the other hand, is a female professional project, where women constitute a vast majority of the professionals.”
The history of social work stems from unpaid charitable and service work, usually performed by women, to help those in need out of compassion and empathy.
Especially during times of war and national crisis, women pioneered the field of social work by providing caring services to those in need, on a voluntary basis well before standards, theoretical bases, and established practices professionalized the field.
Men in social work: In fact, early attempts to professionalize social work sought to remove empathy and emotion, so that it would be more business-like and standardized: “there was an attempt to make it more masculine.”
Even as social work entered into the professional realm, women continued to make up the vast majority of its practitioners. However, “a gendered hierarchy emerged in which men, due to their ‘natural leadership’, organized the work, the knowledge production and the teaching, while the women, further subordinated, continued their work in the different social practices.” Thus, since its early days of professionalization, we have seen in the social work field a disturbing trend that persists today – women working in direct practice as subordinates to men in leadership positions.
Men in Social Work: Gendered Divisions in Social Work Leadership
We know that there are relatively few men who enter the field of social work, contributing to the idea that social work is women’s work. Yet those men who do pursue social work careers end up in leadership positions far more often than women. Consider social work agencies and organizations that you are familiar with: how often is the Executive Director, Agency Administrator, Board Chairman, CEO, or President of the organization a male? Social work agencies are likely to employ a high quantity of women, but their executive-level positions tend to be filled by men.
That the few men in social work are in positions to lead the field and shape its future is a troubling fact to confront. As a profession that advocates for, and should model, social justice, equality, and feminist principles, shouldn’t we see leadership within the profession that reflects equality and diversity?
As a profession founded by women leaders, shouldn’t women continue to hold prominent leadership in the field? Despite the fact that studies have shown the effectiveness and benefit of female leadership in human services organizations, female leadership in nonprofit organizations has declined, as “women are still hitting the glass ceiling, which prevents advancement into higher positions within the corporate and nonprofit worlds.”
Problematizing the Gender Question in Social Work: Men in Social Work
Despite men in social work having leadership roles in the profession, social work continues to be labeled a “woman-dominated” field, and this creates additional ideological and material problems with which the field of social work must wrestle. These include:
- Systematic devaluing of human services leading to lower salaries for all people employed in those services. Studies have found that “the more a service profession is dominated by women, the lower the worker’s average weekly salary.” This can be attributed to historical reasons and persistent social discrimination against women: “historically, women have been barred from men’s privileged world, and the work they do is not recognized as professional, and thus devalued2.”
- Gender-based discrimination in pay. Research shows that male social workers still earn more than female social workers who are equivalently employed7. This is a clear example of the social work employers’ failure to model the equality for which the profession advocates.
- Dissuading men from entering the field. Due to social work’s perception as “feminine,” male students report steering away from social work when choosing a profession1. This means that, by the numbers, women will continue to constitute the majority of the field, perpetuating the view that social work is “woman-dominated.”
- Not attracting capable female leaders. These intersectional factors that devalue social work and lower its salaries can be counter-determinants for women when choosing their careers1, meaning that social work may be losing great women leaders because they are steered toward higher-paid, higher-valued “male-dominated” professions.
Social work as a profession and especially social work employers must recognize these gendered divisions within the field, and develop and implement strategies to combat this persistent inequality. Having men in social work positions is important, but so is having women in social work leadership positions.
Employers should actively seek to recruit, cultivate, and retain female leaders in executive positions, and social work education should make efforts to encourage and promote women’s career advancement in the field.
If social work is to continue to be perceived as a “woman-dominated” profession, women should be well-positioned to lead the field of social work forward.