As you’ve probably guessed, I don’t mind controversy.
In fact, some of my favorite stories are about when I had to do a talk radio show ON MY BIRTHDAY (a Saturday, no less!), and the host had people call in to say whether I was “the stupidest person who’s ever been on the show” for advocating drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants; or the time I was kicked out of a church for trying to mobilize immigrant parishioners; or the time my own grandmother called me to tell me I’d been horribly misquoted in the paper, and I had to admit that I’d actually said those things.
And this post might rank up there with those.
So let me just say, first, what’s true, that some of the brightest, most passionate, most talented people I know are social workers. It is obviously my career choice, and I have never doubted for a moment that I made the right one. Period.
Something that I read about teachers in Super Freakonomics has got me thinking, though, about the nature of our profession, overwhelmingly female, and its future in the face of ever-changing gender dynamics.
We know that teaching and social work are both dominated by women. And we know that, for generations in this country (and others) they were two of only a handful of career options open to women in any meaningful numbers. Nothing shattering there. But what those freaky-economists have found is that overall teacher aptitude, measured by teachers’ score on intelligence tests and skill measures, have been falling since 1960, paralleling…the rise in occupational alternatives for women. Of course, the authors are quick to point out, this correlation is abetted by the low wages within teaching and the comparative attractiveness, then, of other professional choices–it’s not, in other words, that the brightest women no longer want to teach but, simply, now that they CAN do other things, many of which pay more and offer more rewards and fewer headaches, many do.
Which is what has me thinking about we social workers. I mean, who’s to say that Jane Addams would have chosen social work if other avenues would have been just as open to her? We can hope, but hope won’t get us the talented social workers, women and men, that we, and, more importantly, our clients, so deserve.
The answer, obviously (I trust!), is not to restrict the career options of women so that they’ll have to be social workers. But we do need to acknowledge, albeit perhaps belatedly, that the pipeline of bright women no longer heads straight to our doors, which means that we’ve got work to do.
I don’t think we have a crisis of unqualified social workers. Every semester, I’m a little bit amazed by some of the very smart, intellectually curious, naturally empathic, all-around wonderful people who have chosen to cast their lots with us. Amazed, delighted, and reassured.
But I do think that a profession with a value base that compels us to advocate for the advancement of the less powerful, including women, must be planning for how we’ll fare in the very future we’re seeking to create–one where women have the same set of career options and incentives that men do, and where we’ll have to compete with all sectors of the economy for the best and brightest of both genders, in order to staff our profession with the hearts and minds we’ll need to tackle that next set of injustices, just beyond the horizon.