The future of our female-dominated profession

One of those women I can't imagine our profession without--Bertha Capen Reynolds

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.

  • We need to be serious about our professional image as a profession of choice, not of refuge. This means high standards for admission into our professional schools, based not just on academic qualifications (although they can’t be overlooked) but also engagement in the world and commitment to our profession’s values and ethics.
  • We need to work at the system level to raise salaries for qualified social workers–articulating the clear value of what we do, fighting for equitable funding for social services, and rigorously evaluating our impact.
  • We need to recruit, hard, among the target populations we hope will choose social work–not just the women who have been our profession’s backbone and guiding inspiration, but people of color, first-generation college students, rural residents, GLBT individuals, non-traditional students… If we can’t make the case as to why people should choose social work, then we can’t be surprised if they don’t.
  • We must break down barriers that make other professions more attractive routes to helping people than social work. I don’t have an exhaustive list of ideas here, but I know that it needs to include loan forgiveness for work with underserved communities and mentoring for new professionals, because we, like teachers, tend to lose some of our best folks early in their careers.

    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.

  • 13 responses to “The future of our female-dominated profession

    1. I too am surprised at the way our profession has morphed over the years. It shocks me that the larger part of society, who are making decisions for us all, believe that social work is done at a bare minimum of reimbursement. Is it because people believe that charity work is done by volunteers? Or is it because we are a female dominated industry? Or is it because we do not advocate to the people who make decisions about funding to social work communities that social workers deserve a living wage? I was shocked when working at Hope House as a Bilingual Court Advocate when I walked into a Quick Trip that was hiring for a part time manager. The pay scale they posted was much higher than the one that I was making in serving victims of domestic violence. Dumbfounded might be a better use of vocabulary when describing my emotions.
      Do we spend so much time advocating for others that we forget about advocating for ourselves and our professions? And how do we retain qualified people to do direct service work when they cannot afford to live on the wage that is so low? The teaching profession is no different. Teachers work for so little, that they can barely afford to live with out a supplemental income, like one from a significant other. And who ultimately suffers? Our clients, our children, our communities and our future. In order to retain a more diverse social service work population, we must be able not only to recruit them, but to pay them. We must be able to provide benefits to them. This must be a priority as we move into an era of great need with our soldiers returning home from war, our baby boomers moving into the final stages of life and the ever growing population of victims of violent crime, we must arm ourselves for work in the trenches. We must insist to policy makers that funding must increase along with the need of services. So many agencies today are so stretched. Many people working 2-3 three positions for the pay of one position. We are in a crisis and we need to come together as social workers to ensure that care is given to those in need that does not create harm or further barriers.

      • There are a lot of parallels in terms of the gender composition of teaching and social work, too, Carrie. What do you think would make a difference? Is unionization the answer? Is it political action? Is it uniting with other, ‘downtrodden’ professions? Does advocating for ourselves really take away from advocating for our clients, or, in fact, would enhancing the power of our profession put us in a better position to advocate for our clients? Is our reluctance to advocate for ourselves an extension of our overall inhibitions about collective action?

    2. This is a great post. So much to think about. I think loan forgiveness would be absolutely massively important. The high cost of post-grad education is prohibitive for so many people. I can think of several such programs for teachers and doctors who work with underserved populations, but they are so rare for social workers. One of my clients recently showed me that she wrote on our annual evaluations a suggestion that the agency pay workers more, because we risk out lives going into people’s homes!

      People don’t usually think of social work as a dream job, but it’s what I wanted to do since I was 15. I had a lot of wonderful, encouraging family members and teachers, but I also had plenty of people tell me that I was smart and did well in school, so I should really think about options that will pay more.

      • That’s awesome that a client articulated the need for salary increases for workers! I don’t see how social workers can ever feel comfortable with advocating for ourselves, as long as we see it as only for ourselves, but the reality, of course, is that paying well and taking care of social workers is primarily about providing quality, supported, not-overburdened workers as resources for the people they serve…the Nurses United campaign has been really successful with this in the health care field, and I think it can be example for social workers, too. Have you ever been part of a union organizing effort among social workers? What role do you think unionization might play in enhancing social workers’ power? What concerns do you have? And what keeps you going in social work, especially with people encouraging you to look elsewhere?

    3. I feel that we lack self care overall, which is part of advocating for ourselves. I also think that the impact on clients would be a positive one, we would lead by example, so to speak. Not only would they see that we practice what we preach, but we would be able to enhance the services we give to them by increasing our quality of life. Whether health benefits, child care or salary increases occur, we could better care for ourselves and be fully present for our clients.
      As far as unionization, there is certainly power in numbers. My only concern is that I see us all as social workers trying to come consensus that would be good for all of us and we would end up debating each other until the cows come home.
      As far as what keeps me going, I have always had a passion to help others. I am happy to do the work and feel blessed in my “calling” to work with slaves today.

      • Isn’t it interesting that when we talk about “self-care” and preventing burnout, we seldom talk much about increasing our salaries, even though we know that money can, indeed, buy less stress, at least to an extent!

    4. I read all of MKL’s blog posts, and always want to comment, but if I did I wouldn’t get much else done! But this has to be one of my favorites. It is passionate, TRUE, and smart. There are two things in particular that stand out for me. The first, the idea that we have to be a profession of choice, not a refuge. Absolutely. And one thing that that means is, we have to be more concerned about the future of the profession and less concerned about putting butts in the chairs of all the social work schools within the Kansas City-Topeka axis. It’s tough to do, because of the downward pressure to produce student credit hours, but it’s important. The second, more personal one, is that when I see what I have always seen–Melinda’s unbridled enthusiasm for this profession–AND her dedication, AND her smarts, and everything else she is, I just feel so joyful. Seriously. She was in my class fifteen years ago. Now I want to be in hers. Some students are so lucky.

    5. Thanks for this post. I am wondering if higher academic standards will really be the answer to our problem in social work. The profession has been moving in this direction in practice. Higher standards with more and more management of risk within the practice environment. This doesn’t appear to be helping social work. Many, in fact, see it as an obstacle to good practice. Also, some of the best social workers I have known weren’t brilliant academics. They are brilliant with people and communities. And, what equation is academic? Is it the scientific equation we are talking about again? I also recognize and appreciate that social work is often frontline intervention. I want to work in colleges teaching first and 2nd year because this is another way to empower people. I believe this training makes better people, parents and and citizens.

      Perhaps the problem is that social work is trying to achieve something that works against its’ best interest? Perhaps different streams/specialization are the answer with monikers such as science and psychology and liberal arts and law and so on. A stream for the brilliant academic researcher, a stream for the community developer or advocate, a specialization for the family therapist or child protection social worker. I think social work tries to do too much under the rubric of generalization. Maybe concretely recognizing social work is a big tent with a lot of different application that deserve specialization s is the solution. With the web at our beck and call this specialization would be accessible to all.

      • You raise some important questions here, ones with which the profession has to grapple: should we be promoting lay leadership strategies, in order to invest in those with authentic knowledge of their communities? Or does providing “good” service mean focusing on licensure and education? What should be the emphases of social work professional training? And how should we be recruiting into our social work schools? Do we lose valuable cohesion and identity if we split into specializations (as many fear with the rise of private clinical practice)? Or do we lose something essential about who our profession is to be if we try to be a little bit of everything?

        Thank you so much for your comments–a lot to think about!

    6. Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your points, and I agree, this is a really complex discussion.

      My point is that I think we are already trying to do a little bit of everything, but we are not acknowledging it tangibly and that may be part of the problem. I have worked primarily in mental health, but I did a stint in child protection early in my career. I have also worked in non-profits (pre-degree), and it appeared to me that there is already a real division/differentiation out there in practice between who does what in social work.

      This seems most apparent between those working in non-profits and those in government jobs, at least that is the case here in Canada. Those who work in non-profits so at a financial cost.

      Here in British Columbia the specialization has already begun between those who are registered and those who are not with the BC College of Social Workers. BCCSW ( is a provincial government run organization and a recent appointment to its board challenged our commitments to our code with nary a bump ( You must be an RSW to work as a social worker for government now.

      In practice, seemingly contrary to the purposes of registration, qualifications for work in health and social care have been reduced and generalized in some areas. For instance, some of our health authorities removed requirements for qualifications in certain positions so that an MSW clinical specialization was no longer required (maintaining requirements for RSW status of course). This was a cost-saving maneuver that arguably significantly impacted on the quality of the treatment hospital patients and community mental health clients receive. I am sure we social workers agree there is a distinction between most BSWs and MSWs.

      So, I think, the division, albeit with mixed results and intentions, has already begun in some jurisdictions, and like you, I also think it is urgent that we grapple with these realities. My concern though is that we do it before social work is completely overtaken by the state and being a social worker is completely reduced (much like public perception of it) to be an underpaid agent of the state .

      • On a different post, a student of mine and I were ‘discussing’, via comments, the trade-offs, to the extent to which they exist, between insisting on social work licensure, as a status protection (and, arguably, protection for clients re: quality of care, too), and promotion of more indigenous/lay workers, particularly in underserved communities…I think that you raise a key point that, too often, we aren’t really making a conscious, transparent decision there, at all, but rather allowing cost concerns or other priorities to let us ‘drift’ into a state that may be undesirable for our profession as well as for those we served. I just checked out your blog, too, and I’ll be back!

    7. Pingback: Happy Week! Three years in retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

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