Persisting Gender Differences in Social Workers' Incomes: Does the Profession Really Care?

By Huber, Ruth; Orlando, Betty Pryor | Social Work, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Persisting Gender Differences in Social Workers' Incomes: Does the Profession Really Care?


Huber, Ruth, Orlando, Betty Pryor, Social Work


A recent study conducted by the authors found that male alumni of a master of social work (MSW) degree program in the Midwest received about $8,000 more in annual income than female alumnae. So what's new? Not much, as evidenced by the history of this phenomenon. Williams, Ho, and Fielder (1974) found that men with master of science in social work (MSSW) degrees had salaries more than $5,000 a year higher than those of women, even when controlling for job tenure, marital obligations, and part-time employment. Knapman (1977) found that women in 200 family agencies in Michigan tended to work in lower level positions and were paid significantly less than men even when length of employment was controlled. Also, Belon and Gould (1977) found that male members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) were paid more than female members, even when the effects of education, present position, prior experience, type of agency, and number of hours worked per week were controlled. Kravetz and Jones (1982) reported that women did not even expect to earn as much as men.

The 1980s did not see a decline in the discrepancy. Sutton (1982) selected two groups of MSWs from surveys returned by members of the Pennsylvania chapter of NASW: those employed full-time for 10 years and those employed full-time for two to four years. In both groups, women's median incomes were less than men's at all levels of responsibility, even when education, type of employment, auspice, and job responsibilities were controlled.

Sutton (1982) called for a move from research and global recommendations to more action. Although Sutton suggested four concrete approaches, it appears that the profession has not taken her advice. Not only did the 1980s bring no improvement in sex discrimination in social work salaries, the late 1980s may have brought deterioration. York, Henley, and Gamble (1987) controlled for job position, experience, and education in a random sample of social workers in North Carolina and reported that men received an average of $5,645 a year more than women.

Income Inequality in Other Professions

Social work is not the only profession in which women are paid less than men. Solomon (1978), reporting on salaries earned by employees with PhDs, observed, "Overall, being a woman means $1,555 lower salary, whereas in psychology women earn $2,607 less!" (p. 998). Solomon also quoted Becker's (1971) assertion that "an increase in the numerical importance of a minority group increases the prejudice against them, since the majority begins to fear their growing power" (p. 16). "Hence," Solomon noted, "it is possible that discrimination against women is more pervasive in psychology than in other fields because there are more women psychologists" (p. 996). Could the same be said of social work?

And lest those in academia think they are good income-parity role models for future social workers, they must think again. Men who are full professors are paid 13 percent more than women, male associate professors are paid 8 percent more than female colleagues at that level, and male assistant professors are paid 9 percent more than their female counterparts (American Association of University Professors, 1991).

It appears that nothing has changed since Gottlieb (1987) plainly identified the problem: "Sex inequality is based essentially on the belief that a woman's role is a family role" (p. 562). Family roles are ignored in this society's monetary evaluation of roles. Do our nonactions against the gender income gap suggest that the profession actually believes that women belong in family roles and are not, therefore, entitled to be paid as much as men in professional roles?

Perhaps social workers care rhetorically but not enough to take action, as the history of the profession suggests. York et al. (1987) noted that the profession has been documenting sexual discrimination in social work and other fields for over 20 years, with most studies finding gender to be a better predictor of salary than any other variable. …

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