Who's Man Enough to Care? ; Male Social Workers Are Vital as Role Models and Carers, but They're in Short Supply, Reports Kate Hilpern

By Hilpern, Kate | The Independent (London, England), February 26, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Who's Man Enough to Care? ; Male Social Workers Are Vital as Role Models and Carers, but They're in Short Supply, Reports Kate Hilpern


Hilpern, Kate, The Independent (London, England)


Although there are no official statistics, everyone in the social services would agree that there's a serious shortage of male social workers in the UK. Many local authorities report that 70-80 per cent of their front-line workers are female, a figure that starts to reverse at management level.

Andrew Cozens, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS), believes it's high time the problem was tackled. "It's important that we reflect the communities we serve, which are themselves diverse, so that we truly understand the needs of the people we're working with," he explains. A balanced workforce inevitably includes wider perspectives "and in turn may provide a greater number of options for service users", adds Ian Johnston, director of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).

Alistair Pettigrew, head of children and families at Kensington and Chelsea Social Services, believes it is particularly important to have male social workers in his team. "There is a striking absence of adult males in many of the families we deal with," he says. "This is a problem because research indicates that children, whether girls or boys, benefit enormously from having regular contact with adult males. Boys, in particular, at the point of puberty often need to connect with a caring male who understands their problems. So a male social worker can make all the difference."

Michael Preston-Shoot, professor of social work at the University of Luton and vice chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee believes there are three main reasons for the shortage of male social workers. "First, social work has historically been perceived as a caring profession, and care tends to be constructed as a female activity."

Indeed, shortages of men can equally be found in nursing and primary school teaching - other so-called "caring" professions. Labour MP and former social worker Hilton Dawson agrees. "When I started out in social work, I was told frankly by one of my male relatives that it was women's work and why didn't I become a probation officer instead. I'm sure some men still get that kind of response today."

The second reason for the dearth of men, according to Michael Preston- Shoot, is that social work is not accompanied by high status or pay. "Women have just as many concerns about pay as men, but our society still seems to expect men to provide," he explains.

Finally, he points to moral panics. "Some men worry how they might be perceived as a result of wanting to work with children. There may even be concerns about false abuse allegations happening."

Among efforts being made to increase the number of men in social work are those at government level. Preston-Shoot explains: "In fact, due to the overall shortage of social workers in the UK, most of the efforts being made are to increase all applications. So if at one point the Government demonised social workers, the reverse is now true. Social workers are portrayed as important and deserving everyone's support. Along with this change of attitude - and this is what might help attract more men, in particular - is the increase in bursaries, as well as the introduction of registration in order to recognise good practice. It is also no coincidence that some of the recruitment ads in the media incorporate pictures of male social workers, as well as black and disabled social workers - other shortage areas."

The introduction of the new three-year social work degree, replacing the current two-year diploma in social work (DipSW), is also expected to encourage more men to apply to train.

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