Women’s work: the stigma continues

Late last year, I completed my first full-time fourteen-week social work placement, as part of my Masters of Social Work course. I am drawn to social work for a straightforward purpose: to help restore justice on a micro level to Australian women who have been harmed by gender inequality. My previous training as an academic historian has made me acutely sensitive to the discrimination and violence that has been perpetrated against Australian women and girls since European colonisation, particularly those with Indigenous, migrant, non-heterosexual and working-class identities. I seek – in however small a way – to assist women’s empowerment, and I hope to one day work in an organisation that proudly advocates political, social and economic parity between men and women.

Given the many organisations that assist abused or exploited women have an unambiguously feminist approach to practice, I’ve found it striking that the young women who make up the vast majority of my social work course cohort don’t use explicitly feminist language, and that often I am the only one in seminars expounding a ‘cos the patriarchy’ analysis of Australia’s social inequalities. This may be because the university hasn’t given them the tools. Conversations I’ve had with classmates reveal that while many do identify as feminist, their degree thus far hasn’t provided them a gender lens through which to view Australian society. Samantha*, aged 25, tells me that the course has only ‘touched’ on those topics, while Miranda*, 22, is frustrated by the ‘super light’ focus on specifically women’s issues. She believes that there is not a nuanced understanding of gender and power in Australia. There is also still a stigma around feminism, she says: ‘So many young people hate nailing themselves to any label or cause and I really think [feminism] is still very taboo.’

In an article published in 2015 about American social work students, Mollie Lazar Charter identified a similar unfamiliarity with feminism’s central tenets. As she noted, American social work courses commonly do not contain a single unit of women’s or gender studies (my social work course is grounded in psychology and sociology, with very little emphasis on Australian politics and history). Consequently, students are unable to ‘overcome the stigma that surrounds feminism’, and do not self-identify as feminists. This, Charter argues, could inhibit students’ future capacity to ‘conduct interventions that recognise gender inequality’ or to ‘focus on the importance of women’s issues in the everyday lives of the women they hope to help’.

The female social work students I have spoken to who do happily embrace a feminist identity are more likely to have experienced gendered assault. As a child, Samantha was sexually abused by a neighbour and witnessed her mother being assaulted by her partner. Workplace sexual harassment and discrimination as an adult has further bolstered her stance against ‘the unfair constraints of the patriarchal dominance that a lot of Australian women would feel’. Though family members and teachers ‘turned the other cheek’ to her childhood assaults, a school social worker helped Samantha understand that she ‘was not at fault’ for the crimes perpetrated against her. In the future Samantha seeks to have a similarly positive impact on the lives of abused girls and women.

Pippa*, 22, who identifies as ‘100% feminist’, expressed from a very young age that she did not want a relationship with her abusive father. Unfortunately, the Family Court ignored her requests, and she was compelled into a visitation arrangement with him. She now believes social work is the best avenue for being ‘the voice for children who [aren’t] able to use their own’.

These young women have a united view of the low pay workers in the ‘caring’ (or ‘feminine’) professions earn compared to those employed in traditionally ‘masculine’ occupations. There is no ‘valid reason’ for it, Samantha argues, ‘It is discriminative.’ Miranda agrees: ‘It’s a disgrace.’

In 2011, following a vigorous Australian Services Union (ASU) campaign, Fair Work Australia (FWA) ruled that hundreds of thousands of Australian community service workers (including social workers) had been ‘grossly underpaid’ for years compared to their public sector counterparts – and that gender discrimination was substantially to blame. Nearly 87 per cent of workers in the non-government social and community services (SACS) were female, and their wages had been restricted due to the low value placed on what has traditionally been understood as women’s work. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that it ‘was the first time in 30 years that gender discrimination had been accepted in a case fighting low wages’.

Writing in The Conversation after the FWA ruling, Eva Cox argued that because ‘all jobs in feminised industries tend to be lower paid than similar ones in male-dominated industries […] most of the 14% of men in this industry share the low pay rates of the women’. However, since the early 1990s, research has shown that rather than hitting a glass ceiling, men working in the ‘female professions’ take a ride on what sociologist Christine Williams famously termed ‘the glass escalator’. In 1992, she wrote, ‘men take their gender privilege with them when they enter predominantly female occupations; this translates into an advantage in spite of their numerical rarity’. A decade later, Gary Koeske and William Krowinski found that American male social workers earned on average $3500 more than their female colleagues, and that women received about 90 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts.

According to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency a similar dynamic exists in Australia, with ‘some of the highest gender pay gaps found in female dominated industries including health care and social assistance’. In 2012, former social worker Joseph Wakim wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that prior to the 2011 FWA ruling, men employed in face-to-face client work were too lowly paid to buy decent cars or establish families: ‘[They] could not make ends meet, so they ambitiously sought senior management roles or jumped ship to another profession.’ The unfortunate inference here is that women social workers have been comparatively passive about their value, and happily accepted low pay and poor work conditions, when in fact they may have been systematically forced off the glass escalator.

In spite of the 2011 FWA ruling, newly qualified social workers are most likely to nominate low pay as the reason for leaving in the profession. Last year, one recent graduate told Queensland researcher Karen Healy

[the] work load is high and job enjoyment is hindered by a lack of or underfunding from the Department of Communities. It is disturbing that most of the higher paid, management jobs in the human service sector are full time and place great strain on families.

The strong suggestion here is that those in non-government social and community services who seek to work part time in order to raise a family are financially and professionally penalised. Of course, this is the case across the entire Australian workforce. It is exasperating, however, that in a profession charged with implementing notions of social justice, employees who are also engaged in non-paid caring roles (predominantly women) are as poorly treated – if not more so – than the rest of the female workforce.

Aside from union agitation, what else will make the social services sector fairer? Lazzari argues that feminist (male and female) social workers in leadership positions must resist a ‘leader–follower definition, a replication of the domination –subordination social order’ found in male models of leadership. Though this is a significant challenge given the hierarchical structure of most organisations, she suggests feminist managers ‘share the power and privilege of [their] position’ and ‘use collaborative, transparent, and reflective methods to create and implement policies that eliminate barriers to inclusive participation and increase the equality of those [they] serve’.

I come back finally to education. Over the next twenty years, social work as a profession will be responsible for both advocating for and implementing a fairer Australia. On a macro and micro level, social workers will be working against the social injustices wrought by a free market system, increasingly conservative government policies, and entrenched male privilege. Current social work students must know Australia’s feminist past: learning what measures Australian feminists have taken in the past to improve women’s lives would instil confidence in their own capacity to promote gender equality. It is also essential that social work courses offer students a comprehensive education on the structural causes of gender discrimination in Australia – not just so they may adequately advocate for themselves as workers – but for the female clients they will work with in the future. In the meantime, on my campus I’m going to establish a feminism and social work reading group.


* Names have been changed


Image: A Woman’s Work is Never Done’ / Jimmy Brown

Madeleine Hamilton

Madeleine Hamilton is the author of is the author of Our girls: Aussie pin-ups of the forties and fifties. Her writing has been published by Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Meanjin and Eureka Street.

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  1. Truly inspirational article, thank you for spelling it out, we need more of these. I miss my doctoral supervisor Late Associate Professor Wendy Weeks. In her writing and teaching she fought for social work practice to embed the feminist lens. She challenged conservative social workers and social work academics. There is a fantastic book edited by her Women working Together, this is my bible when I need to reflect on social work practice using the gendered approach. I hope you have get a chance to read it or you might have come across it.

  2. Great article Madeleine! I’m doing my social work masters at the moment and 100% agree, especially the part about men riding a ‘glass escalator’ of privilege despite there being so few men in my course. Are you able to provide references for the sources you mentioned?

    Thank you!

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