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Social Work’s Gender Problem

Its ranks are overwhelmingly female. Bringing more men into the field would improve the way it deals with family and parenting issues.

Protests across the nation have forced us to confront toxic relations between police departments and the citizens they are sworn to serve. With many troubled urban communities being primarily black and their police departments being overwhelmingly white, "we/they" thinking hampers cooperation, heightens police officers' fear and defensiveness, worsens the risk of police over-reaction, and leaves many citizens feeling abused and mistreated.

We are beginning to see the importance of diversity and inclusiveness as an antidote. We are coming to understand that we need more black police officers, especially in police work with black citizens. With that in mind, this seems an opportune time to take notice of a similar and intricately connected problem that needs to be put on the stove at least to simmer. It may be even tougher to digest than the problem between citizens and police. But the lack of gender diversity among America's social workers is an issue of profound importance for our communities that gets little attention.

State and local departments of social services are like police departments in important ways. Both enforce policies and regulations that can have lasting and deeply emotional impact on the people they deal with. Both have discretion and must use good judgment in handling the cases they face. Both are vulnerable to having their actions and decisions swayed by stereotypes and bias. And both have a diversity problem.

Social work's diversity problem may be even worse than law enforcement's. While minorities make up more than 27 percent of police departments nationwide, men make up barely 16 percent of the ranks of social workers, according to federal data. And a look at social-work education suggests that the trend continues in the wrong direction: According to the Council on Social Work Education, just 13.3 percent of the recipients of master's degrees in social work in 2015 identified as male. In 1964, the figure was 42.1 percent.

So, ironically, a field that loudly proclaims its commitment to diversity and inclusiveness lags far behind one that is often thought to be insular, secretive, conservative and hidebound. Law enforcement is taking concrete, meaningful action to address its diversity problem. Social work is doing nothing of the sort.

The result is that the field of social work does a poor job of dealing with family issues in ways that take into account the needs of both men and women -- and the children they parent. As a 2015 study of social-work practices in Connecticut reported, some fathers complained that "being male put them at a disadvantage and that case workers often took the side of the mother before initial contact with the father was made." Nearly two decades ago, Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote that "the far greater crime rate among Afro-American men must in great part be explained by their unmarried and largely unpartnered existence." In 2013, British researchers found that while "friends are equally important to men and women … family matters more for men's well-being."

But while supportive services for parenting and other social relationships are the functional charge and ethical duty of social work, the field has proven to be disinterested and ill-equipped to deal with relationship inequality between men and women, fathers and mothers. And schools of social work seem to have little interest in the issue. After a long teaching career and a systematic review of a decade's worth of journal articles and textbooks, Jordan Kosberg, a professor of social work at the University of Alabama, concluded that "social workers do not receive necessary preparation for understanding and working with heterosexual males."

Social work explains its gender problem by saying that men are motivated by high salaries, which social work does not provide, while women are motivated by caring. This sweepingly sexist sentiment points to the fundamental problem: The field is ambivalent about whether men belong in its ranks. If it resolved to do so, social work could attract men by assuring them they would be welcome and their perspectives valued in a field that desperately needs more maleness.

Law enforcement isn't the only field of public service with an urgent need for diversity. Police work is too white. Social work is too pink. At the insistence of City Hall, law enforcement is dealing with its diversity problem. Social work needs similar motivation to deal with its own.

A social worker and advocate for gender diversity in social services
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