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Blog: 'We have to develop a narrative of social work based on gender equality'

Allison Hulmes, BASW Cymru National Director, writes a thought-provoking piece connecting #IWD2021 with the theme of Ubuntu

It is fitting that International Women’s Day in 2021 has fallen this March, when we are celebrating World Social Work Month in the British Association of Social Workers. 

Both are global events and the World Social Work month theme of ‘Ubuntu, I am because we are’ fits well with the International Women’s Day theme of #ChooseToChallenge.

Choose to challenge ask us to call out gender inequality, to actively seek out women’s achievements and create a truly inclusive world.

Social work has mostly been the invisible profession during this pandemic. The essential work undertaken to support and protect children, adults and our elders has largely gone unnoticed, despite social work being a service that uplifts and supports the very fabric of society. 

In the UK and globally, social work is overwhelmingly undertaken by women, so one may ask: Is this the reason that the essential work of social workers has largely been ignored and undervalued - and why the average lifespan of a social worker is so short - average 6 – 8 years? 

Throughout the pandemic we have continued to speak directly to social workers, to ensure their voices are heard loudly and clearly and to campaign for the right equipment - PPE, practice guidance, access to child-care, testing, vaccination and most importantly, recognition! 

In these conversations, social workers, it is women who have spoken about their struggles to combine working from home with childcare, other unpaid caring responsibilities, and domestic chores. What is clear in these conversations is that the ‘traditional’ domestic tasks and caring roles are still falling disproportionately on them. Women who are being asked to undertake complex work with high levels of accountability and public censure, from home – places that should be sacred spaces for nurturing and healing. 

This extra burden has been called ‘women’s mental load’ and speaks to the invisible labour that mainly falls on women - to manage and organise children and household. It manifests as constant mental alertness, anticipation, and accommodation of the needs of others. 

Social workers who are either parents or having other unpaid caring responsibilities have described to us how this can impact on a usual working day. They describe the organisation that needs to happen and of being exhausted by the time they get to the office at the start of the ‘working’ day. This process takes as long as two hours and is repeated daily.

The mental load is compounded by the loss of dedicated free parking and desk space - resulting from the pernicious and incremental loss to employment terms and conditions - so social workers have the stress of trying to find somewhere to park and a place to sit and work, whilst the clock is ticking on their first meeting. 

It is no wonder that so many social workers report feeling burned out and that these feelings are at a whole new level because of the pandemic. Should issues such as parking at work and hot-desking be reframed as equality ones?

Ubuntu, the theme of World Social Work Month this year, speaks to our interconnectedness - and we cannot achieve this or thrive whilst women are oppressed. 

We have to develop a narrative of social work which is about gender equality and as a global human rights-based profession, committed to social justice we must #ChooseToChallenge and not accept the cultural norms and gender discrimination that perpetuates this inequality.

On the 8th March 2021 Choose To Challenge!

Watch Allison Hulmes take part in a recent discussion on Universal Basic Income and how it might be used to help address structural gender equalities.