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International Women’s Day: Choose to Challenge

Blog by Carys Phillips, Social Workers Union Chair and Gerry Nosowska, BASW UK Chair

Carys and Gerry – It is great to write this blog together. The theme for International Women’s day this year is ‘choose to challenge’.   For us, this highlights how we social workers can collectively and individually speak up for women’s rights and for equality (in line with our Code of Ethics).

Social work is a profession that experiences sex discrimination, works with people who face this, and operates in a culture and society where this is embedded.

The pre-existing inequalities have been magnified and made worse during COVID-19.  Caring responsibilities, work and economic inequality are gendered, so both our workforce and the people we work with face growing challenges.

As social Workers are all too aware, sex discrimination interacts and overlaps with other oppressions to create a host of barriers (see Rebekah Pierre’s fantastic blog for more).

Social workers are critical thinkers that understand the social policy decisions that have impacted society and are trained in challenging injustices.  It is our ethics and values that lead us to challenge personal, cultural and structural barriers that women face.

Gerry – BASW UK’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion must have women’s rights and intersectionality at its heart.  Our campaigns – for better working conditions and to tackle poverty (in partnership with SWU) must take sexism into account.

As social workers face greater hardship, the Social Workers Benevolent Trust will be increasingly important, and we will continue to promote its work. BASW is the UK member to the International Federation of Social Workers so we can also contribute to international work to enact and protect women’s rights. This includes work that we are doing with IFSW Europe to support professional associations to challenge populist policies.

At our last Annual General Meeting, BASW passed a motion acknowledging that diversity in gender identity is rapidly evolving and social work is not matching the pace.  As an evidence-informed profession, we need to understand and meet the needs of people with lived experience, so BASW will be working to identify support for social workers and students to develop capability in this sphere.

Gerry Nosowska, BASW UK Chair

Carys – Social Work by its nature is relational and develops human relationships to enable and empower those we come into contact with. This role is impacted by the very nature of the organisational structures and harsh edges of government policy, and results in many cases of vicarious trauma and moral distress.

The combined benefits of a professional organisation of BASW and the Trade Union status the Social Workers Union (SWU) brings is perhaps reflective of recent growth in members for both organisations. This also illustrates the positive reputation and ‘word of mouth’ of the excellent support given by the Advice and Representation officers (who are all Trade Union Officials). This connectedness is further strengthened by ‘Union Contacts Scheme’ scheme that offers support that promotes meaningful change and support network.

The Social Work profession has a long history of exploring the unequal reality of men occupying positions of power and influence and the consequential impacts on the delivery of social work services.

SWU is committed to best practice and it seeks to promote the voices of social workers in order to bring about positive change. ‘Experience is not a second-rate form of knowledge - it is a crucial step in developing theoretical and empirical material’ (Carter et al 1992).  SWU recognises the structural blocks that part-time social workers face and actively support and welcome their expert views.

As social workers we are trained to assess the impact social policy has on the individual in our society, whilst striving to work day to day with the realities of childcare, caring responsibilities and everyday sexism in the workplace culture - experience tells us there is an increasing hegemonic masculinity in many organisations we encounter.

SWU has become the fastest growing union in Europe and is 10 years old this year.

Society and politicians have had to recognise that inequality is neither inevitable nor natural. The Social Work profession works within all aspects of the margins of society and has a proud history of advocating and campaigning.

Carys Phillips, Social Workers Union Chair

Gerry and Carys – International Women’s Day is a chance to recognise the particular needs that women have in our workforce, our work and our society, and to commit to challenging inequality.

Together we can collectively advocate through our professional association and specialist Trade Union.

Social workers can use the Working Conditions Toolkit to help with self-care and collective action to gain workplace support. Organisations should enable this for ethical and practical reasons – as our colleague Laura points out: ‘Lack of equality in employment contributes to a lack of equality in society - this is a real issue that needs to be addressed and can no longer be ignored’ (Laura Sheridan, SWU/BASW Advice & Representation Advisor/TU Official).

Social workers can also use the Anti-Poverty Practice Guide to understand the gendered experience of poverty, and to work with communities and allies to challenge poverty.

International Women’s Day is also an important opportunity to celebrate women’s contribution to social work and therefore to our society. And to say thank you to all the women who have shaped our profession and who continue to make a difference every day.

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