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Coping with sexist trolling has been part of the job, says England's chief social worker

Isabelle Trowler highlights "shocking" online abuse during event to mark International Women's Day...

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 8 March, 2021

England’s chief social worker for children Isabelle Trowler spoke of the sexist trolling she has endured on social media, including from other practitioners, since taking on the job.

Trowler was one of a number of speakers discussing women in leadership roles within social work at an online event to mark International Women’s Day.

During the webinar, organised by Social Work England at the start of the regulator’s week-long celebration of social work, she said: “The greatest exposure to sexism in my professional life has been without doubt in this role.

“In social media I am trolled relentlessly, portrayed through hyper-sexual metaphors, references to sexually transmitted diseases, portrayed as a dipsy, brainless blonde.

“It is so shocking. And the most shocking is that some of this stuff is created and circulated by social workers.”

Trowler added the public-facing nature of her role meant she has also been exposed “to some very serious threats, including death threats”.

Trowler became England’s first chief social worker for children and families in 2013. Before that she was known for co-developing the influential Reclaiming Social Work model while assistant head of children’s services at London’s Hackney Council.

Trowler urged women in leadership roles to do all they can to support others into senior positions.

“I fundamentally believe the single most important thing an individual can do is that you help others up the ladder. That you spot potential talent whether you are a team manager or supervisor, or director of children’s services, or a chief social worker - you spot talent at the most junior levels you can reach and you make a beeline for them and you help them get through.

"They must get there on their own merit but you can inspire and encourage and push.”

Once in positions of authority, she urged female leaders to “create a culture of kindness and flex as well as ambition and opportunity”.

Some of the barriers to women progressing, particularly those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, were highlighted by Rashida Baig, Croydon Council’s head of social work with families.

Baig, who was made an MBE in the New Year Honours, said: “There is a gap between merit and success which is difficult to understand.

“The roles are given to those who look and act the part. Research by the Centre for Talent and Innovation reveal that the top jobs often elude women and professionals of colour because they lack executive presence or under-estimate its importance and simply do not get the guidance to acquire it.”

One of the three pillars of executive presence, as outlined by Sylvia Hewlett, a US-based expert on workplace power and influence, was appearance, said Baig. Research showed women and people from black and ethnic minority backgrounds struggled against what was seen to constitute the norms of this.

Women in positions of power needed the “powerful backing” of their organisations to enable them to “inspire, propel and protect” others through upper management, said Baig.

Fran Leddra, England’s interim joint chief social worker for adults, spoke about the traits she saw in her mother that helped shape her approach to leadership.

“Between the age of 12 and 14 I suffered a lot of bullying at school. My mother was always alongside me, would always talk about how I was feeling.

“She befriended a local woman who had Schizophrenia - that was in the 70s when people didn’t understand about mental health. Everyone would bully her, but mum would go shopping with her.

“My mum wasn’t a leader but she stood above everyone else and said this is a woman who needs support. She taught me really important lessons for anyone aspiring to be a leader.

"Mum said be kind.”

Outlining other important leadership traits, Leddra listed authenticity, honesty, courage and self-awareness.

And giving advice to other aspiring leaders, she said: “Challenge yourself – it’s okay to feel uncomfortable. Push yourself through the pain threshold. You have to make yourself do things that sometimes feel uncomfortable. That is good and is character building.”

Leddra urged people in leadership positions to be guided by doing “the right thing”.

“When you are grappling with a particular issue and in a position of authority, in the end it always comes down to what is the right thing to do. If you do that you end up doing the right thing for yourself and the organisation.”

Sarah Blackmore, executive director for strategy, policy and engagement at Social Work England, also stresed the need for authenticity in leaders.

"One of the biggest lessons I have learned is the most effective leaders share their vulnerabilities. That authenticity is more important than pretending you know it all.

"I know I will never have all the answers, but what is more important in my position is to have all the questions. To create a platform for bigger and better answers and to surround myself with good people and then get out of their way."