Today is International Women’s Day and this year's organisers have thrown down the gauntlet! The theme for 2021 is direct - clearly aimed to prod, poke, provoke: “Choose to challenge – how will you help to forge a gender equal world?”
Social work stands out in many ways, and not least because of the high proportion of women who have forged successful careers there. We know that altruism and empathy are crucial attributes for practitioners, but the willingness to discuss the need to care, the desire to help and make a difference may have suffered from its historical association with traditionally female, feminine carers.
Mary Portas has written widely about what she sees as a disconnect between the male-dominated ‘alpha culture’ she experienced in business in the 1990s, and the values-driven approach she favours: “Covid-19 has crystallised a social and economic movement that has been bubbling under this past decade,” she says. “We’ve seen mass introspection and a re-examination of how we live and want to live.”
Portas thinks the answer might be what she calls the ‘Kindness Economy’, which has a triple bottom line consisting of people, planet, profit, in that order. “Put people first and it will be us that can make that change happen. And this means both people in your business and people outside your business. Not consumers or staff: people.”
Despite its decency, there’s nothing soft about this approach. Portas believes that when people have the freedom they need to support each other, to collaborate and to encourage mutual trust, they grow and develop: “I’m not talking about being nice,” she says, “I’m talking about being kind. Kindness has a fierceness at the heart of it, because it’s about doing what’s right.”
When we asked the social workers we work with about their female role models, Becky Jenkinson from Blackpool reflected that the people she has admired throughout her career share common characteristics. Three women, a coordinator at her voluntary role, a co-worker and a personal tutor are “very different characters with diverse ways of working,” she says, and they have been inspirational because “they all have the courage and ability to be true to their values of humanity even where this means they are challenged or ridiculed”.
International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to acknowledge the enormous impact of social work’s female-dominated workforce, and to applaud the fierce, brave, feminine force it represents. Of course gender equality is crucial, but sometimes it's the need to ‘level up’ that matters.