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IASW in the news - Fewer male social workers leads to gender bias, says TCD academic

  • 22 Feb 2016

Dr Helen Buckley says lack of men in the field means fathers are often not engaged with

Fiona Gartland, Irish Times

22nd February 2016

The gender imbalance among child protection social workers has led to an unwitting bias against fathers, according to a leading academic in the field.

Dr Helen Buckley, associate professor at the school of social work and social policy, TCD, said child protection work is “extremely gendered” and “fathers are often not engaged with”.

Female social workers are less fearful of mothers, find it easier to speak to them and mothers are more available, she said. Fathers may be absent, but still involved in the child’s life, and the importance of that role isn’t always recognised.

“Men wouldn’t discriminate to the same degree because they would identify with their role in the family,” Dr Buckley said. “If you had more men you might restore those balances a bit more because you would have greater awareness of gender equality.”

Only 15 per cent of social workers in the Health Service Executive and Tusla,the Child and Family Agency, are men, new figures show.

The HSE employs 1,194 social workers, in areas including mental health and primary care, and, of these, 176 are men. There are 1,561 social workers in Tusla and 234 are men.

There are 3,935 social workers, including those working in private organisations, registered to practice in Ireland with regulator Coru. The organisation could not provide a gender breakdown, but it is thought to be in line with HSE and Tusla figures.

Below average

Male representation is below the international average and the average in England, where 20 per cent of social workers registered with the Health and Care Professions Council are men.

In Irish colleges, research by social worker Alan McHugh, formerly of TCD, shows 17 per cent of students taking masters in social work courses between 2012 and 2014 were men.

This year at TCD, two men and 20 women are in the final year of the masters course, and, of 44 students in the final year of the social work degree course, eight are men.

Dr Buckley said an increasing number of referrals to Tusla are about out-of-control young people and a lot of that is associated with early exposure to family violence and role models.

“I wouldn’t be saying if these young people had male social workers they would do better, but any positive role-modelling of males is probably a good thing,” she said.

State-employed social workers earn from €36,000 to €73,000, depending on grade and experience. But, according to Dr Buckley, the proportion of senior grades is small and the majority of social workers do not progress.

‘More driven’

She said it was interesting how male-dominated the management structure of Tusla is, considering it deals with a largely female profession, that deals largely with women.

“I’m not saying there is positive discrimination towards men in promotions; men are more driven to apply for those jobs,” she said.

Donal O’Malley, chairman of the Irish Association of Social Workers, said if social workers are biased against fathers, it is not because of gender, but because mothers end up being the primary care-givers and the fathers often are far more difficult to engage with. They might be in prison, are more likely to be drug users, or have significant alcohol problems.

“I don’t know if men being in that situation would be any more sympathetic towards the fathers,” he said.

Mr O’Malley conceded that it can take more men in an organisation to champion the needs of men and “remind people not to forget about the fathers”.

He highlighted lower pay as a barrier to attracting males to social work.

“Any profession predominantly female tends to be lower-paid and poorer-resourced, that makes it less attractive to men,” he said.

Apart from pay, he felt an increase in the visibility of male social workers might help to attract more men to the profession. And, in the education system, there needed to be a greater “sense of civil society” and “looking after each other”, and that needed to infiltrate to primary-school level.