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Women Concerns as Social Workers in the Workplace

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On June 17th, 2014, Social Work Helper Magazine co-hosted a Virtual Town Hall with National Association of Social Workers (NASW -NC) by simultaneously conducting a Live Twitter Chat and Facebook Forum to identify concerns of women as social workers in the workplace. The town hall was held in preparation for the upcoming White House Summit on Working Families on June 23rd, 2014. Participants were asked to host local events in order to help identify priorities for the summit, and  As Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper Magazine, I will be in attendance at the Summit with President Obama.

working_families_summit_social_inviteAs a female dominated profession, approximately 80 percent of social workers are women, yet men overwhelming hold key leadership, administrative, and executive positions. The virtual town hall explored issues such as gender pay equity, sick leave, maternity leave, promotion/retention, workplace discrimination, and workplace safety. 

The key issues arriving from the live twitter chat were pay equity and the need for national unionization comparable to teachers, nursing, and law enforcement. The Facebook Forum most active discussions were workplace safety and the ability to use sick leave for self-care when needed. However, the consensus from both platforms is that no one felt safe reporting issues of with pay equity, sick leave, maternity leave, promotion/retention or workplace safety.  Dr. Michael Wright a professor at Tennessee State University who participated in the live Twitter chat stated, “When your job is what stands between you and homelessness, you don’t rock the boat”.

One woman made a profound statement in which I hid her comment from public view to help prevent any retaliation whether real or perceived. She expressed concern about hoping her comment does not hurt her job, but she also expressed the need to share with people who may understand.

As a woman who was out in the field with another woman three weeks ago when I was assaulted by a client with a brick in the head, I’m really tired of having safety training on fire extinguishers (which there are none in my building and it’s been evacuated due to fire twice in six months), but none on what I could have done differently when faced with a psychotic child with a brick. I love my job, but don’t feel I can turn a blind eye this time. Something needs to change. #workplacesafety

Law enforcement officers which is a male dominated profession requires at minimum a high school diploma and are often paid higher than an entry level Master of Social Work graduate working in the public sector of a female dominated profession. Despite both jobs being classified as hazardous by local, state, and federal agencies, social workers are often denied comparable overtime, time off, and other benefits given to law enforcement officers. When social workers witness or experience trauma or fatalities, there is no mandatory counseling or fitness for duty assessment to ensure the social worker is emotionally prepared for duty.

Social workers have  been denied the additional workplace safety protections given to law enforcement officers despite both law enforcement and social workers operating under statutory authority and hazardous conditions in the public sector. Some agencies do not even provide social workers with an agency vehicle or cell phone, and social workers are often required to utilize personal assets in order to perform job duties. Social workers are not given any self-defense, no radios, have no weapons, no backup, are often alone, and have no communications center to call for help to know someone is coming.

According to a 2007 Hill Briefing on Social Work Safety Issues,

A disturbing trend of violence against social workers and other human service professionals was mentioned in a letter sent to legislators by the bill’s sponsors. In April 2005, a woman in Texas fired a shotgun at two social workers visiting her home. In March 2006, The New York Times reported that Sally Blackwell, a social worker, was found dead in a field just outside of Austin, Texas. Throughout the investigation, her family said that threats were a daily part of Sally’s life as a social worker investigating accusations of child abuse and neglect with the power to remove children from their homes.

Two surveys conducted by the National Association of Social Workers in the last few years have found that job-related violence and the threat of such violence are common. In a 2002 survey, among 800 social workers, 19 percent had been victims of violence, and 63 percent had been threatened. In a 2006 national study of the licensed social work labor force, 44% of 5,000 respondents said that they face personal safety issues in their primary employment practice.

The current bill, H.R. 2165, would establish a grant program to provide for safety measures such as GPS equipment, self-defense training, conflict prevention, facility safety and more. It would also help with educational resources and materials to train staff on safety and awareness measures. The bill calls for Congress to authorize $5 million per year for the next five years and require states to provide 50 percent matching funds.  Read Full Briefing

Unfortunately, this bill and many others to address the debt of becoming a social worker do not go anywhere in Congress. Social Workers are often under a mountain of student loan debt in order to provide services to those within the margins. The unfortunate part is that many social workers and  social work students working in mandatory unpaid internships are living in the margins along with their clients. Many are having to rely on public assistance and programs in order to make ends meet and take care of their families.

Last year in New Orleans, a social worker named Ashley Qualls was murdered on her way home. Social Work Helper did a story on Ashley Qualls’ death when A&E First 48 Hours aired an episode with the detectives who continue to look for those responsible for her death.

Tulane School of Social Work graduate, Ashley Qualls, was working at a substance abuse treatment center when she was gunned down while walking home from work. Although Ashley was from South Carolina, she moved her family to New Orleans believing they would have more opportunity in a larger city. Each day, she rode public transportation to work, but at night she was forced to walk the 3.5 miles home because public transportation had stopped running. Read Full Article

It is my hope that events such as the White House Summit for working families will begin to acknowledge the specific challenges women working as social workers face in the workplace in order to serve others and take care of their own families. To view the storify of the Virtual Town Hall, you can visit this link.

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Deona Hooper, MSW is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Social Work Helper, and she has experience in nonprofit communications, tech development and social media consulting. Deona has a Masters in Social Work with a concentration in Management and Community Practice as well as a Certificate in Nonprofit Management both from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

          
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