Part 3. The Problem: Sexism and Sex Discrimination

Social Workers Union Blog Series | Social workers are facing discrimination and disadvantage with employers | Part 3. The Problem: Sexism and Sex Discrimination

SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher continues his series of two-part articles about trends that have been brought to his attention by SWU-BASW Advice and Representation (A&R) Workers / Trade Union Officials (TUO).

These are significant issues specific to the discrimination and disadvantage social workers are facing with employers, because of the actions of individuals or the cultures of organisations.

A QI fact that stunned me to silence during a lockdown family quiz:

Globally, women are the only majority group to be consistently disadvantaged, oppressed and discriminated against.

Astounding for me but not my wife who told me my ignorance is consistent with being part of the patriarchy. I am told I am part of the problem; male privilege has been assured for centuries. To be clear I am not trying to mansplain sexism to any colleagues who identify as women, but I want to explore the problem of deeply embedded structural inequalities, the class system, whereby women are the original oppressed class.

Girls are told from early childhood who they are or should be via pervasive media influence and socialisation. Later in life as young adults to then be castigated for expression of liberal freedoms such as sexual identity.

Years back I went to a conference on domestic abuse and law reform. The trainer showed pictures of Dora the Explorer, to demonstrate how young girls are exposed to harmful patriarchal projections of image and worth. Look at a picture of Dora from the 1990’s compared to current. A child cartoon hero characterised as a sexualised child image. The impact of mass media on developing children is wholly unsanitary and exposes the pressures of gender socialisation from an early age.

This has worsened over several decades.

Girls experience sex discrimination from being toddlers. There is significant difference in the treatment of our children via pervasive influences such as media, societal expectations, and socialisation of gender.

Historically women have been observed and treated as the property of men. For instance, marriage, being walked down the aisle by one man and handed over to another like a possession. Renamed, not in tradition of sharing, as verbal branding. Also symbolic, how rape has been dealt with in the past – criminalised not because of the harm to women but as an offence against another man’s property. Despite us living in a liberal society, statutory or marital rape was only made illegal in the UK in 1992. You might argue there is still a tolerance of this when looking at questions of consent, and the inhuman treatment of victims of sexual crimes during criminal prosecutions.

Our institutions are fundamentally flawed by male privilege. Consider the narrative of women’s successes campaigning and protesting for equal rights, transformed into a negative, women were given the right to vote. Actually they took it, fought hard and died for it, yet still it fell to the decision of men to gift freedom like an expensive trinket. Patronising.

Sex discrimination in the workplace is less obvious than these stark examples.

It is enabled through unjust policies and practices, which come back to structural oppression.

Social work is a profession predominantly led by women. Social Work England (SWE) identified that 83% of registrants are women. Despite the dominance of women there is a disproportionate power imbalance and a high prevalence of sex discrimination.

The most common disadvantage I hear of is the direct impact of the lack of flexibility for workers, with less than 33% of jobs being available flexibly or part-time. It is common that women take on societal expectations as main carers in their families, but the division of domestic labour is unequal and rigidity in job markets directly disadvantage women who juggle contending roles. The lifelong gender pay gap is not solely related to promotion opportunities; women sacrifice their careers to care and take on part-time work or lesser roles to prioritise family life. This limits immediate income along with future pension and living standards. Something the Women Against State Pension Inequality can attest to.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 gives people the right to be treated equally in terms of pay in comparison to a member of the opposite sex. 78% of social work roles are occupied by women however on average earning almost £1 per hour less than male peers. The majority of the workforce is female (82%). Men are over represented in senior positions at 61/39% female to male split. In health and social care globally the average of pay division is worse, women earn 20-24% less than men.

If we have a workforce that is 82-83% women we need to ensure we can support and sustain most people who will, at some stage, experience menopause.

We need to prevent direct discrimination of age, disability, gender reassignment and sex. SWU Executive Committee member Chrissie Beattie wrote a prominent account of the health disparity for working women experiencing perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms.

Employers have a legal duty to assure health safety and welfare at work, to make individual reasonable adjustments, under Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Protection from discrimination on grounds of sex is explicitly prohibited by The Equality Act 2010. Sometimes employers need to be reminded of their duties via formal mechanisms.

In Part 4 of this collaborative blog series I will speak with a BASW A&R Worker / SWU TUO to glean their experiences of supporting members to address sex discrimination, and wisdom on how greater parity and justice might be achieved.

A photo of SWU Assistant General Secretary Calum Gallacher speaking at a podium

Calum Gallacher

SWU Assistant General Secretary

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Continue reading this SWU A&R blog series to learn about the discrimination and disadvantage social workers are facing with employers:

You may also be interested in reading “The ‘Hormotional’ Social Worker” blog by SWU Executive Committee UK Representative Chrissie Beatty and SWU’s leaflet “Menopause is a Trade Union issue – Let’s start a conversation about menopause at work” (PDF).