Part 4. Sexism and Sex Discrimination in the Workplace – In conversation with a Trade Union Official

Social Workers Union Blog Series | Social workers are facing discrimination and disadvantage with employers | Part 4. Sexism and Sex Discrimination in the Workplace – In conversation with a Trade Union Official

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).

I met with BASW A&R Officer – SWU TUO Lisa Fitzpatrick, a lifelong trade unionist.  Lisa first studied sociology, which focuses on inequality in society, before going on to become a social worker specialising in child protection and fostering form F assessments.

A photo of SWU Trade Union Officer (TUO) Lisa Fitzpatrick

When you meet Lisa her passion as a trade union official is abundantly potent, as is her commitment to social work values.  She feels fortunate to be in a job she loves, where she strives to empower others to be optimistic and challenge employment processes and decisions.  Commenting, she feels privileged meeting and working with women at varying stages of their life cycle.  I meet people at transitional life stages when they begin their careers and towards the end of them: newly qualified social workers (20’s – 30’s) going through ASYE; when they have maternity needs; returning to work with young children; working hard in to their 50’s – 60’s when career demands and mid-life caring responsibilities impact on health; and finally retirement. 

It is not unknown for women in social work to push themselves near to the point of death because they are so busy caring for others, neglecting their own needs, possibly because of a culture shaped by patriarchal influence. 

They have to prioritise work, we all know the difficulties in managing the weight of the job and finding a work life balance, ignoring personal impact so they don’t miss promotions and mitigate fears of performance management… is there a machismo culture? There are still more men at the top in these organisations.

Lisa has told me of the many women she encounters nearing retirement, and subject to scrutiny overlooking personal sacrifices they have made for social work, encountering unfair employer processes because of time off for health issues (often exacerbated by working conditions).  Employer absence policies can be incredibly brutal, and at times HR staff demonstrate lack of compassion for workers stating, “I’m here as an advisor to the manager.” 

Covid heightened attention to the punitive nature of sickness procedures and policies, and the inflexibility of flexible working rights.  Some people sadly experienced multiple bereavements and needed significant time off.  On return there may have been need for reasonable adjustments for health reasons.  However, if there was another absence for anything aside from a cold it immediately triggered as the same episode of absence, plunging into sickness procedures again with a “do not pass go” – straight to stage 3 or 4. 

Lisa asserts in such instances employers riskily overlook legal protections for carers under sex discrimination within the Equalities Act 2010.

Are employers and society recognising or accommodating the increased demands many women in social work face?

It is so important that employers are protecting pregnant staff at work – members report working long hours and suffering excessive stress and work overload when pregnant. Maternal stress and anxiety can alter the development of a baby’s brain.

Lisa finds it inexcusable that employers are not taking health and safety duties seriously pregnancy risk assessments should be completed and need to be reviewed regularly throughout to minimise risks to the worker and their child. Such assessments can guide the need for reduced caseloads and volume of visits. It is important to raise formally if employers are not complying with their responsibilities – consider taking out a grievance.  

The Flexible Working Act 2023 has not availed the increased rights we hoped for. 

On return to work from maternity there there may be need for flexible working arrangements, sometimes as a reasonable adjustment. 

Lisa says return from maternity leave can be high tariff with childcare unaffordable to most working people and the cost-of-living crisis compounding financial worries many women need adaptable working arrangements.  Some people seek compressed hours but encounter opposition with managers citing requests conflict with business needs.  

It’s important to follow the processes that exist and ensure requests are recorded, these can be monitored for impact on recruitment and retention issues. If requests are refused, appeal if there are grounds… evidence how it can work, and not affect the service.

Don’t think, “Oh, what’s the point?” There is always a point. If it is feasible and possible – it can happen!  

In Lisa’s experience a fresh pair of eyes and a robust argument can win appeals and reiterates it’s important to follow the policies and processes that exist.  Post-Covid some members re-evaluated their overall priorities, for multiple reasons, and sought to reduce hours.  Many social work teams do function with staff working different hours – this can be beneficial for the team.

Concluding our conversation Lisa said something we don’t have acknowledged often by the public, employers, media, and even ourselves: social workers are people too, and many are unpaid carers. Lisa would love to see research done with retired social workers, life story work, to truly reflect the lives of social workers – how much they take on and manage and the impact on them as people.

What more can we be doing as a trade union to help women? 

If you need advice on workplace issues, contact the BASW/SWU Advice & Representation Service here.

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).