What makes me who I am, and others who they are? What makes me a woman, and someone else a man? While looking to decipher my identity, I often wonder what traits I have learned from the environments in which I have lived, and what skills I am more inclined to be good at due to my biology. Am I qualified to do my job because of a social construct that I have always lived? Or am I inherently good at the skills I need to complete my job? The question of nature versus nurture is as old as time, and will never be black and white. But the reality is that humans have a diversity of skills, and they can change based on the environment that they inhabit. Recognizing this is an opportunity for all humans to be powerful agents of change.
According to the Bureau of Labor, 83% of people working in the field of social work are women. Additionally, the field is often described as a “female majority, male-dominated” occupation due to the distribution of power among most social workers. (1) That is staggering! As someone who has spent time working with at-risk teens in a wilderness setting and with their families in their homes, this gender stratification has been my experience as well. I and the majority of my colleagues are female, though all members of the board of directors that I work with are male.
Further, many of the skills that are critical to working in social work professions are traits that are often associated with women in our society. For example, skills such as patience, empathy, compassion, and self-awareness are all stereotypically feminine traits. Yet, these are skills that I work to teach all of my students because these skills are beneficial for everyone. With a bit more compassion and self-awareness, we can improve relationships with our neighbors. With a bit more empathy and patience, we can be happier in our jobs. With these skills, we can have less violence in our society. We can let people around us know what we need. The list could go on and on. And without these skills, our society is a much grimmer place.
While I am working with male students, I often reflect on how the skills that I am demonstrating may, at times, reinforce the existing stereotypes or notions that they have of women. For example, my students may expect that I am empathetic simply because I am a woman. That does not make empathy any less valuable for them to learn. But, it may influence their judgment of what skills are essential for them to learn. To have more men occupying social work roles, and women holding leadership roles could be an incredibly powerful statement for these teens. This statement shows that self-awareness or compassion, or any other social skill, has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with being a more prosperous and happier human.
Whether these specific social skills are inherent or taught, they can be and must be shared with everyone. Broader representation of social workers and leadership from a diversity of identities and backgrounds is a great place to begin. Beyond that, we all can continue to demonstrate the ways in which gender stereotypes do not define the people who we are. And we can all continue to model social skills such as empathy, patience, and compassion with whoever we encounter in our lives – taking small steps towards the people we want to be, and the world that we want to live in.
(1) McPhail, B. (2004). Setting the Record Straight: Social Work Is Not a Female-Dominated Profession. Social Work, 49(2), 323-326.