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Field supervision: women's work within a women's profession?


The history of social work abounds with stories of women who have been dedicated to social change (Kravetz 1976). Today women constitute the majority of practitioners, students and clients. In social work education, our supervisory traditions and practice wisdom can be traced to such women as Mary Richmond, Lucille Austin, Bertha Reynolds, Jessie Taft, Jane Addams, Virginia Robinson, Florence Hollis and Harriett Bartlett. Social work is undeniably a feminised profession. Yet, despite the numerical domination and the educational leadership provided by women, it could be argued that we have been less than successful in advancing the cause of our female members. Men have been more successful in furthering their own careers and work in managerial and administrative positions. Wearing (1996) noted that in Australia whilst women's participation in the labour force is increasing, industry and occupational segregation persists. Women's work is linked to caring work and family life and is concentrated in a small number of industries. This segmentation has a number of consequences for women including differences in earnings, limited promotional opportunities, job insecurity, and an undervalued contribution to the workplace.

Women constitute the majority of social workers and this numerical domination is continuing to grow (Martin and Healy 1993; Martin 1996). Despite this advantage, discrimination on the basis of gender has been found to disadvantage female members in respect of current income (Sowers-Hoag and Harrison 1991; York, Henley and Gamble 1987) and opportunities to meet their career goals (Munson 1982; Sutton 1982). Moreover, it would appear that women in social work are treated differently from male colleagues who are ostensibly of equal status (Stout and Kelly 1990).

Within social work vertical segregation is apparent. Vertical segregation is said to exist where male and females work in the same occupational group but males occupy the more senior and well paid positions (Wearing 1996). In social work, females are disproportionately employed in positions where they have direct contact with clients, whereas males are more likely to be found in administration and management (Dominelli 1991; Gibelman and Schervish 1993). As these latter types of work offer far greater opportunities for promotion than direct service work in most human service agencies, it has been estimated that male social workers are at least three times more likely than their female counterparts to have obtained senior administrative or executive positions (Ryan 1975; Bolger 1981). Even males who specialised in direct practice during their training are more likely to leave direct service for positions which do not involve client contact (Fortune and Hanks 1988). Thus it is not surprising that analysis of census data for those whose highest qualification is in social work revealed that males are more likely to describe their occupation as manager rather than as social worker (Martin 1996).

Gender segmentation is also apparent during training. When social work students were asked to predict the type of work they would be doing ten years later, females were five times as likely as males to indicate that they would be working in direct practice (Brager and Michael 1969). While this may reflect a genuine preference by women for direct service work (Brager and Michael 1969; Kravetz and Jones 1982), an alternate possibility is that career-oriented female social workers are socialised into nurturing roles such as direct service work and consequently do not perceive administration as an option available to them (Austin 1988).

While differential work is not necessarily a problem if both genders are given genuine career choices, discriminatory hiring and promotion practices have prevented many women attaining promotions (Bolger 1981). Furthermore once employed, males are more likely to receive paid time off, and have their expenses paid to attend continuing education programs concerned with developing management skills (Sutton 1982).

The differential employment patterns and vertical segmentation of male and female social workers could conceivably have an impact in respect of who is available to supervise students undertaking field placements. In Australia, where many schools of social work now require students to satisfactorily complete only two practice, it is generally expected that students complete at least one of these in a direct service setting, preferably where there is the possibility of the student gaining experience in casework, the area of direct practice in which females are disproportionately likely to be employed (Brager and Michael 1969). Not all direct practice agencies have a predominantly female workforce. For example, the corrections area is one of the few areas with a higher proportion of male social workers (Bolger 1981; Healy 1982). However, in this type of agency, few placements are offered to students (Cooper and Crisp 1998).

Even if they were not overwhelmingly employed in positions in which there would seem to be greater opportunities for supervising students, there may be sound educational reasons for schools of social work to recruit female supervisors. Females may well provide better supervision (Munson 1979), especially if the claim that they have "remained the standard-bearers of social work theory and practice" (Kravetz 1976:422) could be validated. Indeed, at least one school of social work has actively sought to recruit female supervisors by developing a student unit within a feminist agency (Melville 1987). It has also been suggested that female students be placed with female supervisors who work in administrative roles who can act as mentors (Faver, Fox and Shannon 1983). Furthermore, it has been contended that in some situations, placing a female student with a male supervisor could have serious negative consequences for the student (Shardlow and Doel 1996).

Many practitioners have regarded student supervision as women's work. The work is associated with women because it is predominantly educative and supportive, demanding sustained interaction and intense personal relationships. This paper begins to explore the gender differences in the provision of field education. Specifically, it tests the hypothesis that student supervision is disproportionately the province of female social workers, using archival material held by the School of Social Administration and Social Work at The Flinders University of South Australia in Adelaide. The gender distribution of South Australian social workers is similar to the national average (Healy 1982) and Flinders graduates have previously been found to be similar to social work graduates from elsewhere on a range of variables (Lindsay 1989).

Method and Results

During 1994, we conducted an audit of field placements undertaken by social work students at The Flinders University of South Australia, in Adelaide between 1989 and 1993. This identified 425 individuals who had acted as either a professional or task supervisor for the 529 student placements which had occurred during this period. Crossmatching our list of supervisors from this period with listings of the school's graduates (graduation booklets indicating name at graduation and alumni records indicating most current names) revealed that 116 of these supervisors had completed their initial social work qualification at Flinders. For each of these 116, details relating to their gender and year of qualifying were recorded. On finding that these supervisors had completed their training between 1968 and 1989, total numbers of female and male qualifying students for each of these years were obtained from the university's listings of graduates. Table 1 provides information relating to the gender and year of qualifying for both the 116 supervisors and all 671 Flinders social work graduates during this period.

Overall, female (17.5 percent) and male (16.9 percent) Flinders graduates were similarly likely to have supervised a Flinders student on placement between 1989 and 1993. Chi-square analysis confirmed no significant gender difference ([c.sup.2] (1) = .04, n.s.). Nevertheless, if females are more likely to work long-term in positions in which there would be greater opportunities or expectations that they supervise students, it was possible that gender discrepancies in respect of student supervision may exist among subsamples of the graduates. Therefore we divided the supervisors and graduates into three groups; those qualifying between 1968 and 1974, 1975 to 1982, and 1983 to 1989. While the proportion of males who qualified as a social worker was just over a quarter for the 1968 to 1974 (27.4 percent) and 1983 to 1989 (28.7 percent) groups, between 1975 and 1982 males constituted closer to half (41.3 percent) of graduates. Chi-square analysis was then repeated for each of these groups and found that irrespective of when they qualified as a social worker, male and female graduates were equally likely to supervise a placement of a Flinders social work student.


In summary, we found no evidence to support our hypothesis that female social workers are more likely to supervise students on placement than their male colleagues. While this finding may be confounded by the fact that our methodology relied on analysing archival data concerning student supervisors from a single school of social work and we have not ascertained the extent of Flinders graduates as supervisors of students from other schools, it nevertheless raises questions about perceptions of gender roles within the social work profession.

In this study we identified a) those individuals who supervised a Flinders social work student and b) social work graduates from Flinders, in order to compare the gender distribution of Flinders trained supervisors with that of all Flinders social work graduates. It is possible that our findings reflect similar loyalty to one's alma mater by both female and male graduates rather than an equal dedication to supervising students. We already know that some Flinders graduates supervise Adelaide-based students from the University of South Australia (Cooper and Crisp 1998) and that as many as one-third of Flinders graduates move from Adelaide and are not in a position to supervise placements of students from their alma mater (Martin 1977; 1982). Whether or not a survey of all Flinders graduates, in respect of their involvement in student supervision over the period 1989 to 1993, would have yielded similar results is unknown.

Consideration of the possibility that our methodology did not confound our results, raises the question of why our findings failed to support our hypothesis. One possible reason for this discrepancy is that while we expect to find high proportions of female supervisors, we have failed to grasp the extent to which females dominate the profession. As academic social workers our work settings have included a much higher proportion of male colleagues than is the norm for the profession overall.

Another reason for our results failing to lend any support for our hypothesis relates to our experiences of the gendered nature of fieldwork within the university setting. It may well be that we are projecting expectations based on our own lived experience, skewed as it is, onto our colleagues outside the university. Field education staff are predominantly female and employed in relatively low status positions compared to social work academics overall (Fook and Cleak, 1994; Sowers-Hoag and Harrison 1991). Moreover, the value of their work tends to be minimised:
 Field education in social work and welfare seems to be seen as
 women's work, which may be related to the fact that, in Australia,
 much of the work is hidden ... under-valued, and therefore
 relatively inaccessible to measurement by established workload
 formulae. (Fook and Cleak 1994, 39).

Expectations that females are more likely to become involved in supervising students are consistent with the twin notions that this task is one of nurturing and caring, roles which, even in social work, have historically been associated with female members of the profession (Baines, Evans and Neysmith 1992). On a positive note, perhaps the findings reported in this paper are an indication that female social workers are no longer prepared to limit themselves to roles ascribed by a patriarchal society, and are consequently unwilling to bear the burden of student supervision on their own. While this may be a very small step in the emancipation of women within the social work profession, such beads of hope give rise to a future in which no aspect of social work will be considered as 'women's work'.


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Beth R Crisp (1) and Lesley Cooper (2)

(1) Beth Crisp is a researcher in the School of Social work at the University of Melbourne.

(2) Lesley Cooper is a senior lecturer at the School of Social Administration and Social Work at the Flinders University of South Australia.

 Flinders Supervisors All Flinders Graduates

Year of Female Male Total Female Male Total

1968-1974 9 4 13 69 26 95
1975-1982 26 17 43 185 130 315
1983-1989 42 18 60 186 75 261

Total 77 39 116 440 231 671
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Author:Crisp, Beth R.; Cooper, Lesley
Publication:Women in Welfare Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 1998
Previous Article:Obituary: Helen La Nauze.
Next Article:Beyond gender: critical practice in social work education.

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