Tap, tap, tap. Can you hear that noise? Yes, that one. Tap, tap,
tap. If you listen carefully you’ll hear women knocking on the
glass ceilings of their workplaces. Despite the Sex Discrimination
Act coming in 30 years ago a recent Equal Opportunities Commission
(EOC) report has revealed that women are still drastically
under-represented in senior posts across all employment areas,
including the public sector.(1)
The UK has one of the highest workforce participation rates for
women in Europe – higher only in the Scandinavian countries. Yet
only 13 per cent of local authority chief executives – a decrease
from the year before. According to the Association of Directors of
Social Services, just 35 per cent of social services directors in
England are female.
This statistic conflicts with social care’s reputation as a
progressive sector – and is remarkable given that a staggering 81
per cent of staff in social services departments are female.
But although the metaphorical glass ceiling is still very much in
place, the situation has improved, according to Liz Railton, deputy
chief executive for learning and social care at Essex Council. She
says social care is much better now than it was 20 years ago when
she remembers being asked whether she planned to have children and
feeling that her career would be held back if she said yes.
Taking time out to start a family or to care for a relative can
slow down a woman’s career and can, in some cases, bring it to a
premature halt. Not being able to recover from career breaks
because of changes in working practices can be problematic, as
undertaking the necessary additional training is not always
Even jobs that appear to be flexible – such as domiciliary care,
where a lot of women are employed – do not always provide a
solution because promotional prospects are often few. “It is not
clear how to progress from home care work to social work and on to
managerial jobs,” says Andrea Rowe, chief executive of social care
training organisation Topss England.
Of course it’s not just in social care that barriers prevent women
reaching senior roles. Kate Bellamy, senior policy officer at
employment equality campaign group the Fawcett Society, says: “As
women tend to take on more caring responsibilities at home, they
suffer disproportionately from the long hours culture in the UK and
the absence of work-life balance in many sectors.”
Biology can also be a factor: that women are, on average, far
smaller and have higher voices than men may unaccountably cause
some to think they are less capable. So should women wear high
heels and develop booming voices to counteract what nature gave
them? No, says Railton, but she does suggest that women develop an
awareness of how they come across in meetings where they may be the
only female present. “It can be challenging to find a way that is
assertive and makes your presence felt without being shrill or
bossy, which feeds the stereotype of what women are like.”
Women often feel that their career progression has been damaged by
choosing to focus on their home life rather than putting in the
extra hours at work. But Railton insists that working all hours is
not the answer and that it is down to employers to address the
work-life balance for male and female employees alike. Unless this
is achieved, employers will continue to lose women’s talents.
So what can employers do to help their female staff to progress?
Providing adequate cover for staff taking a career break is one
solution, says Rowe, as that way employees can go off confident in
the knowledge that they can come back.
Women, too, can help themselves by taking their careers seriously
and not falling prey to the idea that they can only be caring or
business-minded – not both – when facing tough decisions.
Railton says: “Running a social care organisation is a very complex
business. Women do need to project and emphasise their abilities to
offer some very particular skills within these complex
environments.” Rowe calls for women to be better at supporting each
other and says that she herself takes this responsibility seriously
in relation to the women she manages.
While the glass ceiling is no longer as thick as it once was, it is
still far from being smashed. The figures speak for themselves –
women continue to dominate the front-line roles in social care, but
struggle to move beyond. Time to hand out those hammers.
(1) Sex and Power: Who runs Britain? Equal Opportunities
For the past four years Daphne Obang has been director of
social services and housing at Bracknell Forest Council. When she
was 13 she knew she wanted to work in social care and trained in
Manchester as a psychiatric social worker. In her 20s she married
and had two children. Before joining Bracknell Forest Obang was
assistant social services director at Newham Council, where she
became head of adult services. Obang challenges the view held by
some that social care is “soft and not intellectually
She says: “A male social services director once said to me that
society hasn’t worked out social care and transposes its
ambivalence towards it on to its professionals.”
Obang says her commitment to her profession has helped her climb
the career ladder and that she has received a lot of support and
advice from colleagues of both sexes. However, even though she is
now a director, she is still mistaken for a secretary. “I’ve had
people come into the office and assume that the man I am standing
next to, who is head and shoulders taller than me, is the more
senior person. There is a physicality about men that gives them
gravitas,” she says. Her advice to other women in social care?
Build your self-confidence and apply for more senior roles, even if
you are not convinced you will get them because that is exactly
men do. Employers must also adapt and become more inclusive. “If we
are not using women well and they are capable then we are not using
taxpayers’ money properly,” she says.
Sheila Scott fell into working for the National Care
Homes Association, where she is now chief executive. In September
1987 she began volunteering with the agency and, as it grew, so did
her opportunities. She became its chief executive in 1992 and
hasn’t looked back.
Scott qualified as a nurse in 1972 and, after marrying, chose the
private sector so that she could work the hours she wanted. After
the birth of her son and daughter she continued to work because the
family needed the money. In 1983 Scott and her then husband opened
a care home for older people in north London, followed by a second.
“My children hated it because the homes were such a 24-hour
commitment,” she says.
She sold the homes in 1987 and then, in 1995, divorced her husband.
She believes, in part, her personal ambitions contributed to her
marriage ending and says that a man in a similar position may not
have faced the same difficulties.
Scott has not experienced any direct prejudice, but says there is
still a view of women as the “better public representatives” of
private social care. “The public see women as the carers and men as
dealing with the business side of things.”
One of the biggest barriers women face, she says, is their lack of
self-belief. “For all their skills and multi-tasking women do not
have the confidence. Men of a similar age and at a similar stage in
life have the confidence while women question everything they do.”
She also believes men tend to plan their careers more than women –
something she would put her mind to if she were just starting out
Julie Jones, deputy chief executive and director of
housing and social services at Westminster Council, says she has
been “very lucky” in her career. She has reached a senior position
despite not planning a career path and taking six years out of
full-time work when her two daughters were born.
She started work in social care in 1972 as a social researcher for
Camden Council after completing a social sciences degree. While on
her career break, which began in 1976, she completed a part-time
masters degree in public and social administration at Brunel
University. It was acquiring this qualification that Jones believes
helped her return to work: “It would have been difficult if I had
not had anything else to offer.” She returned to work, this time at
Westminster Council in 1982 and continual career opportunities have
allowed her to stay with the local authority. Jones has been
married for 34 years, something she laughingly describes as “a
miracle”, and believes the couple’s decision to remain living in
London has allowed them to develop their careers.
One of the biggest barriers she says all parents face, regardless
of gender, when taking on senior local authority jobs is the amount
of evening work that is required. “I know that within the NHS it is
not like this,” she adds.
Jones says the directors and chief executives she has worked with
have helped her to learn and develop. She adds: “Don’t try to do
the job alone. It can be a very lonely job so seek advice and
guidance from elsewhere.”