Spot the difference

“Oh no – here come the thought police.”

“We’re too busy – it’s the policy people who deal with that.”

Social work, like all other professions, is full of people who,
while being too shy or nice to voice such thoughts, do nevertheless
harbour them.

Equality is something close to most people’s hearts in social work
and social care, but it rarely translates into actions. Which is
why so many user groups are and will be busy demanding inclusion
and participation (just take a look at Community Care’s news pages
on any week).

The management structure of social care is still unrepresentative
of the workforce of women and people from ethnic minorities, and
few senior managers are disabled. Managing for equality, therefore,
has to start from a recognition that bias still exists, and from
the need to understand where it creeps in.

There are so many issues it’s easy to be paralysed by inaction. So
where do you start? Start with your team. Do you recognise the
diversity within your team? Diversity is more than just differences
in gender and ethnicity. It is too easy to assume that as a team
you are all professionals working together to the same objectives
and are therefore all the same. Are age, sexuality or class
considered? Are they part of discussions about your work?

Teams that recognise differences and openly discuss them are more
likely keep those issues to the fore in their work with clients.
Your task as a manager is to make sure diversity is acknowledged
and discussed. Your team members are likely to be at different
stages in their career and have different approaches towards their
work. Treating people equally does not mean treating them the same;
it means recognising differences and valuing them as a contribution
to the team’s diversity.

Managing for equality rests on a diversity principle – that each
person has unique experience to bring to the service and unique
insights. By valuing the diversity of your team and playing to its
strengths, you allow a range of perspectives to inform your
decisions. You develop an open and participative culture, yet you
get on with the work in a high-quality way by achieving consensus
about how to do things in the light of this collective experience.
Because each team member is acknowledged and valued and works to
their strengths, they flourish, and the overall quality of the team

How do you plan to support staff who might be discriminated
against, perhaps because of sexuality or ethnicity? Social workers
from minority groups know that on occasion their presence can lead
to more discrimination against their client. Have you discussed
with your staff how you might support them before such an event
occurs? Do you know what the policy is? Can you, and would you,
take up a grievance with another organisation or a senior manager
if a member of your team expressed concern?

How will you use a member of your team if they are black or
disabled? There are numerous anecdotes about managers appointing a
black, gay or disabled person so they can tick all the boxes. If
you appoint somebody from a minority group, will you fall into the
trap of either using them as the representative expert or ignoring
them completely? It is vital as a manager that you recognise the
other skills that staff have and not just see them as the
“black/gay/disabled expert” who will deal with that group and those

Finally, do you know the law? Do you know what is required of you
under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 and the Disability
Discrimination Act 1995? Do you know what your organisation is
doing in relation to them? If you don’t, start asking now.

Managing for equality affects all who come into contact with the
service, and it is incumbent on us to know how to do the right
thing and to be able to do the right thing. To date, we’ve tended
to assume we know what is the right thing. But never assume; always
ask. When it comes to staff, it is about building relationships as
a team and as individuals.

But isn’t this yet one more thing to do for the overwhelmed
manager? Well, yes and no. Good managers will build up teams that
are open and supportive. And how you value people in a team will
wash over into how your service users are valued. So there is a
direct link between managing staff for equality and developing an
equal opportunity service. If you do not value the life experiences
of your team, you’re likely to struggle with those of your service
users too.

Christine Doorly is regional manager for the National Care
Standards Commission. Vijay Patel is an independent consultant for
the voluntary sector.

We will return to this subject later in the year, and recognise
that this article has concentrated mainly on gender and ethnicity
and, in part, on disability.

“When I was……..

“…working in social services, one of the best managers was one
who made a point of acknowledging I was a black social worker. By
not avoiding it, they gave permission for me to raise specific
issues at a much earlier point.” Vijay Patel

“…a women’s officer, I was walking down a corridor carrying a
heavy box. A man held the door open but then let it go in my face.
He said he didn’t want to patronise me.” Kathryn Stone, director,
Voice UK

“…an inspector, a nursery manager told me she didn’t think it was
right to put ‘coloureds on a pedestal’. It took me a while to work
out she was talking about promoting diversity and not laundry.”
Kathryn Stone

“…in a pub once, I got told by the landlord it would be
unnecessary for him to put a ramp to his doorstep as he never got
any wheelchair users.” Claire Smart, social services purchasing

Top tips

  • Equality is not only for people who appear to be affected by it
    – for example, women, disabled people and ethnic minority
  • Constantly challenge “the way we do things around here” as part
    of your everyday work.
  • When you realise you’ve got it wrong, say so – people respect
    others who can be open about what they do not know.

Rubbish tips

  • Treating people equally means treating them the same.
  • Go on some equality training – and you’ll have it tapped.
  • Diversity matters are the responsibility of the equalities


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