Natural Selection?

    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
    Commission, 2004

    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.”

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