I stepped into an assistant team manager role at 24 years old, two years after starting my first qualifying role. The inner child in me almost wanted to cry out to a lecturer at university who had doubted me and say: “Look at me now miss”, to prove to her that she was wrong about me.
Being a young black female manager was not always easy and I have faced obstacles along the way. The things about me that I could not change meant that I had to work harder to stand out, be recognised and respected.
I experienced some resistance from people I worked with who did not want to embrace someone that they had seen qualify fairly recently. I had professionals who told me they wanted to speak to the ‘actual’ manager. On one occasion, one of them called me ‘aggressive’ for challenging them; a micro aggression many black women face when showing any kind of assertiveness.
I had colleagues who trusted me because they could see that the passion I had for what I was doing.
I also felt that my decisions were questioned more than my counterparts in management and that my team did not always follow my management direction. One way I tackled this was by having open discussions in supervision with practitioners about what the barriers may be. I also offered assurances that I was confident in my decisions. It also helped that I had a team manager who trusted me.
But on the positive side, I have been embraced by others who were proud of my achievements and especially proud to see a young black woman doing well in her career. I had colleagues who trusted me because they could see that the passion I had for what I was doing.
Getting into management
Whenever I was asked whether I wanted to go into management, I would always say “Oh! I could never do that” or “I don’t want the responsibility”. I was used to seeing managers finishing late, stressed, overworked and tired and I never really saw the appeal in progressing into management.
“Why would anyone want to do that to themselves”, I would ask. Also, I was not overly confident and assumed that managers knew everything about everything. I was happy being a social worker and felt that this was where my skills were better suited.
But to have managers tell me that they saw my potential despite my highs and lows in the profession was something I really valued.
By my second year, I noticed a change in how I approached the role. I saw that I was more resilient; I was independent and confident in my decision making and was able to challenge professionals and represent my views well with senior management. I was known for going into meetings and not being afraid to be honest about what needed to happen. I was confident in advocating for the people I supported and representing what would be the best support for their family or what outcome was needed to keep a child safe.
I also felt that my practice became geared towards evidencing my ability to step into management. I was working with families with complex needs and had more autonomy over decision making. I even started chairing and leading important meetings.
Along the way, however, self-doubt and the fear of tokenism kicked in. Every workplace should have an active response to dealing with intersectionality. However, at times, I questioned whether I was being pushed into management to be a poster girl for diversity as opposed to it being based on my skillset.
Fear of failure
If you look at the statistics for black social workers progressing to management in adults’ and children’s services, the percentages are low. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services released data last year showing that 6% of directors were from black or ethnic minority groups in 2021, compared with 23% of statutory children’s social workers. . Black practitioners feel that there are often barriers to progression and they are overlooked for roles.
The sector still has a long way to go in recognising and addressing the disparities in how black social workers are treated in interview panels the low representation of black practitioners on social work courses, and, even more worryingly, how many black social workers are subject to fitness to practice investigations. This is where the pressure and fear of failure can manifest. Black social workers fight hard to be seen and included in spaces and that may mean that making a mistake in the role is viewed as a setback or viewed with more scrutiny than how it would be viewed for white counterparts.
Asking the right questions
Prospective students and experienced social workers always ask me how you can become a confident social worker, or manager, or how you can get yourself ready to go into management. But I think the questions practitioners should be asking rather, are why they want to be a manager and whether they have the qualities to fulfil the role.
There are many different strands to being a manager and it is more than just making decisions or telling people what to do. The core of a good manager is being patient, kind, not too proud and trustworthy. A good manager helps to strengthen a team and provide stability and assurance. Social work is hard, and it can be lonely in the field.
You might have back-to-back meetings, numerous reports that need doing or dealing with difficult and challenging people. For me, being a manager is taking on a responsibility to support your team. It is about trusting them and providing assurances that you have their best interests in mind and will defend them in situations that require it. You also need to empower practitioners to be confident and autonomous in their role, but also support their development as required.
Being a good manager is also about being able to stay calm during crisis. How do you manage stress? How do you approach a problem? A manager who reacts based on their emotions or who shows when they are stressed should be aware that that can be a transferable energy. In my experience, this does not create a positive working environment for the team and affects staff morale and retention and can also be unsafe if poor advice is given. Being a manager does not mean that you are without criticism, and it is important that you are able to receive feedback and challenge and reflect.
Being a manager
Management is also about sitting at the proverbial tables and advocating what is right for the betterment of your team, but also being able to have the difficult conversations with staff. Issues around performance can be hard and there may be times when you have to consider whether safe practice is taking place. At such times you need to be assured that you have done what is needed to support that member of staff.
When I ask social workers if they want to go into management, those that say ‘no’ link it to stress, lack of support, responsibility, bureaucracy, and issues around confidence. Truth is these are all valid and are representative of how management can be. But believing in your abilities and capacity to make a difference in management is key. It is all well and good having someone tell you to do something, but if you do not see it for yourself, you are unlikely to survive in the role. Management is not for everyone, and it can be tough.
There have been days when I have questioned whether it is the right thing for me. For example, there are days when I struggle with organisation, and balancing practical tasks with emotional support for the team and a work/life balance. What has helped me is good quality supervision, taking annual leave and keeping my interests outside of work alive. Burnout is more likely to happen if I prioritise work over my mental and physical health.
For those answering ‘yes’ to going into management, it was linked to them wanting to be a leader, career progression and gaining more experience. My attraction to management has always been about being a leader, supporting staff, encouraging development and ensuring we can offer good quality support to our service users.
I encourage practitioners to develop a plan in supervision with realistic targets for progression and start to access training that a local authority is offering. Additionally, look at opportunities to progress into deputy team manager or senior practitioner roles. Training and qualifying as a practice educator, supporting students, may also be helpful as a stepping stone into management.
I found that it is also important to have someone who believes in and supports you. This can be through a manager, colleague, friend or mentor – someone who can give honest and constructive feedback.
I also remember the difference having a black lecturer had at the start of my social work journey. It was amazing and gave me hope as an 18-year-old student navigating through the idealistic view I had about the social work profession.
In the same way that I needed representation at university, I need to be that representation for others. I am not a social work veteran and I still consider myself to be part of a ‘new age’ of social work where the needs and issues that service users face are more diverse.
However, what I have noticed is that there are more young people taking an interest in the profession, as well as people from different backgrounds with all kinds of experiences. Seeing someone like me in management shows the new generation of practitioners that you can break through the ‘glass ceiling’.