A social worker’s take on the Barbie speech

A practitioner writes their own version of the speech from the Barbie film about the impossible standards women face, to highlight the pressures of working in social work

Photo by ink drop/AdobeStock

by Kat Hand

Work has been tough in our busy hospital social work team. The current pressures in hospitals have filtered down to the team, which is understaffed and in a constant flux of changing priorities and systems.

When I went to see the Barbie film it was supposed to be a distraction from these challenges – an opportunity for escapism. How wrong I was!

Pictured: Kat Hand

Pictured: Kat Hand

Instead, I was blown away by the speech made by Gloria, one of the main characters in the film, on how difficult it is to be a woman, bringing me to tears. Now, having reread it, I can see how we all could have our own similar speeches about the contradictions we live with.

In social work, employers and the wider public believe that social workers need to be everything for everybody in the most cost-effective and efficient way. Is this really possible or are we called to be the unrealistic Barbie equivalent of a social worker?

Here is my adaptation of the speech from Barbie for fellow social workers:

“It is literally impossible to be a social worker. You are so needed, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough.

“Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong. You have to keep people safe, but not meddle in their lives. You have to give people your time, but not be late for your next visit. You have to save money for the local authority, but not let on to the people you support.

“You have to be a boss but always be kind. You have to lead, but not squash people’s ideas. You have to answer for local authorities’ behaviour, which is insane, but if you point that out, you’ll get into trouble with management. You’re supposed to stay professional, but not so professional that you are unrelatable or threaten colleagues.

“We must always be outstanding and always be thankful for the job. You have to never be rude, never show off, never be selfish, never fall down, never fail, never show fear, never get out of line. It’s too hard! It’s too contradictory and nobody gives you a medal or says thank you! And it turns out that not only are you doing everything wrong, but also everything is your fault.

“I’m just so tired of watching myself and every single other social worker tie themselves into knots so that people will appreciate us.”

What isn’t taken into account today is the joy of being an individual social worker (not a Barbie!). Our responses need to reflect this if we are to be competent practitioners and happy in our role.

Do you have any stories, reflections or experiences from working in social work that you would like to write about for Community Care? Take a look at our guidelines on writing for the site and then email your idea to our community journalist, Anastasia Koutsounia, at anastasia.koutsounia@markallengroup.com

22 Responses to A social worker’s take on the Barbie speech

  1. Louise byrne October 10, 2023 at 10:26 am #

    You are fantastic. From one social worker to another. I know your worth x

  2. Christian Kerr October 10, 2023 at 10:43 am #

    This is such a bad take. Decrying the lack of appreciation from the people we hope and aim to support fails to acknowledge that they didn’t choose to have social work in their lives.

    While appreciation is welcome it should never be expected from people in crisis.

    • Jane Collins October 10, 2023 at 10:58 am #

      Someone in crisis is likely to be in fight flight freeze survival mode. Expecting appreciation from someone in those circumstances shows a complete lack of understanding of the effects of trauma.

      • Grace October 11, 2023 at 3:37 am #

        Are we really asking for that though??! This article doesn’t seem to give off, “hey, if you’re in crisis— appreciate me first!”messaging at all—rather, more so, a Marco level need for conversation , acknowledgment, and change.

        I, personally, felt so seen and heard by this article… I don’t think it asks for anything less than the truth of our field. To be denying this fact or truth would be such a false ideology and dishonor to our work.

        THANK YOU for speaking up and sharing.

        • Carolyn October 16, 2023 at 8:35 pm #

          Yeah as the old saying goes
          Damned if you do and damned if you dont
          We are not invincible, just burnt out and very much not appreciated and held in high regard as many other health and social care professionals.

    • Christina October 11, 2023 at 2:30 am #

      I would say the want of appreciation isn’t for appreciation from clients, but appreciation from employers and society in general. Appreciation in the way of earning a decent salary.

    • Emma October 11, 2023 at 4:47 am #

      Maybe she’s referring to appreciation from anyone? I.e. others supporting the family (professionals) and from the general public.

  3. Social Worker October 10, 2023 at 11:17 am #

    I am sure the work the social worker is doing is the best she can given the circumstances. But really, do we need to be appreciated if we are indeed, public servants?

    Sometimes until you come into contact with social workers, you don’t really know what they do. And that’s ok. Our profile needs raising to the point that people may choose social work as a viable option, but over and above that, probably not.

    We rightly stay clear of labels like superheroes and angels. That’s because we aren’t superheroes or angels. But it’s also because we understand stigma, respect and humility. The people we work with are at their most vulnerable and exposed because of a unique set of circumstances that has led to our involvement. There cannot be an expectation that there is gratitude or even any acknowledgement of any support we give. The response they need at such a traumatic time is a social worker that is respected by their employer but who is humble enough to recognise that whilst praise is nice, it is not our motivational factor.

    If a person who receives support wants that support acknowledging, such as through a compliment, a letter, a smile of acknowledgment or even formal recognition, then that’s fine. It’s their call. But let’s not find ourselves despairing where that doesn’t happen.

    • Emma October 11, 2023 at 4:49 am #

      Yes. Of course public servants should be appreciated.

      If a nurse helps someone in crisis shouldn’t she be appreciated? Or say..given a public clap…

    • Sabine October 11, 2023 at 10:28 am #

      But we are not respected by employers if we stand up demanding proper funding, safe and manageable caseloads or even consider not to continue to run service on good will (all this overtime…).

    • James October 11, 2023 at 11:15 am #

      A refreshingly clear and indeed empowering antidote to the impenetrable and convoluted but in the end self reverential “values” modules on training courses.

  4. Tracey Jones October 10, 2023 at 6:47 pm #

    Omg I could have written this. I’m with you on all of this. Damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Doesn’t help when we are battling our our managers who are supposed to have our back. Why are we doing this?

  5. Rachel October 11, 2023 at 10:51 am #

    I took this as not necessarily wanting appreciation from the people we support but recognition from the management, media and central government of our worth. So much is highlighted about the struggles in the NHS but rarely does the role of social work get a mention. The NHS can’t function without us but even they don’t publicly acknowledge this. One hand washes the other.

    Everyone deserves to be appreciated in some respect. It doesn’t have to come from the people we support but to be told when your doing a good job can be the difference between losing a quality employee or retaining one.

    We need unity, not reprimanding a person’s viewpoint.

  6. Rebecca Maser October 11, 2023 at 1:26 pm #

    When she says being appreciated, it doesn’t have to mean from the people in crisis… but rather the public or even just management!! I understand that the teenager who needs boundaries may not appreciate those boundaries for many years, if ever, but everyone needs to feel seen and heard and appreciated. I have had to learn to find those bits of appreciation where I can because they don’t come regularly or routinely. A former client called me up several years after my involvement with her family. She advised that she was now living in another community and just was referred to a new social worker, who she didn’t like. I suggested she give the new worker a chance, she may like her in the future. She told me that she wanted me back because we got along. I had to remind her that she had cussed me out the first 6 months we worked together! Her reply “oh, yeah, I forgot!” We had a laugh and then I suggested she give her new worker a call and try to start over. So, literally years later, I received a sliver of appreciation for a working relationship that had lasted over 2 years. Social workers should be appreciated publicly just like firefighters and teachers and police and EMS and doctors and nurses and other front line workers. We need support and acknowledgment of the hardships of the job, which comes with appreciation of the importance of the work we do and the manner in which we do it.

    • Alison October 12, 2023 at 1:08 pm #

      If social workers want appreciation than they can start by moving away from the “just like” interiority complex. If we have our own worth, stand on that, promote that, own that. Gatecrashing someone else’s public clapping is unseemly at best and desperation at worst.

  7. Emily October 13, 2023 at 10:04 am #

    Love this!! So true!!

  8. Nic October 13, 2023 at 10:16 am #

    Appreciation? Hmm! The main thing I got from this version of the speech was the ‘Contradictions’. Brilliantly illustrated Kat. You’ve almost persuaded me to go and see the Barbie film.

  9. John October 13, 2023 at 3:08 pm #

    Wow, so well said. Speak truth!

  10. Tricia October 13, 2023 at 6:43 pm #

    I absolutely agree with this. We are not asking for clients to appreciate us. Often times we are brought in to manage a vast array of things. As social workers we manage the most vulnerable populations while having needs based programing de funded. I have seen my colleagues go above and beyond the scope of their practice to assist clients in resolving issues. We are the hidden workforce of the social services. The only time light is shed on these workers is when something goes wrong that was outside of their control . It is at that point the worker are judged in a public forum by individuals that have no idea the scope of the practice.

  11. Harry Barry October 15, 2023 at 2:05 pm #

    After some 45 years in statutory and agency social work I retired with a few home truths under my belt. Management don’t really nurture or care for their workforce, you will always be overworked, under stress and trying to manage unworkable caseloads, forget about appreciation – take what you can when you overcome one of those massive issues faced daily and if you ever doubt your effectiveness or why you’re doing the job it’s time to leave. We dont need Barbie, really !!!, to know our own worth

  12. Ruth October 17, 2023 at 2:46 am #

    I love it Kat, I also cried with the Barbie speech. Social workers are super heroes with unrealistic expectations from the society also we have bad reputation because we are not perfect as a expected. We only need to be kind to each other and know our own worth.

  13. "people you support" October 18, 2023 at 12:29 pm #

    “You have to save money for the local authority, but not let on to the people you support”

    Just about says it all…