International Women’s Day: a blog from our National Director, Karen Hedge

Yesterday I dropped my children off at school on ‘World Book Day’. Amidst a sea of Harry Potter characters and superheroes I spotted someone else. There over by the door was Frida Kahlo, this girl of about 9 years old had brought the book ‘Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls’, 100 tales of extraordinary women. I purchased our own copy that morning.

Yet in doing so, I felt discontent. Of course I want my son and daughter to hear about the impact that women throughout history have made, but I could not overlook that twinge of disappointment and perhaps also a bit of rage that in 2020 we are still having to create our own platform to do so. Given the recent decisions and discussion around immigration, with a UK Government irresponsibly  and incorrectly describing social care as low skilled, this is a theme sorely and dangerously evident in social care. Intersectionality makes this worse.

The reality is that social care staff are highly skilled, professionally registered and regulated. They spend their working hours (and often more given that a significant proportion have personal caring responsibilities) supporting our loved ones, some of whom may require palliative or end of life care, have multiple co-morbidities, advanced neurological conditions or dementia and so on.

SSSC data shows that 86% of our care home workforce and 81% of our homecare workforce is female. Anecdotally from previous Scottish Care focus groups, we believe that many of those who do work in social care often take on ‘male-dominated roles’ such as handyman or chef. That there is such a gender divide should not really be surprising, it mirrors other sectors – 83% of primary school teachers are female.

We have a his-and-her-story of working with peers of our own gender; one of the contributing factors to the gender pay gap. A recent report by the Kings Fund[1] states ‘Jobs done by women are undervalued’ both in terms of the value society places on the jobs and the wage people are paid. Jobs with a higher percentage of women tend to be lower paid, and if, over time, the proportion of women increases average pay goes down further.’. Sadly I can evidence this from my own experience. I first worked as a paid carer in 2000 earning around £8.75 per hour. In 2020, social care is purchased by local authorities (usually) on the premise that social care workers are paid the Scottish Living Wage of £9.30. That makes a rise of 55p over 20 years.

One of the suggestions to counter this imbalance is to encourage more men to work in the sector as if balancing the gender of the workforce, would increase the value of the job. Of course having a more diverse workforce is welcome and a positive proposition, and from an academic perspective, this move makes perfect hypothetical sense, but a cultural shift takes time, and in many ways dilutes the issue to hand. The other solution is simply to recognise and value the workforce for the registered and highly skilled people they are.

Another example, to use the term coined by Carolina Criado-Perez in the same-titled book, of ‘Invisible Women’ is that social care contributes £3.4 billion to the Scottish Economy, which is more than agriculture, forestry and fishing. It seems no coincidence that the latter is a sector traditionally dominated by men.

Yet there are positive changes and opportunities. Whilst women are less likely to be company owners or shareholders, this trend is bucked in social care. Where other Boards are implementing 50:50 rules for the make-up of their Board, the Scottish Care Executive required no design to meet that criteria, it happened naturally as a result of the significant number of women in those roles.

At middle manager level, it is still the majority of staff who are women. Bringing their frontline leadership skills with them – social care staff are very often lone workers adept at making decisions in what can sometimes be challenging situations, they are well-prepared and qualified for the responsibility. As evidenced in the Scottish Care report ‘The Experience of the Experienced’ others have entered the sector bringing skills from elsewhere. We must also recognise that many have taken a reduction in pay or conditions to pursue this career where they can make a difference every day. But why should they have to?

We have also recently seen Project Lift, a leadership programme which started in the NHS open its doors to social care staff, growing our leaders of the future and potentially opening doors across health and social care. In addition, the current campaign to encourage more people to work in the sector and the Adult social care reform programme both have potential to promote the value of social care.

And so in raising the profile, we raise the value. Today is International Women’s Day. The theme for 2020 is #EachforEqual a statement of ‘Collective Individualism’ pointing out that it is as individuals we challenge, but only together that we can achieve change. This is not simply a call to women, or even to create the conditions for a counter-movement calling for an International Men’s Day. In collective individualism we work together and for mutual benefit. In this industry we might use the words collaboration and co-production.

Equality brings health and wealth to whole communities. So I ask you to channel your inner Frida Kahlo or whom-ever your inspiration might be. Perhaps they are a care worker.

Share this message wide and if you feel as I do, turn your disappointment (and rage) into action. #EachforEqual is for all of us, but to achieve it we must recognise and raise the true value of social care incorporating the value of our care workers, managers and owners of all genders who devote their time with skill and compassion, and who inspire us every single day. #careaboutcare #independentcare 

Karen Hedge, National Director, Scottish Care 

[1] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/blog/2018/06/gender-pay-gap-what-now