If you want to rise to the top of the social work profession and affect change on a larger scale, then positions in management and administration may be an excellent option. The profession of social work is in particular need of strong female leaders.
This comprehensive guide covers a snapshot of the current social work workforce, reasons why women make excellent leaders in social work, how to develop leadership skills and how to find a leadership position within social work.In this guide
- Current social work workforce
- Critical leadership skills
- Women as leaders
- How to develop leadership skills
- Finding leadership positions
The current social work workforce
Despite the social work workforce being overwhelmingly female dominated at 83 percent, and only 14 percent of new MSW graduates being male (CSWE, 2017), large gaps exist between the salaries of men and women. Women with their MSW earn on average 12 percent less than men with their MSW. At the PhD level, the gap is even greater – women earn almost 30 percent less than male PhDs. (CSWE, 2017).
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021) projects the field of social work to grow an additional 13 percent between 2019 – 2029. This equates to just under 91,000 new jobs to be filled. These positions will need effective leadership to best serve and assist their client populations.
Despite comprising but a small percentage of the social work profession, men serve as managers in social services at a disproportionate rate (Pease, 2011, Flood, 2014). In addition, women are promoted at a significantly slower rate than their male counterparts (McDowell, 2015). This means it is even more critical that women develop leadership skills and rise to the top of the profession.
Gilliam et al (2016) argue that social workers are uniquely qualified to lead social service organizations as they clearly understand the values and goals of the profession, but misperceptions abound that social workers lack the hard skills necessary for management and administration.
This has led to an increasing number of human service agencies that are being led by executives holding degrees in subjects other than social work. Social workers compete with individuals with MBAs, MPHs, MPAs and JDs for upper management positions (Pritzker & Applewhite, 2015). The human services field and the profession of social work is too important to be left to be directed by those without a social work background. It is imperative that more social workers step up and become leaders in the field.
Critical leadership skills
Leadership can be broken down into two categories: hard skills and soft skills (Rao, 2013). Soft skills are those such as communication, listening and empathy. These soft skills are taught and honed during social work programs and throughout a social workers’ career. Hard skills include:
- technical skills such as computer software and hardware
- analytical abilities
- project management including strategic planning, budgeting
- management skills such as general business knowledge, logistics, supervising, planning, and negotiating
This is not a comprehensive list of critical leadership skills. However, it is important to remember that most of these skills can be taught and developed over time, so that almost anyone can become an effective and efficient leader.
Why women make great social work leaders
Social workers in general, and women in particular are well-suited for leadership positions. The core values of the social work profession as stated in the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics (2021) include service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence.
These are all excellent foundational values of great leaders – they focus on building relationships, recognize the value that each team member brings to the organization, continue to build their competencies and lead with integrity. Social workers have specialized skills in listening and communication, consensus building, recognizing power imbalances, and the ability to consider differing perspectives. As change agents, social workers are comfortable with ambiguity and even conflict, and in turn, work well on a team to creatively address barriers.
Women are natural leaders, as most exhibit the soft skills necessary for leadership, including communication, listening and empathy. In fact, when women do land leadership positions, they often excel in them and even surpass men in effective leadership strategies (Lipkin, 2019).
Women leaders tend to be more collaborative than their male counterparts who tend to be more competitive. Women also are more likely to reject inequity and instead promote fairness and justice to improve the culture of an organization (Lipkin, 2019). Zenger and Folkman (2019) found that women were ranked more effective than men in most qualities of effective leadership, including taking initiative, being resilient, displaying high integrity and honesty, developing, inspiring and motivating others, encompassing bold leadership, championing change, and problem solving.
How to develop social work leadership skills
Courses at the MSW level and to a lesser extent, in some BSW programs offer opportunities to learn more about the management and administration sides of social service programs. Courses can include, but are not limited to Human Services Management, Budgeting and Fiscal Management, Organizational Leadership, and Grant Writing.
Some MSW programs go even further and offer tracks or concentrations in administration and leadership, and both coursework and electives center around building leadership knowledge and skills. Programs with these concentrations offer both online and in-person degree options.
Field education/practicum experiences are also excellent ways in which students can develop leadership potential. This occurs when the university program partners with field placement sites to develop creative innovative opportunities that expose students to policy and advocacy opportunities in addition to shadowing supervisors and managers in addition to practicing clinical skills (Bramer, Corbett and Phelps, n.d).
For example, the University of Alabama has a longstanding leadership development field education program wherein students can complete field education opportunities in Washington, D.C. to prepare both personally and professionally as an emerging social work leader.
Finally, for those who have already graduated but are interested in a career move into administration, some schools of social work, such as those at the University of Maryland, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania offer post-graduate certificate programs in social work leadership and management.
Self-education and personal development of social work leadership skills
Your local library or bookstore can provide many options for you to read, study and practice developing management and leadership skills, including understanding and building emotional intelligence, budgeting, program management and grant writing.
Additionally, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers their Leadership Ladders series, which are free short reports covering a variety of topics that can help prepare you for career advancement. One does not need to be a member of NASW to access the Leadership Ladders documents.
Besides learning about the practical hard skills required of social work leaders, it is important that women interested in future leadership identify areas of personal growth that are needed. By identifying areas in which you have gaps in your ability and by dedicating time each week to focus on skill development, you’ll be well on your way to preparing for a new role with more responsibilities and leadership opportunities. Corbett and Clark (n.d.) caution against becoming solely a ‘book expert’ on leadership, but rather become an expert in your own leadership strengths, abilities, and style.
Observing leaders with whom you come into contact can be another excellent learning opportunity. Identifying the skills and traits that make them an effective or ineffective leader or watching how they interact with other team members can help you determine which strengths you already have and can build upon, as well as those areas in which you’d like to model the effective leader.
Consider developing your leadership skills through professional development trainings. These can be short learning opportunities that take just a few hours and provide Continuing Education Units (CEUs). Other opportunities, such as the Leadership Institute from the Society for Social Work Leadership in Healthcare, or the Council on Social Work Education’s Leadership Institute for future leaders in social work education require an application and a longer term commitment, if accepted into the program. These types of programs are focused on developing leadership mindsets and skills for social workers.
Professional organizations can also be excellent resources for leadership skills training via annual conferences and mentoring programs wherein experienced social work leaders mentor less experienced social workers and/or those interested in moving into leadership positions in the future. Examples include The Network for Social Work Management and the Society for Social Work Leadership in Healthcare.
Volunteering to build leadership skills
Volunteering has long been a recommended route to building new skills, and it is certainly a viable option for women seeking to develop additional hard and soft leadership talents and qualities. You can volunteer:
- In your workplace – let your supervisor know that you are eager for more responsibilities and to improve your leadership skills. Offer to assist on a project or initiative that falls outside of your general job duties to learn more about the required skill set and gain valuable experience. Demonstrating to your management team that you are able and willing to take the initiative to learn new skills and to assist the organization in a variety of ways can also help fast track promotion opportunities.
- In your community – perhaps you’ve identified a need to improve your cultural competence. In that case, volunteering for a local refugee support agency can provide the opportunity to interact with a diverse client population and help build those critical soft skills.
- In professional organizations – help strengthen the profession while also boosting your leadership skills by serving on and directing committees. This also opens doors to interact with fellow members around the world, which can be helpful in learning about job openings in administration.
How to find leadership positions
Not all available management and administrative positions are listed online, in newspapers or on job boards. If you are ready and interested in moving up the career ladder and becoming a social work leader, here are some additional ways you can learn about available leadership positions.
- Keep your eyes open for opportunities for promotion at your current job. Let your supervisors know you are looking for more responsibilities to grow into a leadership position.
- Network with as many people as possible and let them know you’re seeking a management or leadership position. Explore networking opportunities with:
- Current and former coworkers and supervisors
- Former classmates, professors, staff, and career advisors from your school of social work
- Online/social media contacts and job-related sites such as Facebook groups or LinkedIn
- Contacts from professional organizations of which you’re a member. Many social work professional organizations have both job boards to peruse and e-newsletters in which members can post job openings at their workplace.
- Family, friends, and neighbors can also be helpful in expanding your leadership job search as they reach out to their own network of contacts.
- Current and former coworkers and supervisors
Women have proven to be competent and effective leaders, and more female representation is needed in management and administrative positions within social work. It is possible and achievable to develop the soft and hard skills necessary to lead in this profession. If a leadership position is of interest, then dedicate the time to learn the requisite skills and build your experience formally and informally. You may become the next influential social work leader!
Bramer, A.L., Corbett, B.S., & Phelps, C. (n.d.). Becoming a Social Work Leader. The New Social Worker, at https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/education-credentials/becoming-a -social-work-leader/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Social Workers, at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm
Corbett, B., & Clark, E.J. (n.d.) Social Work Leadership – What Is a Leader? Are You One? Can You Become One? The New Social Worker, at https://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/social-work-leadership-what-is-a-leader-are-you-one-can-you-become-one/
Council on Social Work Education. (2017). Profile of the Social Work Workforce. https://www.cswe.org/Centers-Initiatives/Initiatives/National-Workforce-Initiative
Dewane, C.J. (2008). Ten leadership strategies for women in social service management. Social Work Today, 8(2), 38.
Flood, J.E. (2014). Men in social work: A qualitative exploratory study of the male experience. Master’s Thesis, Smith College. https://scholarworks.smith.edu/theses/778.
Gilliam, C.C., Chandler, M.A., Al-Hajjaj, H.A., Mooney, A.N., & Vakalahi, H.F.O. (2016). Intentional leadership planning and development: The collective responsibility to educate more social work leaders. Advances in Social Work, 17(2), 330-339. doi:10.18060/18606
Lipkin, N. (2019, Nov 19). Why women are natural born leaders. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicolelipkin/2019/11/19/why-women-are-natural-born-leaders/?sh=50d5c7506641
McDowell, J., (2015). Masculinity and non-traditional occupations: Men’s talk in women’s work. Gender, Work & Organization, 22(3), 273–291.
Pease, B. (2011). Men in social work: Challenging or reproducing an unequal gender regime?
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National Association of Social Workers. (2021). Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/about/ethics/code-of-ethics/code-of-ethics-english
Pritzker, S., & Applewhite, S.R. (2015). Going “macro”: Exploring the careers of macro practitioners. Social Work, 60(3), 191-199.
Rao, M.S. (2013). Smart leadership blends hard and soft skills…and emphasizes the importance of continuous learning. Human Resource Management International Digest, 21(4), 38-40.
Zenger, J., & Folkman, J. (2019, Jun 25). Research: Women score higher than men in most leadership skills. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2019/06/research-women-score-higher-than-men-in-most-leadership-skills