What’s in a Word — Gender?

By Allison D. Murdach, LCSW (retired)drawing-gender-lines-detail-G-Gawne-Kelnar1

This column examines words which impact social work practice and are thus important for social workers to ponder and explore. Our word for today is: gender.

“Gender” is a term that focuses on the differences between, among, and within sexes. Since the sexes today are multiple (female, male, hetero, bi, homo, trans, questioning and probably more I don’t know about) the term presently covers many individuals, groups, communities, movements, and political and legal entanglements. It is also a term inextricably linked to sexuality, another extremely loaded word, which therefore gives “gender” a “double whammy” effect in all discussions of human behavior.

Understandings about gender have far reaching effects in all societies. One scholar has remarked that our perceived differences and similarities between and within the sexes “are both rooted in and help to perpetuate (all) particular social and political arrangements”. In this way we constantly live our lives within the shadow of our understandings of gender.

It needs to be said that gender concerns have played a large part in social work practice since its beginnings. This is because social work began as, and still predominately is, a “woman’s” profession. In addition, the leading advocates for gender equity, representation, participation, and social advance have mainly, though not exclusively, been women, many of them social workers. Therefore, the principal role models envisioned for social workers over the years have often been roles traditionally assigned to women: healer, teacher, nurturer, enabler, guide, organizer, planner, manager, listener, helper and supporter. This is not to suggest that these roles are passive. Far from it, since they all demand extremely active engagement and participation. And it is not to say that men have not or cannot take on these roles, because they often do and are good at it. However, more solitary roles traditionally associated with men, such as commander, explorer, seer, prophet, conqueror and victor have not been given much credence in the social work profession because of the nature of its work, which is helping others so they can learn to help themselves.

More importantly, the focus on gender in social work has helped our profession to be in the forefront of those who lead our society to significant social advances, such as improved care for the poor, homeless and immigrants, better working conditions in industry, the eight hour work day, improved public education, universal suffrage, establishing the minimum wage, elimination of child labor, developing health insurance, social security, pay equity, better mental health treatment and promoting juvenile justice, as well as advocating for significant social insurance legislation to advance the economic security of all workers. Feminist scholars such as Linda Gordon have long stressed that such efforts constitute a kind of social “maternalism” of which the profession of social work is a key ingredient. Gordon explains that this maternalist focus has been especially important in the area of family and child development, protection, and guidance, all areas of significant concern to social work throughout its history.

Given the above, the current rise in importance of gender studies, history, analysis, and political and legal action in this area can be welcomed by social work as a reaffirmation of the profession’s long held belief that a correct understanding of gender and its essential role in our lives is key to building a society that is progressive, dynamic, caring and just.

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