10 Leadership Strategies for Women in Social Service Management
Although social work is a profession largely dominated by women, a disproportionate number of men serve as managers in the social service arena, and women are promoted at a significantly slower rate than men (Zunz, 1991; Chernesky, 2003). A study by the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) Center for Workforce Studies (2006) demonstrated that male social workers still earn more than female social workers who are equivalently employed.
Gender composition also shifted dramatically between the highest and lowest salary levels. Women made up 89% of the lower earners but only 57% of the higher earners. Therefore, men made up only 11% of the lower earners but 43% of the higher earners (NASW, 2006). It appears that equal pay for equal work is not yet a reality, even in a profession that strives to obviate societal inequities.
Some literature suggests that women make better managers (Chernesky, 1988; Krotz, 2002), yet women remain largely underrepresented and unnecessarily uncomfortable in positions of authority. In addition to the many organizational barriers that female managers face, worse barriers may be those they self-impose. Internal barriers, such as gender socialization, fear of success, inadequate mentoring, and reluctance toward confrontation pose significant challenges for a female manager (Haynes, 1989).
Viewing management strategies from a gender perspective is the administrative equivalent of acknowledging diversity in developing cultural competence. Women’s relational style can both help and hinder their effectiveness as leaders (Allison & Allison, 1985). One study identified nine categories in which women excel as managers: concern for people, sensitivity to the needs of female workers, investment in workers, a cooperative orientation, a global perspective, openness in communication, recognition of inequities, concern for the quality of the environment, and use of intuition (Chernesky, 1996). These qualities make for a nurturing, receptive, empowering, and inclusive environment but can also result in one in where productivity suffers.
Female managers may benefit from using the best of male and female leadership styles. Likewise, male social work managers may equally benefit from developing “feminine” leadership qualities, and men in social work may be more open to doing so. Many female leaders find themselves in the middle management positions where they are caught in the squeeze of trying to be responsive to both their subordinates and superiors. The following 10 strategies can serve as a reminder about how to painlessly use skills to represent both sets of constituents.
1. The WIFM Principle. The concept of “what’s in it for me?” influences many decisions in the organizational world. Money and prestige are often at the core of management priorities in the public and private sectors. In nonprofits, money and prestige translate into survival and public relations.
Determine how you can produce either or both. Focusing on how your program or department can improve agency survival and promote positive public relations will catch management attention. A key to motivating and managing people is convincing them why it is important to invest their time and energy (Kotter, 1985a). Likewise, in trying to sell a proposal or policy change, management would have to see what’s in it for them.
Example: A new position proposed by a supervisor outlined the ways in which certain administrative tasks could be eliminated.
2. The PMMFI Principle. The “please make me feel important” principle, which women may find comfortable to implement, requires that employees be recognized for their contribution and membership in the team. This empowering concept facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration and secures alliances. There are unlikely coalitions in most agencies and power in numbers. Call on people for their expertise. People are more likely to support something they feel they own or have an investment in.
Example: Constantly recognize any contribution to your program through awards or even short thank you e-mails to people, copying their supervisors. Publicly recognize all people who contribute to the success of your program. Once an issue is resolved, write a newsletter article acknowledging those who helped.
3. Play to your strengths. Instead of operating from a deficit model, use the same strengths perspective recommended for clients. Identify what you are good at and visibly excel. There are different styles for different situations. Some people may like small talk before official business talk. Others may prefer bottom line, no-frills, immediate talk (Tannen, 1994). Know your audience; don’t be the same with everyone. If you’re good at schmoozing, schmooze with VIPs. If you’re good at listening, listen and then use what you heard in subsequent conversations. If you’re good at organizing, offer to organize. If you’re good at data/research, flaunt it.
Example: Listen to a fellow manager talk about his teenage daughter before discussing plans for expanding a program and then begin your next discussion with him by asking about his daughter. Compile a data-driven trend analysis. Suggest a research project.
4. Focus on outcomes, not just process. Focusing on outcomes may be more unfamiliar to female managers. Social workers (and women) tend to be process-oriented. However, to be efficient, effective, and prove your value to management, it is crucial to remain outcome oriented. Keep your eye on the goal. Demonstrate the bottom line achieved. Become familiar with the relevant literature on results-oriented management in human services (Garner, 1989).
Example: A social work committee developed an executive summary for the director outlining department successes and demonstrating beneficial outcomes to the facility. As a result, the director approved an additional social work position.
5. Keep money in mind. What will it cost? Is there a better way? Cost is measured in tangible and intangible assets. Even bad public relations is a cost to the organization. Fiduciary accountability is a management priority. Think in terms of investment. Convince decision makers that doing something will have a return on their investment and will be beneficial to consumers and staff; don’t just argue that it is the “right thing to do.”
Example: A proposal for establishing a needed employee assistance program would include a fiscal argument outlining the benefit-risk ratio of the proposed expansion of services.
6. Don’t deny that you’re a woman. You don’t have to act like one of the guys to be effective. And although women are relational, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. In fact, being “friends” with subordinates can impede your ability to supervise them. Instead, demonstrate your value and use the best skills that women have: relationship and consensus building, flexibility, multitasking, and attention to detail and aesthetics.
Men characteristically need to prove they are different from others and practice “one-upsmanship” (Tannen, 1994). Women usually want to find sameness and commonalities with people. Men tend to “command and control”; women tend to build consensus and teams. Management literature talks about finding win-win situations. Women bring a unique “perspective of caring” to administrative positions (Chernesky, 1988). Women are usually tolerant of differences and sensitive to diversity. Women are skilled as people pleasers—apply it to the organizational world without being a doormat. Become familiar with the management literature that demonstrates why women make better managers (Krotz, 2002).
Example: Suggest and lead a process improvement team (including members) to rectify a service delivery issue. One manager trended the time her employees had to take off for child care issues. Her proposal to establish on-site day care was denied, but she advocated for flex time and work-at-home options, demonstrating the cost savings to the agency in lost time and productivity. Management agreed.
7. Be visible. Have your picture and program in every publication. Write briefings or reports for management on your program. Provide minutes of your staff meetings to everyone remotely involved. Participate in new employee orientation. Write up a short information sheet on your staff, program, or role in the organization. Do an in-service training for your facility. Provide articles for the agency newsletter and Web site. Form a speaker’s bureau for your agency.
Example: A social work committee of an agency worked extensively at arranging workshops and events for employees but had minimal participation. They started to keep detailed minutes of their meetings and efforts and distributed them to decision makers in the organization. They wrote a letter to other department heads soliciting their support with positive results.
8. Manage sideways. Identify relevant lateral relationships across departmental lines and use social work skills to enhance these relationships. In corporate America, this strategy has been called managing with a velvet glove or managing sideways (Kotter, 1985). The glass ceiling doesn’t preclude empowerment. Define your scope of reach within the internal network of the organization and learn how to influence others to get work done. These skills can be used to resolve conflict and build collaborative relationships. Develop and present top priorities in a business plan to colleagues and senior management. This aspect of managing may come easier to women, who are usually comfortable with lateral communication.
Example: Securing needed services was a challenge at one site until the social work manager worked with the chiefs of appropriate departments and engaged them in the process.
9. Anticipate resistance. “Playing politics” is not necessarily negative. Think of office politics as a form of advocacy and lobbying for special needs. This positive interpretation of office maneuvering puts you at an advantage since social workers are skilled at advocacy. Determine special and mutual interests. In conflictual situations, make your argument as sound as possible, including why your idea/plan will be beneficial to all. Don’t take no for the first answer. Counter with “If it can’t be done now or in this way, how can it be done?” or “Could we try it for three months and then make a decision?” But pick your battles; strategic retreats are sometimes in order.
Example: An agency serving women required a more private space for client check-in. A large storage closet, located in the clinic area, used by another department was ideal. Anticipating that this department would not want to give up the space, the social work manager strengthened her request with national privacy standards and by offering to work with the department to secure other storage area.
10. Always have a Plan B. Be solution focused. Management doesn’t want to hear about problems; they want to know how to avoid or eliminate them. Don’t present problems to management without also presenting a solution or two. Use your intuitive and professional problem-solving skills. Applying the same principles of solution-focused treatment to management problems can only be a win-win for your agency, your confidence, and your career.
Gender differences in leadership style are real and valuable. Women’s “ways of knowing” and leading may actually make them better managers of people and services. However, the preponderance of women in the field may have caused a disservice to women managers in that those who ascribe to the traditional “hard skills” of scientific inquiry and management will discount women’s “soft skills” (Dinerman, 2004). Female managers need to demonstrate the value of the soft skills, what Garner (1989) calls visionary leadership, a transformational approach which simultaneously shows commitment to clients, service, and employees.
One of the charges of being a social worker is to be a change agent. Feminist theory would direct us to work towards challenging societal views that devalue women. Female managers have a unique opportunity to be change agents by disputing prevailing traditional views on management. Demonstrating management success through the use of some of the suggestions outlined in this article may help to prove the importance of the feminization of leadership, while reducing the discomfort that some women feel in positions of power.
— Claudia Dewane, LCSW, DEd, BCD, is a senior lecturer with Temple University’s Graduate School of Social Administration. She is the founder of Clinical Support Associates, providing supervision, consultation, and training to professional social workers.
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