Theme Social Work

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Although the social work profession tends to imagine itself as 'born modern', it has its roots deep in the female philanthropy that it substantially but not completely displaced. The call for the introduction of professional social work was championed by female philanthropists through conservative and mainstream women's organisations, and the first women who entered the profession often came from families with long traditions of philanthropic engagement. Melbourne's Dame Mabel Brookes (Poynter, ADB; Francis, 'Brookes', AWR) had been sceptical of the need for the new profession but became an enthusiast after visiting several hospitals in England. On her return, she convened a meeting to gain support for a local Institute of Almoners, the British term for medical social work (Lawrence, 34). Mrs Kent Hughes, a member of the Melbourne Hospital auxiliary, having seen British almoners at work during a similar trip, persuaded her fellow auxiliary members to raise the money that brought Agnes Macintyre to Melbourne in 1929 to establish the first almoners' training program (Lawrence, 35). In Sydney, the path to professionalisation was forged by an alliance of three women's groups, the National Council of Women, the Young Women's Christian Association and women involved in industrial welfare, who together established a Board of Social Studies and Training in 1928 (Gleeson, 212; Marchant, 35). However, in order to realise their ambition of having professional training move from the philanthropic to the university sector, women in both cities were forced to forged alliances with sympathetic men within the academy. This set a pattern in which the opportunities for leadership inherent in a profession that was and has continued to be female dominated were often seen as a threat to its status (Marchant, 39).

The early years of professional social work in Australia reflect this anomaly. The overwhelmingly female graduates of the new training courses, joined by women who had undertaken training in the United States, were engaged in a process of defining the new profession; however, opportunities to exercise leadership were constrained both by gender and their status as employees (Lawrence, ix). The restrictions on the employment of married women meant that only the minority of female graduates who remained single stayed long enough in the profession to gain substantial expertise, leaving the even smaller group of male graduates with privileged access to senior positions (Martin, 333). These barriers were complicated by the concentration of employment opportunities in medical settings where social workers were commonly positioned alongside nurses as providing a service to the male-dominated medical profession (Martin, 338).

When the training moved into the universities in the 1940s, male academics delivered the theoretical content, leaving women, working under male direction, to deal with the practical aspects (Marchant, 40; Crawford & Leitmann, 47). Although, for most of the male academics, teaching into the social work course was secondary to their main interests, women were not trusted to take positions of leadership (Lawrence, 44). Appointed to the University of Sydney in 1945, Norma Parker (Land & Hennningham, AWR) acted as director repeatedly over the next fourteen years. Male directors came and went but she was never offered the position (Lawrence, 130). R.J. Lawrence, who was later to become Australia's first professor of social work, finds this apparent oversight unsurprising. Parker's interest, he claims, 'was not in administration; she was primarily a first-rate practitioner and teacher of social casework', a claim that seems inconsistent given her leadership roles outside the academy. In addition to her academic career, Parker was founding president of the Australian Association of Social Workers, a position she held from 1946 to 1953; she also played a key role in the foundation of the Australian Council of Social Services and is rightly regarded as the key founder of the profession (Lawrence, 130). However, Parker's experiences were far from unusual. Amy Wheaton (Bates, ADB; Land, AWR), director of the Adelaide course from the 1930s to the 1950s, did most of the teaching but only after her health broke down was she offered an increase in staff and a 'belated rise in her status' (Lawrence, 53). Well into the 1970s, the heads of Australian schools of social work were male, often from overseas, and rarely with substantial practice experience (Crawford & Leitmann, 47).

Outside the academy, the early social workers had to tread a cautious path in order to advance the claims of the new profession without alienating either the philanthropic women who until then had commanded the field, or the male professionals and agency or department managers on whom they depended for their support (Greig Smith, 1-2; O'Brien & Turner, 11). Accounts of the way they negotiated this task tend to emphasise qualities coded as female. Sydney social worker Kate Ogilvie (Lawrence, 'Ogilvie', ADB), for example, is applauded as a 'forceful leader' and a formidable advocate for her cause, yet her success is ascribed to her 'personal gifts … and her capacity for relationships and for inspiring confidence' (Greig Smith, 1-2; Parker, 1983, 4). Norma Parker was described as 'not ambitious' but rather 'she did things because they needed to be done', creating opportunities for 'good people' rather than claiming the credit for herself (Mills, 1986, 3). In her reminiscences, Parker noted how, during her early days in Melbourne, she came to realise that 'one served quite a long apprenticeship before you earned the right to have anything to say … It took years to be accepted; when that happy day finally arrived, all was well, but it was a weary process' (Parker, 1979, 19). Teresa Wardell (Lemon, AWR), the first social worker employed in Victoria's Child Welfare Department, was slower to learn this lesson. Claiming a right to speak on the basis of her professional training, she repeatedly came into conflict with the career public servants in the department, who criticised her for failing to accept her place (Musgrove, 139-40).

The Second World War created greater opportunities for women. With men at the front, many women were called to positions of leadership in both military and civilian organisations and played a major role in planning for post-war reconstruction (Lawrence, 90). However, the social work profession tended to minimise rather than celebrate their achievements. At a time when the 'real' professions of law and medicine were under male leadership, the gender imbalance was seen as a threat to social work's claim to share professional status. R.J. Lawrence returned to this theme when discussing the future of the profession in his 1965 history of social work. The women attracted to the work, he argues, were all too easily dismissed as 'nice girls from nice families', while the single women who 'provided the group's work with continuity and leadership … were "career women" … sometimes unkindly described as "frustrated spinsters"' (Lawrence, 70). The future of the profession, Lawrence believed, lay in attracting more men. Male social workers, he argued, would display a greater sense of commitment in the early stages of their career, stay longer in the profession, and, rather than accept inadequate employment conditions, would insist on independent and equal status with the established professions. Men, he argued, could move smoothly into positions of leadership. Unhampered by community attitudes to professional women, they could more easily bridge the gaps between government and non-government agencies. Equal in importance, however, was his assumption that they were implicitly more rounded individuals, who relied 'less completely upon their work for social and personal satisfactions because they have a family and home of their own', took a broader view of individual problems and were generally more aware of the 'father's part in life' (Lawrence, 198).

The relaxation of restrictions on married women's employment saw more women remaining in or returning to the profession by the 1970s. However, the increase in numbers was not immediately reflected in a rise in the proportion of leadership positions occupied by women. A developing feminist analysis highlighted the 'fundamentally patriarchal assumptions' that functioned to advantage men (Brown, 225). Some of these advantages were structural. While ameliorative provisions such as child care and part-time work had been introduced to overcome labour shortages, the underlying assumption remained that it was mothers who were responsible for managing the family. The career of the male social worker could proceed unimpeded because he had a wife at home to deal with these responsibilities (Brown, 227). Women, however, were too often positioned as seeing their work as an adjunct to their lives as wives and mothers.

However, a more significant barrier to progression was identified in the definitions of leadership that operated in the field, definitions that favoured indirect policy or administrative roles over female-dominated casework (Brown, 230). This division now came to be understood as indicative of patriarchal oppression, internalised by male and female social workers alike. Caring work was coded female, transferring into the workplace the responsibilities assumed by women in the home. Female social workers were constituted as 'the housewives of society', while leadership status was conferred on those who occupied non-direct practice positions, still effectively coded male (Kiel, 9-11). The last decades of the 20th century saw many more women move into positions of leadership. Social workers, such as Marie Coleman (Morrell, Henningham & Coleman, AWR) and Fay Marles (Heywood, AWR), were represented amongst the many women whose ambitions were transformed by feminism, and they in turn brought feminist perspectives to what it meant to be a leader. However, overwhelmingly, the women who have risen to management positions in the social welfare sector have been compelled to accept masculinised definitions of what leadership in the profession actually entails, rather than challenge the gendered devaluation of care.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Lawrence, RJ, Professional Social Work in Australia, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1965. Details

Book Sections

  • Brown, Sue, 'A Woman's Profession', in Marchant, Helen and Wearing, Betsy (eds), Gender Reclaimed: Women in Social Work, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, New South Wales, 1986. Details
  • Musgrove, Nell, 'Teresa Wardell: Gender, Catholicism and Social Welfare in Melbourne', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 130-148. Details

Journal Articles

  • Crawford, Frances and Leitmann, Sabina, 'The Midwifery of Power? Reflections on the Development of Professional Social Work in Western Australia', Australian Social Work, vol. 54, no. 3, 2001, pp. 43 - 54. Details
  • Gleeson, Damien, 'Some New Perspectives on Early Australian Social Work', Australian Social Work, vol. 61, no. 3, 2008, pp. 207-225. Details
  • Greig Smith, Stanley, 'Three Ladies From England', Forum, vol. 7, no. 2, 1954. Details
  • Kiel, Helen, 'Women in Social Work: Caretakers or Policy Makers?', Australian Social Work, vol. 36, no. 2, 1983, pp. 9 - 14. Details
  • Marchant, Helen, 'A Feminist Perspective on the Development of the Social Work Profession in New South Wales', Australian Social Work, vol. 38, no. 1, 1985, pp. 35 - 43. Details
  • Martin, Elaine, 'The Importance of the Trained Approach: Social Work Education in South Australia, 1935-1946', Australian Social Work, vol. 36, no. 1, 1983, pp. 11-22. Details
  • Martin, Elaine, 'Themes in a History of the Social Work Profession', International Social Work, vol. 35, 1992, pp. 327 - 345. Details
  • Mills, Millie, 'Editorial', Australian Social Work, vol. 39, no. 2, 1986, pp. 2 - 3. Details
  • O'Brien, L. and Turner, C., 'Hospital Almoning: Portrait of the First Decade', Australian Social Work, vol. 32, no. 4, December 1979, pp. 7 - 12. Details
  • Parker, Norma, 'Early Social Work in Retrospect', Australian Social Work, vol. 32, no. 4, 1979, pp. 13 - 20. Details
  • Parker, Norma, 'Katharine Ogilvie: An Appreciation delivered by Norma Parker, Memorial Service, Women's College, University of Sydney, 21st February, 1983', Australian Social Work, vol. 36, no. 2, June 1983, pp. 3-8. Details

Online Resources