As a means to change my career path, and perhaps because I find student life so appealing, I have recently started an Honours in Social Development. Social development is an admittedly wishy-washy concept, but conjures up images of brave and tired individuals entering homes of abuse, poverty and despair and trying to lessen the burden that suffocates whole families. Essentially, social development workers, and social workers, are those do-gooders of society who are trying to make a difference to the lives of the less privileged.
Despite the research that this is going to entail, there is another interesting dimension to Social Development; the class itself. If there are a handful of male students, then that is a lot. Predominantly female, a mixed crowd of whites and blacks with a delicious international flavour of Americans and Southern Africans (and a Dutch and Mauritian student thrown in), it really does beg the question: what it is about us, as individuals, that makes us want to embark on one of the most under-recognised and thankless jobs out there?
Logic dictates that women are more likely to enter those professions that require empathy, caring, immense amounts of patience and the listening abilities of saints. Just to reinforce, more concretely, the concept of these feminine qualities within the Social Development sector, the research methodologies which are utilised very rarely use quantitative methods, which reduce humans to numbers and conveniently forget that feelings cannot be statistically analysed; essentially patriarchal.
This is not my original thinking; Rothery et al (1996) contend that the quantitative approach is rooted in male values of dispassionate logic, distance and little consultation. Having done both quantitative and qualitative research in the past, I must admit that qualitative research, which is based on forming a trusting relationship with those being studied, and sitting down to long, probing conversations about their lives, sits much better with me that the reduction of experiences to neutral numbers.
However, is there more to this female bias in Social Development, than the requirement of empathy? Could it also be a question of what is valued most in South African today? Money, success, professionalism and recognition are definitely valued above small, every day acts of kindness. Recognition is found in those professions like engineering, medicine and finance, which are still largely male-orientated. Certain jobs can give you those things that you require, but being social worker rarely does.
What complicates my thinking is something I read a while back. According to a study, South Africans are one of the most giving and altruistic societies on the planet. Acts of kindness, as well as social development projects abound – so in a sense, the formal and informal philanthropy is everywhere, to the extent that it is, in all likelihood, impossible to say that there is also a gender bias to caring.
I would like to think that everyone can care, but what puts you in a class with other Social Development students is not about your gender, but about the kind of employment which you seek. But I would like to hear from you what you think.
 Rothery, M.A., Tutty, C.M. and Grinnell, R.M. 1996. Qualitative research for Social Workers.