What makes people care?

By Claire Martens

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[1]. 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.

[1] Rothery, M.A., Tutty, C.M. and Grinnell, R.M. 1996. Qualitative research for Social Workers.


3 thoughts on “What makes people care?”

  1. I studied International Development at a UK university and was struck by the difference in who was in which class: 25/32 people in the Development Studies class were women and in the Development Economics class it was virtually reversed. I often wondered why there was such a distinct break between the social and the economic approach to the same field. In general though on university campuses the humanities will be female-dominated and the sciences male-dominated.

    What we often believe are natural distinctive qualities in men and women have a whole lot more to do with how we’ve socially defined “success” for men and women than what we’re all “naturally” drawn to. So “success” as a woman is defined by empathy, femininity, fragility, being nurturing etc then it is quite clear that women even at the top of their game are more likely to be in fields that approach the world in that way. “Success” for men is based on rationalism, hard-nosedness, aggression and competition, so at the top of that game we’re also likely to find men in those kinds of spaces rather than women.


  2. there were quite a few men in my Social Work class (grad 2006) – if I am remembering correctly there were 9 or 10 guys of 34. they were on male-only brusaries for social work, though. And interestingly, all of the guys got jobs in Social Work in South Africa (bar one who went tos tudy psych further) – there was demand for male social workers. Still, there is a stigma attached to men going into a traditionally female and very low paid job.

    Sadly, I think only about 3 or 4 of my class of 34 are still practicing today – either thay are in london or Australia earning more money for much smaller case loads, or are in SA but have moved on: a 4 yr degree with multiple other subjects means we are employable in a variety of positions that pay 5x a social workers salary, with a fraction of the stress.


  3. Gender has nothing to do with the capacity to care- socialisation surely has an impact on expressing that care through action, language and choice of work.

    I am a nurse who no longer practices because I cannot change or tolerate the existent human rights violating health care systems of South Africa.

    Given that the nursing profession is still largely female and that much of the human rights violations are generated, allowed, enabled and denied by nurses it simply cannot be a gender thing.

    i believe about gender what I do about race: its a social construct not a biological reality.

    I love this blog and am so happy to have found it. How can I participate concretely in feminist issues in South Africa without being a university academic or employed by an NGO?

    Regards and soft fluffy hippy stuff too…


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