About 82% of social workers are now female and fewer men are entering the profession than ever before. Reasons behind male absence in the field have not been thoroughly investigated, though it seems clear that social stigma surrounding men in social work seems to play a significant role, as do economic factors. As a result, men are decreasingly likely to take advantage of social and mental health programs, and denying themselves employment in robust, growing fields. For their own economic, social, and mental health benefits, men need to reenter social work and reengage their own gender. 

Women constitute 81.6% of social workers, 69.9% of counselors, and 82.4% of social and human service assistants. Moreover, men account for less than 10% of social workers under the age of 34, suggesting that their numbers will dwindle even more in the next couple decades.

It wasn’t always like this. In the early 1980s, men constituted 36% of the social work force and 30% of the American Counseling Association’s membership. In the 1970s, men earned 50% of all master’s degrees in psychology — they now earn only 20%. What is happening?

The famously low pay in social work could explain some of this. Most social work jobs are degree entry professions, but the mean salary of licensed professionals is only $51,192. As one example that represents a broader trend, after managed care was instituted in the 90s, therapists’ salaries decreased significantly and the number of men in the profession began to drop. Perhaps men now don’t consider social work a worthy profession to follow their educational investment.

Economics, however, can’t be the only explanation — after all, women also enjoy making money. We may, through our social norms, be deterring men from considering social work as an option.

Men typically consider social work a feminine job. As we men grow up, we are taught to mask our emotions and discouraged to talk about our feelings and insecurities. Since much of social work involves addressing insecurities and hidden issues, it is not surprising that men are reticent to enter the profession in the first place. According to the National Association of Social Workers, only 10% of current male social workers considered entering the profession before college, suggesting that the vast majority of men don’t even consider social work an option.

The same study also revealed that men are most likely to be influenced to become a social worker by another social worker, which is concerning considering how few men are and will likely be in the profession. Is there a self-defeating cycle where fewer men are in social work because fewer men are in social work to encourage others to enter?

(By the way, one common explanation for the professional disparity is that women are just better at social work because they are more in touch with their feelings, etc. According to studies cited in the New York Times, women are not any better or worse than men.)

Regardless of what is deterring men, the implications are not good for us as a society and particularly precarious for men. The vast majority of the front line social and mental health workers are now women, which many therapists argue may alienate men seeking mental health treatment, particularly if they are seeking help for sex or aggression related issues. While the majority of social workers’ clients are women, some experts claim that need among men is under-reported, as many men do not seek social and mental health care because of social stigma.   

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a survey asking men why they don’t want to be in social work, so we can only speculate as to what is deterring them, but it is clear that social and (potentially) economic factors deter men from even considering social work as a professional option. As a result, men are eliminating their own employment potential in these fields, all while social work jobs are increasing faster than most and the female-dominated health services industry has proved recession-proof. More significantly, it seems likely that the fewer men enter the profession, the fewer men will seek social and mental health treatment. As the population ages and mental health issues remain a hot topic, more men should consider social work a viable and acceptable employment option.