Care workforce: men are an untapped resource

Men make up only 10 per cent of the community care workforce, but some argue there is scope to double, if not triple, that number, as the notion of caring as ‘women’s work’ is challenged.  

Men make up only 10 per cent of the community care workforce, but some argue there is scope to double, if not triple, that number, as the notion of caring as ‘women’s work’ is challenged.  Jackie Keast reports.

Two years ago as it was preparing for consumer directed care, Community Care Options began mapping out its workforce to see how it could best meet the needs and demographics of its clients.

The organisation noticed a number of different groups were underrepresented in its staffing base, which included men, who made up about five per cent of all staff, Operations manager Liz Anscombe tells Community Care Review.

Recognising the need to engage with men more effectively, Community Care Options consulted with existing male staff about what had attracted them to the industry and what they valued about the work.

The organisation worked with these staff to get the message out to other men through outside networks, such as sporting clubs, that the aged care industry has something to offer them. Anscombe says this was a successful strategy.

“I think there’s a lot of stigma, and you actually need men to break that down, not women,” she says.

Liz Anscombe
Liz Anscombe

In tandem, Community Care Options also ensured that men were represented in its community presence, with male staff attending career days, expos and educational campaigns. It also developed signage and promotional material that included men.

Internally, it made sure that men were represented on interview panels and in training, so that male staff felt more supported and connected.

Since initiating these strategies, the organisation has grown the proportion of its male staff to 22 per cent, across both support planner and direct care roles.

Anscombe says the addition of more male staff has seen peer benefits for some older male clients who feel more comfortable engaging with men on certain issues. Male staff also bring some equilibrium to the organisation itself, she says.

“In a female dominated industry it brings some fresh perspective,” she says.

Men in care

That Community Care Options began with a small proportion of men in its workforce is not unusual.

The National Aged Care Workforce Census and Survey in 2012 found that only around 10 per cent of both residential and community care workforces were male.

Associate Professor Debra King, sociologist and co-author of the report, says the pathways that men take into aged care are often serendipitous. Few come from a background aligned with caring, and usually look to the industry after a career break of some kind, such as a redundancy or a move.

Dr Debra King
Dr Debra King

King argues the value of male workers is not yet broadly recognised by the sector, and the idea of the “right person for the job” remains skewed towards a woman.

“There’s no general call for men to come into aged care; there’s no public validation of their skills and their life experiences that would be good for aged care,” King tells CCR.

While there has been a lot of work in the industry around cultural competency training, King says there is currently little work done around gender awareness, including analysis of how the gender of the workplace is reinforced through practices.

“It’s a highly gendered workforce, and aged care is structured around norms associated with it being women’s work. It’s these norms that have to be unpacked to understand how that might impact on men coming into the industry,” says King.

The census showed men often faced difficulties working in a sector constructed around, and dominated by women.

King says men could often be made to feel like they had to prove themselves, faced issues such as a lack of suitable uniforms in men’s sizes, and sometimes experienced overt gender discrimination by clients, co-workers and employers.

“Some men had been to an [job] interview and told by employers that they’re going to be watched carefully because there are doubts men can do the work, or co-workers put them down because they do things differently,” says King.

Another issue is what King calls the “sexualisation of care”, in that some women could feel uncomfortable with aspects of personal care such as toileting and showering being conducted by a man.

However, King says men who enter the sector are able to create opportunities for themselves, often by carving out a niche. This includes the care of older men, clients with difficult behaviour or substance abuse, or taking on tasks that required physical strength.

In terms of growing the community aged care workforce, King says that employing more men is a strategy that has been underutilised. There is scope for doubling, if not tripling the number of men in the sector, she says. However, this will take reflection of how to construct workplaces that are welcoming and supportive of men.

A virtuous cycle

In 2009, Anthony Brown, Adjunct Fellow at the Men’s Health Information and Resource Centre at Western Sydney University, co-authored a report into the use of home and community services by older men that found they faced barriers engaging with services. Among its recommendations were to target male workers and volunteers for recruitment.

Dr Anthony Brown
Dr Anthony Brown

Brown tells CCR that when men worked for a service, male clients – who make up around 30 per cent of total community care recipients – were better able to recognise themselves in that service or see it as being relevant to them.

Older male clients in Brown’s research commonly perceived community services as feminised, including activities, décor and furnishings. More male staff could potentially mean the needs and wants of men are better recognised, he says.

“By having more men involved in staff… it’s a subtle way to have more men involved in the planning of services and what they could look like,” says Brown.

Similarly, Brown says they found that attracting male workers often went hand-in-hand with attracting male clients.

“It is a bit chicken and egg… If a service has an understanding of what’s of interest to men and how to get more men as clients, then what that also means is that they’re running activities and they have volunteer opportunities that men are probably more interested in getting involved in,” says Brown.  “It’s a virtuous cycle, rather than a vicious cycle”

Brown says this pattern is typical of when services try to make their services more inclusive of any population group – policies and programs that reflect and value the diversity of a group attract both potential clients and employees from that background.

To increase proportions of both male staff and clients, Brown says services should begin with strategies around inclusive and respectful language, acknowledge cultural issues facing men and make sure men are included in advertising and promotional materials.

Rethinking norms

Michael Fine, Adjunct Professor at Macquarie University’s Department of Sociology, says while there is no single answer to potential workforce challenges in the future, aged care would do well to look at how it engages men, particularly as traditional jobs for men in manual industries decline.

Professor Michael Fine
Professor Michael Fine

“There’s not only scope, but there’s a real case to be made for increasing the proportion of men providing care in every field,” Fine tells CCR.

While men make up a significant proportion of unpaid primary carers – around 30 per cent – Fine argues the way aged care is conceptualised as a woman’s job and a form of nursing has acted as a barrier to men looking towards caring professionally.

However, with the move to wellness and reablement approaches redefining how community care is thought about and delivered, Fine says there is the opportunity to attract men to the sector who may have transferrable skills in backgrounds such as fitness.

To allow this, there would need to be some adjustments to how qualifications are recognised, says Fine.

For example, those who have studied in areas such as fitness, human movement or physical education have usually studied physiology, biology and exercise – all relevant to a wellness model.

However, Fine argues that if someone wants to enter the sector with such a qualification at present, they would usually be required to do a certificate III or IV without recognition of their prior learning.

Anscombe says part of what has allowed Community Care Options to increase its male staff is that they now recruit direct care staff on the basis of values, rather than qualifications.

Relaxing this requirement has seen a number of older men enter their workforce, particularly those who have come from a trade or construction background and were looking for a change, she says.

“We’re seeing men come to us with a skill base that they can share with our clients,” says Anscombe.

“Our clients are saying ‘I’m using my day program funding to work on engines or volunteer at the men’s shed – I need someone with me who is skilled in those areas’, and we have men who are coming from those areas looking to give back.”

Fine says that a lot of what has traditionally been seen as ‘men’s work’ is somewhat impersonal, and this is increasing with the use of technology. Aged care on the other hand, offers a job that is engaging and interactive.

“It really offers something which a lot of modern work doesn’t,” he says. “Responsibility for the wellbeing of others is a human task, it’s something we’re all challenged with and all need to think about.

“We should be thinking about this as a job for men as well as for women. We don’t work on that cultural change, and I think we should be.”

This feature article appears in the current edition of Community Care Review magazine.

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Tags: aged-care-workforce-census-and-survey, anthony-brown, community-care-options, community-care-review-slider, debra-king, Liz-Anscombe, macquarie-university, michael-fine, western-sydney-university, workforce,

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