4.8 Gender and difference
The discussion above referred to some of the stereotypes about the ways in which men and women supposedly communicate and interact with each other. For example, there is a view that in meetings men tend to talk in a supposedly rational way, while women's talk is associated more with feelings and emotions. It was also suggested that male workers are more likely to be intimidating or overwhelming in their relationships with service users and, by implication, that female workers might be less intimidating and more facilitative, for example.
The second main way in which gender is present as a factor in interpersonal relationships in health and social care is as difference. Sometimes this takes the form of an evaluative judgement, in which women are seen to be ‘better’ at interpersonal relationships than men. It is a short step from this to say that women are ‘natural’ communicators and ‘good with people’, whereas men are poor at talking about emotions, combative and competitive in conversation, and so on. Since a certain kind of facilitative communication is seen to be at the heart of, and essential to, ‘people work’, this notion plays into a discourse in which women are classed as ‘natural’ carers, better suited by either biological make-up or conditioning to working with people. The corollary of this, of course, is that men are not natural carers, and therefore should not be encouraged into such roles.
The feminist critique of social work has argued that gender differences in the use of services has further reinforced gender and power inequality. Women have often been seen as natural carers, which means they frequently take on the physical and emotional burden of caring. Sometimes professionals assume that the women in families will be responsible for caring for children or older relatives. As noted earlier, women outnumber men in many branches of care work. The reasons for this are complex, and not easily reducible to one factor. However, it is important to acknowledge the power of the ‘natural carer’ discourse in explanations of women's over-representation. For this discourse, the presence of women in such large numbers in nursing, social work, etc. can be explained simply by reference to their ‘natural’ (biologically or psychologically determined) capacity to care for and relate to other people.