Abstract: Social Worker Perceptions of Practices with Sexual and Gender Minority People (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Social Worker Perceptions of Practices with Sexual and Gender Minority People

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Judith Leitch, LICSW, PHD, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Background and Purpose: In spite of the discipline’s focus on culturally competent practice, social worker practices with sexual and gender minority people (SGM) can have positive and negative results, emphasizing the need for research on what determines practices with SGM people. Initial quantitative research suggests social workers’ attitudes, knowledge, skills, beliefs, and self-efficacy predict practice behaviors with gay and lesbian people. However, there is little research on how these practice determinants work to drive social work practice. Current research also does not consider practice determinants with bisexual or non-cisgender (gender minority; GM) people. This study informs models of practice by using an inductive qualitative approach to explore social worker perceptions of practice with SGM people, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and GM people.

Methods: Voluntary participants were recruited through a partnership with the Office of Field Education at a large, urban, Mid-Atlantic university. Participants are 178 MSW-level social workers who have been working for six months or more. The majority of the sample identifies as white (79.3%), female (85.0%), and heterosexual (88.4%). The most common age range was 30-39 (30.1%) and the most common range in which MSW was obtained was 2000-2009 (42.1%).

Data were gathered via an open-ended online survey asking participants about their practices and perceptions of these practices with either gay and lesbian, bisexual, or GM people. An inductive qualitative approach was used to enable themes to emerge from the data. Responses were hand-coded and organized into in vivo themes using a six-phase approach designed to increase trustworthiness and validity of data (Nowell et al., 2017).

Findings: Participants spoke candidly about the conflict between their desire to provide competent services and their lack of knowledge and skills in working with SGM people (theme: “I try really hard not to offend anyone”). Some participants approached SGM people through the lens of a democratic working model, in which all people are equal irrespective of minority identification (theme: “No special considerations are required”) or by putting the onus of self-identification on the client (theme “I wouldn’t ask unless they chose to talk”). While some participants described the desire to be culturally responsive (theme: “I would imagine being open and caring, non-discriminatory”) others appeared to have misconceptions that resulted in a pathologization of SGM identity (theme: “Gender Minority clients are suffering from a disorder”).

Conclusion and Implications: Findings demonstrate a large breadth of practice with SGM people, from harmful to helpful, that comes from varying practice philosophies, beliefs about best practices, and SGM-specific practice knowledge and skills. While most social workers expressed an interest in working effectively with SGM people, findings emphasize the need to improve education and skills-based learning to help social workers meet this goal and to better serve SGM people. This is particularly important in addressing practice with GM people, about whom social workers had numerous questions regarding practice and occasionally harmful misconceptions.

Nowell, L.S., Norris, J. M., & Moules, N.J. (2017). Thematic analysis: Striving to meet the trustworthiness criteria. International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 16(1), https://doi.org/10.1177/1609406917733847