Name: Kirsty Sparkes
Occupation: Manager in Social Services
Age at interview: 30 years
Country of residence: Australia
Advice to other women: "Don't take no for an answer. No is easy. No is safe. People who say no often have not considered other ways or alternatives. If you think you are right, push back".
Can you please tell us what it is that you do for a living?
I am a team leader at a group home for adolescents that are at risk of coming into the justice system. So they have dual diagnosis, some form of intellectual disability and some form of mental health issue. They live with us 24/7 and everyone has very unique circumstances and unique needs.
How did you come to be in the role you are in now?
I got a casual position working with people with disabilities while doing my nursing degree and while in the role I was offered a position in the adult community justice program - which is where adults who have been exposed to the justice system with dual diagnosis - they stay with us until they are able to and willing to live independently without risk of entering the justice system again. From there, I moved into this position which is running one of the homes myself.
How has your experience been now that you have transitioned to a management role?
In this management role there are a lot more stakeholders. Working directly with client care, it is client focused. What are their needs? How can I help them? How can I up skill them? It’s very much about the clients. It is in the management role too but from a different perspective. So I’m liaising with stakeholders to make sure they have the relevant information, creating procedures and putting programs in place so that staff can upskill safely. There are more WHS (Work Health and Safety) concerns with physical assaultive behaviours. There is more of the back ground work that enables the people that work directly with client care to be able to facilitate that care as much as possible.
How has your experience as a woman been in a management role in that environment? Do you notice any differences by being a woman, does that impact your role?
Absolutely. My entire team are all male, and there is a very different relationship between the clients and myself as a female and also a very different relationship between my staff and myself. It works both ways, there is the aspect where they are concerned I’ll get more hurt than they will when there are physically assaultive behaviours and then there is the negative where they feel I cannot manage physically assaultive behaviours. So it’s like I had to work hard to earn that trust that I could manage those behaviours, that not only was I equal but I could show them how to manage those behaviours from my experience
And what about now? Do you feel you are listened to as someone with experience? Or do you still find resistance to the fact that you as a woman would know how to handle those situations?
There’s still resistance. So until they see it for themselves and witness me in a situation, it’s almost like they don’t believe it. So yeah, there is still resistance, like they think my place is behind a computer rather than managing behaviours.
And are there any policies in place – gender policies in place? As a woman, are their concerns of working with men with a violent history or is there a blanket approach with how staff deal with clients?
Both. There’s a blanket approach but when doing a risk assessment - an example would be we had a female staff member kicked in the stomach - all she did was open a vehicle door and the client booted her in the stomach. That put her at a much higher risk and she was unable to continue working with that client. However, the male staff are assaulted on a regular basis - are kicked - however, the risk of injury to them from those kicks are deemed as less, from the approach of the risk management assessment, compared to if a woman was kicked the same way.
Are you all given the same training? Or are their specific things you are taught based on being male or female?
No we all receive the same training. It is essentially how to avoid being hurt – so rather than a martial arts approach which is to hurt the other opponent or stop them from being able to hurt you, it is more how to escape a situation – so if someone is grabbing you around the throat, how do you escape? How do you release their grip and escape without hurting the other person?... and everyone who works with challenging behaviours receives this training.
Have you had many threatening situations in your job where you felt genuinely concerned for your own safety?
Um there have been a few, but there is a desensitisation, so early on in any, you know rapport building with the client, the first time they have assaultive behaviours, there is that level of intimidation where you know, you respond emotionally afterwards. You know, “could I have dealt with the situation better?”…That sort of thing, or, “oh wow, I really could have been hurt!” But once you’ve done it a couple of times with that same person you become aware of the risks, you become aware of the situation and so it’s less of an emotional response, it’s more of a tick list - “I need to achieve de-escalation of this client” - and you’re better able to manage yourself.
How do you feel that being a woman impacts your interactions with your clients – what’s your experience there?
Yes, they respond differently to me, and uniquely depending on the client. Especially in the environment at the moment, one client sees me as a mother figure, whereas the other targets females. So he will often look at opportunities to find me if I’m on my own, or if I’m more vulnerable at different times or different places because I’m the only female on the unit.
It sounds like an emotionally taxing role – what do you hope to achieve in your relationships with your clients?
I would very much like to see as much independence as possible. Often with time, and routine and regular therapies we can achieve much more quality of life that other wise their behaviours of concern would prevent them from being able to access, like; work, education relationships with friends and families and extracurricular activities that they are usually left out of. So, even now with support, it’s quite difficult for them to access a lot of activities because the people that run the programs, the people come back and say the risk is too high that others who participate in that program risk being assaulted.
It sounds like a complex system – how do you feel about the system itself? You sound very passionate about your work. Where would you like to see improvements moving forward?
The biggest improvement that I could make would be staff levels. It doesn’t seem like much but given that staffing is the highest cost of any budget, it’s often very difficult and requires a lot of justification in order to have the higher levels of staffing but they are often a very good way to relate to programs, that we have the staffing there, that we can keep our clients and staff safe, the risk management with more staff is much easier than risk management than with just one. However, no one has unlimited budget, and given that the system is going through so much change at the moment, and given that staffing levels are probably going to be adjusted as it is the easiest way to reduce a budget, it just makes me anxious. Because it could come full circle, and you know, they (the government) go, “everything’s running well, we don’t need that much staff” - and then things don’t run well and we end up with injuries and work cover. All the time and energy that goes into that side of things is taking time away from clients.
As they (the clients) are the centre of what you do that must be frustrating?
They should be the focus. I have just as much responsibility to look after the staff as the client, but taking time to do the workers compensation paper work, that whole thing is a lot of effort and energy that we could have avoided in my mind.
So moving onto a bit more about you specifically in your role, have you achieved anything in particular now that you’re very proud of?
One thing I’m most proud of is a client who came from environment where he had not left the inside of his house in over 2 years, and then within 9 months of entering the program with us, he is going out; to centre point tower, the aquarium and the movies. His access to communication, his inclusion in programs outside of school has increased by such a significant amount that it’s almost difficult to remember what it was like when he first came to us.
So I would be correct in saying that you love your job?
I love my job, it allows me to be passionate and to express that passion, and at the same time, work within a system that is very bureaucratic, but is also a little bit idealistic. So my aim is always a lot higher than what the expectations would be to most people (who work within the system).
So in a management role in particular, but in any job, you require a level of confidence - especially in what you do, to give an air of authority to keep everyone safe – and then again as a manager, with people coming to you looking for guidance. Confidence is something that women can lack. So from your perspective, how do you encourage confidence in yourself?
I make sure that I am as competent and educated and knowledgeable as possible. So I don’t let new policies just rust on the shelf – I’m aware of them. I know how they function and I don’t take them to my staff until I know how they work. If I cannot turn around and train my staff in it (the new policy) I will not take it to them. So that is how I encourage confidence (in myself) – that I have the knowledge and I’m confident in myself that I can take that to them (my staff) and guide them. It takes a lot, of not just confidence, but bravado to manage a team of men. So to get a man to come to me to say that “I need help with something”, it took time to develop that. Because they had to trust that I could actually provide that help
So working with the men in your work place with the relationship of power that you do have – how do you foster those relationships?
I’m not sure how I have fostered it differently with men, but I will say the best way to develop rapport with anyone in the health system is to caffeinate them (laughs). So I buy a box of fancy coffee for them. It’s enough to say that I’m not just your boss, but I’m here as a relatable level. I think as a female manager of men that it’s very easy to get a (pauses)… certain nick name (bitch)… and to fall into being overly hard. So I found that being generous with my time and giving them (my staff) the opportunity to have conversations with me, even if it is not work related really helps. Because it doesn’t matter where the stress comes from. It is often that debrief that enables you to manage your own emotions, to do your job, and because the job is so demanding and burn out is so incredibly high, when you come to work every day and you don’t know where the next punch is coming from, it is very emotionally wearing. So as soon as you have stress from any other aspect, it can be too much to bare. So providing the opportunity to debrief after any incident or anytime they feel they have to talk (is important). So being available and caffeinating them.
It sound like avenues of communication and building relationships is very important to you. But what about other relationships in your life? Our work lives and our home lives seem to be separated in a way that some time doesn’t seem compatible. I should say, you have a son, a baby on the way and a long term partner – how do you balance your work life and home life? Have you managed to balance your work life and home life?
As far as balancing work and home life – there’s no such thing (as balance). If you can’t do both at once it doesn’t work. At work I get phone calls from both my son and partner – so in order to maintain my train of thought while at work, is just a skill I’ve learnt. It’s the same as when I get home. If I can’t divide my time equally… it’s just a skill you develop to manage them all. It’s a skill that adapts.
Is your work place supportive of that balance? Are you able to take calls at work without issue?
So long as I am professional, I think they are very supportive. As long as they’re aware – that I let them know that I may receive calls, they are very supportive.
What is a source of motivation for you?
I’m very goal orientated – so whenever I have a goal I am instantly motivated. So inspiration would come from the fact that my job means I am working with people who have very little in the way of support, very vulnerable members of the community, very in need of the programs we run; and then my goal would be to see them as successful as possible and each day that goal would be different. Whether that would be seeing them have accommodation at 18, whether it’s having them being accepted into a special Olympic team, those little goals each day keep me going.
It’s funny though you say ‘little’ goals. When you see them day by day they may seem little, but ultimately they are big goals because you’re talking about someone else’s life and motivation. That must be inspiring?
Yes, I mean it’s their goal but they have very little chance of achieving that goal without help.
So we are aiming to bring women out of the shadows. There are lots of people doing amazing things that we just don’t hear about, but it’s a particular problem for women. Additionally in recent political times, not only are women not equal, but we have the potential for a decline in women’s rights. What is your vision for women’s equality in the work place or even generally?
My hope is that there is an education, this transfer of formative education that happens and as much as I would love to say that it has to come from women I honestly think it has to come from men. I think it has to come from man to man and I think it will result in less of this role division. I mean I see it on a regular basis, I see this; “I am a man, I am the bread winner, I require these hours”, more so than a female staff member who has a husband that works. I am often having these conversations with (male) staff members and explain to them that they also have a partner that works, and you also have a responsibility to raise your children, to be home for them so trying to work 50-60 hours a week isn’t a healthy balance, any more than a female trying to work her 38 hours a week plus being solely responsible for the house work and child care. I think that women aren’t aware of the roles that they play or how unequal that is. But on the other hand so are men. They aren’t aware that there are more than the work hours and more than the dollars in the bank that go into supporting a house hold, so I would like to see that transformation change, that awareness, that education come into society, where those unpaid hours of keeping a household are made open and aware and accounted for in some ones day. So a man who works 10 hours doesn’t sit on the couch when he come home because his wife was home 2 hours earlier from her 8 hour day, and she’s cooking and bathing children. And you are right, we were educating and increasing awareness of unpaid hours and we working towards promoting stay at home mums being incredibly valuable but now it seems like there is the push back to old roles - that we can’t work with in this day and age. I mean single income households are under immense pressure and to try and split those roles as they were in the past, it’s not effective because we know it doesn’t matter what your role is, you still have an equitable share of the relationship.
So what’s next for you? You’re in a management role now and have come a long way from your humble beginnings – do you have any further goals you would like to achieve within your profession?
Given that we are transitioning form a public to a private system, I would like to see myself as a CEO of an NGO providing the services that are currently being provided, because there are a lot of gaps in the system when it comes to grey areas – there are a lot of grey areas but the system is black and white. So I would like to run a program based solely on this grey area that I work in at the moment.
NGO’s do a lot of great work – but what is it about the NGO structure in the social services that you think will benefit you?
I think the NGO’s (in the social system I work in) haven’t had the time to develop yet, and once they have integrated with the public services which are currently the leaders in care services in this area, then their level of care will increase ten-fold… and then they can take advantage of the knowledge and skill that those in the public service can give them. I think that under an NGO there is a much more direct management structure, so things will hopefully happen quicker. I also feel that the removal from interdepartmental policies, and that sort of thing, it often comes under an umbrella, that money is taken out of one area to support another, it slows things down. Hopefully working outside of that system they’ll be able to interact directly with the services without the response of “oh well”, for example, “that child is housed and clothed and not in immediate danger so we don’t need to provide funds for them to see a psychiatrist”. Hopefully we can apply for funds, the funding is granted and we can allow that child to see a psychiatrist.
Final question – what advice would you give to another women who would like to work in social services to pursue that goal?
Don’t take no for an answer. People often give you no because they don’t know how to manage the request. They don’t know how or where to go, they don’t know where to go. But often if you push they’ll put you onto someone else or to another service that might get you what you need.
Delving into that more, how do you not take no for an answer? What do you do when you are confronted with that no? How do you resist that no?
I don’t know that I am a very good example at this point as I have been accused of being unprofessional and being a bully, but if an email doesn’t work I make a phone call, and if the phone call doesn’t work I go in person. So I cannot be put off.
So I Imagine there would be feelings of anxiety in that situation, confident person or not. How do you deal with that and that possible rejection?
I really, really care about my clients and their needs. It’s almost like I forget that the rejection is for me, it’s like it is to them. So I am defending them (my clients) and I overcome it because I am defending their rights and their access to these systems. So you and I, we can access these systems on our own, we don’t need to be defended. It does make the journey a bit gritty at times, there’s often some resistance, however I have overwhelmingly found that, after whatever the action was that needed to be achieved has been completed, whoever was resisting has often come to be far more helpful and positive in the future - when they realise I’m not going it for my own gain but for the client. And I think it empowers others, when they realise how much they can actually help, even if it was simply passing me on (to someone else). When they see that success themselves, I think it empowers people. No is safe. It’s safer to say no, to not taking responsibility. But once they find that there is success at the end, they are empowered to be more creative in their answers and resolution of problems.
So you would encourage women to push back when confronted with a ‘No’ they disagree with?