Blog Post

Founder Letter: It's Time to Close the PT Gender Pay Gap

Despite women taking on more rehab therapy leadership roles than ever before, men are still, overall, earning more money.

Heidi Jannenga
5 min read
August 1, 2018
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It’s a well-known—albeit unfortunate—truth that in the US, women receive less pay than men do when performing the same jobs (about 80 cents on the dollar, in fact—and that gap widens when we factor in race, although I’ll save that conversation for another day). In many ways, it seems like we, as a society, already should have evolved well past the so-called gender pay gap. After all, most of us know that gender doesn’t determine talent, skill, or aptitude. That would be inane. Yet, our financials haven’t yet caught up to our ideals. And that’s a problem—a problem that has long-standing detrimental effects in our society. But, we can only remedy it if we all work together.

The gap is alive and well in our industry.

If you’re thinking that this surely isn’t the case in our woman-dominated profession, think again. In WebPT's recent industry survey, we found that despite women taking on more rehab therapy leadership roles than ever before—which is a wonderful improvement, especially given the aforementioned point about this being a woman-dominated profession—men are still, overall, earning more money. For those in therapist roles, more than half of our respondents’ salaries fell somewhere in the range of $50,000 to $90,000, with nearly a third in the $60,000 to $80,000 range. However, men were more heavily represented in the $70,001-plus salary segments, whereas females were more heavily represented in salary segments below $70,000. This aligns with the most recent US Census data (2016), which showed that within the physical therapy occupation, women earn 87.6% of what men do. While this is slightly better than the previously-cited national average, there’s clearly still a clear disconnect between the value women bring to the business table and the level of compensation they receive—specifically compared to men who perform the same job functions.

“I am encouraged to see and meet more and more women in leadership positions in private practice...[but while] I feel like it is changing, it is not enough. I want to encourage women to step up and ask for what they want and not self-limit. When fear limits our actions, that is when we need to remember why we do what we do and allow our passion to overcome our fear. When we do that, all things are possible.” -Bridgit Finley, PT, DPT, OCS, FAAOMPT, Founding Partner and CEO of Physical Therapy Central

Regional Gender Salary Disparities

There’s a salary expectation gap, too.

Furthermore, per our survey, women’s salary expectations for their first job out of graduate school are significantly lower than men’s (a point that aligns with this Forbes-cited study of 66,000 undergraduate students across 318 universities). As I pointed out during last month’s webinar, “that begs the question: what came first? Are expectations creating the gap, or is the gap distorting expectations?” Either way, it’s clear that there is an opportunity for us to educate all incoming therapists about the importance of knowing their value—and negotiating and advocating for themselves to ensure they’re receiving compensation that is commensurate to that value. And compensation doesn’t have to be limited to salary; instead, therapists should factor in benefits packages as well as things like professional development, learning opportunities, work environment, and culture.

“New graduates will demand fair compensation—as they should—but the best companies don’t compete on price to recruit and retain the best talent. Culture and strategy play the most integral roles in attracting the best people, and therefore, the ultimate success of a company.” -Dr. John Childs, PT, PHD, MBA, Founder and CEO of Evidence in Motion

It all comes down to value.

Actually, that message needs to go out to every therapist, regardless of whether you’re a rookie or a seasoned veteran. It’s time to own your value—and get comfortable communicating it. We’ve talked about that in the context of payers, patients, and referral sources, but now it’s time to apply that same brand of confidence to your salary negotiations and promotion discussions. There are industry-wide consequences at play when you, as a single provider, accept a lowball insurance offer—and there are beyond-industry-wide consequences when, you as a female therapist, accept a lowball salary offer or settle for a position beneath your qualifications or abilities, especially when you’re getting less than what a man would receive. That being said, of course, it’s important to remember that these salary numbers are national averages; you’ll want to review regional numbers as well before stepping into the negotiation. Otherwise, you may end up turning down a perfectly good offer that’s actually on the high end of salary ranges for your location. Bottom line: It all comes down to knowing your value within the context of all contributing factors—which means you have to do your research.

We’re in a unique position to set the bar.

Given that more women are now stepping into their own as leaders within their organizations—as demonstrated by the fact that our survey data showed the representation of females surpassing that of males in all leadership categories except C-level executive roles—we have even more power to change the game and level the playing field. In fact, we have the power to establish our industry as a template other industries can benchmark against. We have the power to change the rules when it comes to gender parity across the board—in terms of both salary and leadership. We have the power to set an example that could ripple out from rehab therapy and impact every other profession in the US. And men, we can’t do it without your willingness to jump on board in support of your fellow colleagues (I’ll get to exactly how you can support them in a bit).

“As a majority female profession, it stands to reason that women would be similarly represented at all levels of our profession. Unfortunately, as in many professions, women have been under-represented in leadership roles in physical therapy. This survey data is thus extremely encouraging, suggesting that we’re starting to see change." -Sharon Dunn, PT, PhD, OCS, President of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA)

As a side note, if you’re looking for a great opportunity to meet other women in PT—everyone from therapists and practice owners to industry leaders and influencers—and discuss super relevant topics, including “leadership, visibility, and navigating your career with grace and strength,” then I highly recommend you check out this year’s Women in PT Summit in New York City.  

Equality will benefit us all.

There are so many reasons why we should be jumping at the chance to set that example. In addition to simply being the right thing to do—as well as being incredibly long overdue—boatloads of data support the benefits of cognitively diverse teams. According to researchers Rebecca Mitchell and Stephen Nicholas from the University of Sydney—originally citing C. Chet Miller and his research team, who authored this 1998 journal article—cognitive diversity “is the extent to which the group reflects differences in knowledge, including beliefs, preferences, and perspectives.”

Now, you won’t see the words “race” or “gender” spelled out in this definition, because while race and gender both factor into cognitive diversity, it’s not limited to these traits. Basically, the more diverse perspectives, backgrounds, experiences, and personality types that form a team, the better-equipped that team is to overcome social blockers or blind spots that could otherwise inhibit their creative, innovative abilities. In other words, it’s absolutely crucial to partner with and hire people who aren’t exactly like you (although hiring for cultural fit is still a good idea). That’s part of the reason why there are so many research studies that support the absolute benefit of women in leadership positions: women often bring a unique perspective to traditionally male-dominated leadership roles. Here are just a few data points to consider about the true value that women bring:

  • A 2012 Dow Jones study showed that venture-backed companies are more likely to succeed with women on their executive teams.
  • In 2011, Catalyst, a US non-profit company, found that “companies with the most women board directors outperformed those with the least on return on sales (ROS) by 16 percent and return on invested capital (ROIC) by 26 percent.”
  • According to Chris Bart, PhD—professor of strategic management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University and co-author of a study about women’s role in corporate leadership—“We’ve known for some time that companies that have more women on their boards have better results. Our findings show that having women on the board is no longer just the right thing, but also the smart thing to do. Companies with few female directors may actually be shortchanging their investors.”
  • As explained in this New York Time article, “having women in the highest corporate offices is correlated with increased profitability, according to a new study of nearly 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries.”
  • According to this Harvard University field experiment, “Teams with lower percentages of women have lower sales and lower profits than teams with a balanced gender mix.”

We must uncover—and eliminate—our own gender biases.

But, all the statistics in the world won’t help us reach our goal until we uncover the underlying biases that many of us carry about women in leadership roles. That means men and women managers, owners, and execs need to change the way they approach job offers and salary discussions with their employees—and take a cold, hard look at the salary data in their current organizations. If you’re paying women on your staff any less than men, or failing to promote as many women, then it’s time to ask yourself why—as well as what you plan to do about it. And if you’re guffawing when a woman on your staff approaches you for a raise or a promotion, but you take it as a matter of fact when a man does the same, then you need to explore that bias further and work to move past it. One of the best ways to overcome these biases—in addition, of course, to doing the internal work necessary to let them go—is to base your performance review, promotion, and salary decisions on data: specifically, objective outcomes, patient loyalty, and financial data.

And we must ask for what we know we deserve—as well as what’s fair.

Employees, it’s going to fall on you to start the conversation with your employers about what you believe your role is worth—and what you want out of your career. Come to the table with your own data to demonstrate your contributions to the business, and leave the emotion out of it. As I suggested here, “Remember why you do what you do, and let that drive you forward to not only ask for—and receive—what you want, but also to create meaningful change in our profession that further establishes the concrete value we deliver (based, of course, on our merit, not our gender).” In other words, focus on the passion you have for your profession, your patients, your colleagues, and women everywhere—and bring that to the conversation that you have with your current or prospective employer. And remember, it’s not all about what comes in on that paycheck every two weeks—it’s about quality of life.  Your company’s culture, benefits, schedule flexibility, and coworkers should all factor into your job decisions (after all, they all massively factor into your happiness).

It’s going to take all of us—men and women—to make the change I know is possible. I’m in. Are you? Are you willing to join me in setting a new standard of gender equality in our industry?


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