According to 2013 figures from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 60.6% of 224,000 employed physical therapists are women (as are 55.5% of physical therapy program directors), yet there remains a dearth of women in private practice ownership, managerial, or administrative positions.
Case in point: for the first time in roughly 50 years, the next president of the APTA will be a woman. Fifty years, folks. That’s just unacceptable, especially for an organization that represents more than 90,000 physical therapy professionals and students—68.1% of whom are women. In the early 1990s, this same organization appointed a task force dedicated to women’s issues and united behind a goal to improve the status of women in PT. Though the APTA has a history of recognizing distinguished women leaders in PT, it took nearly 25 years from the formation of that task force for a woman to actually take charge of the Association.
It’s certainly not due to lack of skill. In fact, according to a study conducted by leadership consultancy firm Zenger Folkman, women are actually more effective leaders than men. So, what’s the hold-up? A recent study from Rock Health indicates lack of mentorship as a limiting factor in women’s career development.
We Didn’t Start the Fire—But We Can Put it Out
The lack of women leadership in PT means there are very few mentors to show other women that they, too, can take on leadership positions. When women look around their industry and fail to see leaders who look like them, they’re less likely to see themselves in leadership positions.
In a study of 919 physical therapy students, researchers discovered that “Men showed statistically significantly higher odds than women of expecting to own a private practice, to become a faculty member, to become a physical therapist manager or administrator, to publish articles in professional journals, and to have a higher income in the first year of employment.” Before our young women DPTs even enter the workforce, their career expectations are limited—a fact that makes mentorship all the more urgent.
What’s in a Name
I’ve had many opportunities to mentor and be mentored—in ways both large and small—and that has made a huge impact on my career and my life. In fact, mentorship is such a powerful tool that 70% of major companies offer some type of mentorship program, yet our industry has yet to embrace this concept. So, I set out on a mission to change that. Through inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, I created PropelHer.
The PropelHer initiative is all about advancement in physical therapy—moving our industry, as well as our women DPTs and students, forward toward gender equality and equal representation in leadership. PropelHer exists to encourage young women DPTs and students to question their industry’s biases, to take action against discrimination, and to ask for leadership guidance. It also strives to motivate current women leaders to share their leadership experiences and wisdom, to offer counsel and support, and to show young women DPTs and students that they can “have it all” without sacrificing leadership opportunities.
I understand that being a role model can be a bit scary. There’s a lot of pressure to live up to expectations of what being a role model means. Despite my own experiences with mentorship, I’ve never seen myself as a mentor or role model, but it’s time that changed. Leaders in the PT space must embrace mentorship and the responsibilities that come with it—myself included.
This drought of women leaders in PT (which, by the way, most likely contributes to the large gender salary gap for PT professionals as well) persists to the detriment of the whole industry—one largely composed of women, yet dominated by men. While the issue of gender equality in top management positions isn’t unique to physical therapy, it is our responsibility as PT professionals to correct the problem. Some great first steps toward that objective: Join the discussion on Twitter using #womeninpt, seek and offer mentorship, and take a stand.