Women Supported Into Leadership in Physical Therapy…Again
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As a current physical therapy student with plans to have my own private practice one day, and with goals to take on other leadership roles to further advance physical therapy, I often find myself looking for other female leaders in our profession. Admittedly, I feel like this is more of a search than a search and locate mission.
Yes, the current APTA President Sharon Dunn, PT, PhD, is a female leading our professional association and that is encouraging. And it's worth noting that our occupation was initially founded and led by women like Mary McMillan.
But when I attended my first Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) in February 2017, I wondered where all the female leaders were. I was certain they were there. Maybe it was just on me to find them.
It eventually dawned on me. There's a shortage of female leaders in our line of work today.
I had a strategy meeting with a male colleague while at the conference and I found myself talking about the lack of women in leadership roles. He insisted that I was wrong, that I just hadn't run into them yet. I immediately asked, "Well, then, where are they?"
It was with my colleague's persistence that I was wrong, that there were in fact women serving in leadership roles, that I realized that our profession had a problem. A problem that some—probably many—within our field didn't even realize existed.
For me, CSM 2017 ignited a desire to search for and amplify female leaders.
I began by researching women who are making monumental strides in physical therapy. Although there were a few, I primarily found evidence supporting that women make up a larger percentage of the profession; however, very few of these women are in leadership roles.
Further, the well-known lack of pay equity amongst women and men contributes to the drought of leadership roles filled by female therapists compared to male therapists.
After CSM, I attended the American Telehealth Association's annual conference. One of the spotlight sessions included a panel of women leaders in telehealth who dealt with the same issues as women in physical therapy—lots of leadership roles, but few women filling them.
When the panel opened up the discussion for questions from the audience, I quickly raised my hand to inquire about suggested strategies to encourage more women to take on leadership roles. Most of the panel gave the attendees the challenge to seek mentorship and to mentor others. They also encouraged males who were in attendance to be more aware of their professional circle and to take the initiative to include their female colleagues as part of professional discussions and platforms.
Now, I should mention that I have had the honor of engaging with some of our current female leaders within the physical therapy world, although that is not to say that because women do occupy some leadership roles that the problem mentioned above is nonexistent. It's more so that we shouldn't have to search high and low for women in leadership.
For women in the medical field and many other professions, it can be hard to position one's self to start and continue climbing up the ladder. Life, family, school, career, and everything else seem to force us to reroute, pause, or sometimes stop completely, but that's not to say pursuing leadership roles and advancement should be "off the table" forever. The climb and the journey associated might be challenging, long, or even unfathomable, but it's possible.
As a current student, my hope is that women paving the way in our business also remember to look behind them. Grab the hand of a young female student or clinician, and be their role model or mentor. Be the example that, you, in many cases, most likely didn't have yourself.
My passion and deep desire for developing female leaders led me to create a group on Facebook called, Women Leaders in Physiotherapy. This group allows female students and clinicians to discuss various topics that are gender-specific, share similar challenges and experiences, and offer insight and advice when possible. Finally, I'll also mention that events like the annual Women in Physical Therapy Summit are signs that the momentum for female leadership is there, and our profession is beginning to chip away at this issue.
I am optimistic and determined to further assist with supporting current female leaders and to further develop and mentor up-and-coming female leaders. It is with these positive efforts that our profession will advance and be well represented far into the future.
Felicia Wenah, SPT, attends the University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences. You can find Felicia on Instagram and Facebook.