Men in Speech Pathology – the Speech persona

I volunteered for my university’s open day, talking with prospective students. It was interesting to see almost ten young men approach the Speech Pathology stand to inquire about the course. I remember one prospective student asking me about the role of SPs, and the course content. I related to him a memorable interaction with a client from my acute hospital placement. He was well-informed, correctly inferring that her aphasia was non-fluent – better than your average Year 12 student! However, his mother asked me point-blank: “how many men are in the course?”. I couldn’t lie, out of ~100, there are three, and I am the only local (non-international) student (not that that’s a problem – but it’s an interesting statistic). Also, I am a postgraduate – when my colleagues were in first-year there were two men, one of whom has changed to Audiology. His mother was not impressed. I couldn’t blame her – men like to talk with men on some occasions, and most people would not like the enhanced attention that comes from being the only boy in the room. I tried to sell the positives: the lecturers would always know your name, you would be in high-demand, especially in pediatrics, and since society views men as more competent than women, your career would probably progress faster (this was tongue-in-cheek, but is perhaps true).

I performed a quick ABS search a few months ago, comparing the gender-split in SP to other professions, finding that, in Australia at least, Speech Pathology has perhaps the fifth highest proportion of women. However, when looking at the other side, there are far more professions that have a more extreme gender split favoured towards men (mainly in trades and engineering). It’s nothing new to state that professions that have been historically viewed as feminine (nursing, education, etc.) have large proportions of women, but it is the size of the split in SP that is intriguing.

Here’s a table to compare health practitioners (taken from AHPRA’s Annual Report):

AHPRA gender

Speech Pathologists aren’t registered with AHPRA, but they would have a similar proportion as the “Nurse and midwife” category.

This week the @wespeechies twitter handle was curated by Adrian Bradley, an Acute clinician from Ireland. He discussed the position of men in the profession, as well as strategies for addressing the gender split.

Is it a problem?

Obviously, there needs to be a benefit to having diversity before we commit to pursuing it. My opinion is that professions with low diversity can lack external credibility. SPs working in all environments face skepticism of their expertise and clinical skills from doctors, teachers, parents, policy-makers (for example see here). Diversity in a profession creates an image separate from the stereotypical associations outsiders may have (the GP as an older man, the nurse as a maternal woman, etc.). SP certainly has an image problem: upon telling a medical intern friend that I was commencing study in SP, he was surprised – his impression was of a lot of petite ladies with high-pitched voices. I have met SPs like this. But the majority that I have met have simply been women – from the country, the city, private schools and public schools. SPs of different ethnicities, some who have completed previous study in medical science, linguistics, psychology, science, education. Some who worked in business and marketing. Certainly beyond the stereotype!

Perhaps one of the issues with the stereotype is socialisation. Through our training, we take on the SP persona, in which our individuality is diminished somewhat. I have been in several settings where I have been told: “we can’t do that here because of X”. X usually involves Other People, who are not SPs (physios, doctors and headmasters are often the culprits here). By enforcing this professional boundary, we lessen diversity.

My ideal professional persona is more consultative than directive. I see myself as someone who has expert knowledge in language, speech, communication and feeding; and who is able to provide expert advice or therapies in consultation with people, their networks (families, friends, colleagues, etc.) in order to help them achieve their goals. To do this, I am more “Team Allied Health” or even “Team Health Care” than “Team Speech”.

Perhaps this comes from belonging to various other groups before entering Speech Pathology (musician, linguist, cooperative director, etc.).

My experience

During clinical placements, my gender is seldom mentioned. It was never mentioned on my acute hospital placement, and only once by a nurse on my sub-acute placement (“we’ve never had a male speechie before…”). However, on paediatric placements, whenever I seem to build good rapport with a male client, their parent always says, “it’s because you’re a man.” Perhaps it is, but I’d like to think its because of my skill!

I’ve been told on numerous occasions that clients will seek out a male SP, and that my career will progress faster – “you’ll go straight to management”. While I don’t envisage working solely in clinic for the rest of my career, I’d like to think that any progress I make during in my career would be due to my skill rather than my gender. But how would you know?

This has turned into a rambly sort of post, but these issues are complex and interwoven. The position of women, the position of the profession, and individual factors coalesce – there’s not a simple explanation for the observed phenomena.

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