On an equal footing

On an equal footing

In June 2019 we published an Opinion from Yvonne Wren on gender imbalance in speech and language therapy, and as this month’s theme is women, we decided to re-direct attention to it.

The percentage of practising UK SLTs who are male was published in the January issue of Bulletin. Standing at just 2.9%, the figure is shockingly low, and messages that followed on social media expressed responses ranging from dismay to disgust. Certainly no-one wants to see such unequal representation in the profession.

However, in common with other female-dominated professions, there is a disproportionate number of men in leadership positions within speech and language therapy (as discussed recently by RogusPulia, Humbert, Kolehmainen and Carnes, 2018). Although many attempts have been made to attract more men to the profession, clearly we are yet to find a strategy that works. We also need to reflect on the reasons why previous attempts have been unsuccessful and consider whether this is an issue that is much bigger than our profession alone.

Let’s start with the ‘glass ceiling’, a term so often used to describe the barrier to women achieving in a patriarchal society. The implication is about getting to the top. The traditionally male-dominated professions tend to be those that come with power, influence and money: not things commonly associated with the caring professions. So what is the alternative for men who are successful in femaledominated professions?  Is there a ‘glass floor’ they need to break through? That’s hardly an inspiring or attractive option for any SLT.

We also need to consider how realistic a 50/50 gender split might be for some professions. In law, medicine, finance and business, women are strongly represented with increasing numbers at higher levels. Without doubt, there is also an increasing number of women studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects in higher education, but do we anticipate that some areas might always appeal to boys more than girls? The stereotypical ‘computer geek’ is a young man who prefers to work with screens and numbers rather than words and people. Of course, this is not true of all computer scientists, but as a group, is there something about the nature of the work that is going to attract more male interest? Likewise, are the caring professions, particularly those with a focus on communication, always going to appeal more to women?

Whatever the reasons, we need to think about the impact. I am thrilled that women’s football is now receiving media attention. But what about netball, traditionally a female sport? Is anyone making a fuss about the lack of male involvement? Is anyone even aware that there’s a fledgling men’s netball game?  The reality is that femaledominated professions remain largely low status and low profile in society as a whole. They are not valued in the same way as those professions which were once, and to some extent still are, maledominated. How much have we really achieved as women if the traditional areas where we have excelled consistently remain undervalued? More than two decades after Pam Enderby and a group of SLTs won their famous ‘equal pay’ case, how much has equality in the profession really advanced in terms of status and recognition in wider society?

To celebrate the achievements of women in general, we must recognise their value and contribution in all areas, not just those where we are seen as achieving in traditionally male roles or work. What we need now is a campaign to fight for the recognition and celebration of those work environments where women have always succeeded. If, through that, we can achieve a stronger profile and influence in society, then we might achieve our goal of making speech and language therapy, and other careers typically dominated by women, an attractive career option for me as well.

Dr Yvonne Wren, director of Bristol speech and language therapy research unit