The students all gaze intently at the papers in front of them as a song plays from a CD player in the corner. The teacher, a dark-haired woman in her 50s, walks around the cinderblock classroom as the voice from the CD player croons about the District of Columbia's plight of taxation without representation. Three minutes into the song, the high school students begin to fidget. One boy doodles on his notebook cover, until the school's speech-language pathologist, James Brinton, redirects him to the lyrics. After the song ends, Brinton, dressed in a button-down shirt, khaki pants and glasses and looking barely older than the students he is helping moves confidently from student to student, checking in to make sure they understand the classroom assignment.
Katherine Thomas School, a private special education school in Rockville, Md., has a student body of approximately 130 students in grades K–12. Brinton is one of eight SLPs at KTS—but the only male. He is in his first year at KTS and is working with the high school students. Although he is clearly in the gender minority, he says he feels comfortable in his position and finds that helping his students who are struggling is so rewarding that any doubts he may have had about being in such a female-dominated profession are forgotten. "It's the right fit for me," he says.
But the scarcity of men in positions like his means a dearth of male SLP role models for young boys. Even though small boys have relatively high rates of speech-language disorders, most are never treated by a male SLP, which creates a supply-line Catch-22—one that ASHA and many male and female SLPs want to disrupt.
A rare sighting
Much like wheat pennies or double rainbows, male SLPs like Brinton are somewhat of a rarity. According to ASHA's membership data, the number of male SLPs in 2012 was 4,601—only 3.8 percent of certified SLPs. Of those SLPs employed in a school setting, a very small slice—2.5 percent—are male. Although the numbers haven't changed dramatically over the past decade, they do suggest that the gender disparity is worsening—in 2002, males comprised 4.7 percent of certified SLPs and 3.1 percent of school-based SLPs [PDF]. The trend that the gender disparity may be worsening is ubiquitous throughout communication sciences and disorders. Historically, there have been more male SLPs working in health care settings than in the schools, and more males who hold the CCC-A or a PhD than the CCC-SLP. Unfortunately, the gender gap has worsened since 2002 across all degree, employment and certification categories in CSD.
The low number of males in speech-language pathology has been on ASHA's radar for more than two decades—the association has commissioned several surveys and focus groups; assembled think tanks; worked with related organizations such as the National Student Speech Language Hearing Association and the Council of Academic Programs in Communication Sciences and Disorders; and developed marketing campaigns, convention presentations, outreach to undergraduate programs and, of course, brochures. Finding effective solutions, however, has been difficult. Since 1992, ASHA has conducted several studies to get to the root of the disparity. One study commissioned in 1997 found that:
- Men were more likely than women to mention that they are concerned about having adequate incomes.
- Men were also more likely than women to express concerns about finding jobs that provided ample opportunities for advancement.
- Men were more likely to categorize speech-language pathology and audiology as offering few opportunities for growth.
Of course, more women today look at careers in terms of salary and success. In fact, in a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, more young women than young men valued a high-paying career or profession, a shift from 16 years ago. In 2012, two-thirds of young women ages 18 to 34 rated career high on their list of life priorities, compared with about 60 percent of young men. In 1997, 56 percent of young women and 58 percent of young men felt the same way. And, indeed, more traditionally male professions—public safety, military, sales and finance—are seeing higher numbers of women than before. Given these considerations, one would expect the migration to be a two-way street—but for careers such as speech-language pathology, it's not.
"Increasing the number of male ASHA members is a part of ASHA's Strategic Pathway," says Vicki Deal-Williams, ASHA's chief staff officer for multicultural affairs. "In 2009, ASHA commissioned Veris Consulting, LLC, to help determine the feasibility of promoting our professions to males. While many of the factors affecting men's decisions to pursue our professions are outside of ASHA's control, we are committed to doing what we can to influence those decisions. We know that this is a change that requires a long-term, sustained effort."
And still, the number of men entering the field of speech-language pathology remains stubbornly low. In an earlier study commissioned by ASHA in 2004, The Dorlester Consultancy identified that two main reasons males are not choosing a career as a school-based SLP are—not surprisingly—money and the perception that being a school-based SLP is a woman's job.
Money doesn't mean happiness, but it certainly doesn't hurt. And, of course, a decent paycheck is a must to keep a roof over your head. With the median price of a home at $242,300 [PDF] and the national median salary for an SLP at $69,870, every cent counts.
Robert Dellinger, an SLP at an elementary school in North Carolina, says he didn't go into the profession with salary in mind, necessarily (in fact, he entered the workforce as a newspaper journalist, one of the lowest-paying gigs in the world), but as a 14-year school-based SLP with two daughters, he's attuned to how much he is—and isn't—making.
"When I was working at a newspaper, I was ridiculously poor, so I get what that's like," Dellinger says. "As an SLP, I'm obviously making a decent living, sure, but it's still a trade-off in some ways."
He is able to do the work he loves and be on the same schedule as his daughters but, he says, the field brings no windfall. "Looking back, I wish I had paid more attention to salary. This is not a money-making field," Dellinger says. "Of course you can make a living, but the rewards are more internal."
In comparison, James Brinton—a 31-year-old with no children—is okay with his paycheck. But he knows the current situation may not work forever.
"I think it's reasonable to expect an entry-level salary when you're first starting out, but that's not to say that I'm not looking for some career growth down the line," Brinton says. "I can see myself moving into something a little higher-paying one day."
There's also the problem of the past—past expectations of gender roles that aren't easily shaken. In previous generations, it was traditionally expected that the man would be the breadwinner, working in a profession in which money was the main reward. Women, if they worked at all, would gravitate toward lower-paying, "softer" careers that required a nurturing instinct.
"You can't generalize the notion that men aren't nurturing," Michael Maykish, an SLP in a North Carolina elementary school, says. "Successful SLPs are inherently nurturing, male or female. If you aren't, you're not going to enjoy being an SLP and probably shouldn't be in this career."
Tracy Ball, an SLP at a North Carolina middle school, grew up with a father who was a teacher, and never saw being a male in the schools as anything unusual. When he graduated high school, all he knew was that he wanted to be in a helping profession. Originally an early-education major, he switched majors when he learned about speech-language pathology.
"I wanted to do something that helps families who live with children with disabilities—I love kids, I love people, and I like helping. It fits me. It's what I'm supposed to be doing," Ball says. "A lot of my friends from college are in government or finance or something and, in their minds, they are just working to get a paycheck. They are always asking me 'What does it feel like to do something that makes a difference?' and I always tell them it feels good."
Choosing a major
The Veris study also sought to better pinpoint the reasons undergraduate males do and do not select CSD as a major. The results indicated that males were more likely than females to select CSD as their major for reasons related to job security, because their friend was majoring in it, or because a parent or family member works in the field. Importantly, a majority of both males (71 percent) and females (79 percent) reported entering CSD primarily because of their interest in the subject matter.
Another critical factor identified was when undergraduates choose their major. Approximately 80 percent of all undergraduates have selected their major by their sophomore year—in CSD, however, only 65 percent of females and only 46 percent of males entered CSD before their junior year, meaning that a majority of males waited until after their junior year to declare CSD as their major. By not tracking students into the discipline earlier in the undergraduate experience, CSD may be missing an opportunity to attract more males into the field.
The 2009 study also identified the gender ratio in the CSD professions as a major obstacle to recruitment by revealing that a large majority of non-CSD male students (75 percent) indicated that they wanted to work in a field with an equal gender ratio, and 11 percent preferred a profession with more males.
After job security, male non-CSD students rated competitive salary and benefits as the second most important factor affecting their selection of majors.
Perry Flynn, an ASHA board member who is associate professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and the consultant to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction in the area of speech-language pathology, agrees that money and gender roles are two contributing factors. But he also sees a third factor: lack of awareness.
"While I find a great interest in helping professions in the current generation of men, I also find there is a lack of awareness of our discipline," Flynn says. "Men seem to have awareness and knowledge of many other related services—physical therapy, psychology, even occupational therapy and certainly nursing—but no inkling of what a speech-language pathologist might do."
The Veris study confirms this impression, showing that only 22 percent of non-CSD students were aware of the audiology profession and only 25 percent were aware of speech-language pathology.
Although awareness of the professions is no doubt crucial to recruitment, it's important to appreciate that other, perhaps more widely known "helping" professions—such as occupational and physical therapists, physician assistants, psychologists and special education teachers—also continue to struggle with increasing gender disparities [PDF]. So, although raising awareness is always a good idea, addressing this factor alone is unlikely to reverse the situation.
There are still male SLPs out there, despite concerns about money and attitudes about gender. So what keeps them here? The Speech Dudes blog recently put out a list of the top seven reasons for men to become SLPs. Although some of their reasons are light-hearted, they include some very real reasons, especially when it comes to money. To be more specific, they point out that SLPs' salaries are competitive and there's room for growth.
"It's not rocket science to see that if $69K is the median, it's possible to get higher if you're willing to work hard and charge for your services," they note.
Another commonly cited reason men are drawn to the profession is the feeling of helping students and making a difference, particularly with boys. "I'm at an advantage when it comes to some students who don't really respond very well to typical teachers," Ball says. "I like working with kids with behavior issues—it's mostly boys. Boys tend to react well to other men ... I'll tell them I was in seventh grade and made some stupid choices, but here's what we need to do. And they respond. It's hard to put a finger on it. It's kind of an intangible advantage."
Despite such positives—the meaningful and intellectually challenging work, the high job security and availability, the competitive salaries—that Ball and other men in the profession cite, there continue to be lower numbers of male SLPs in schools. So the dedicated efforts to reduce the gender disparity in CSD (already under way for decades) will continue. Meanwhile, there is hope that shifting cultural currents will help, says Margaret Rogers, ASHA chief staff officer for science and research.
"It may be the case that cultural currents will shift eventually and that careers such as speech-language pathology will no longer be strongly associated with only one gender," Rogers says. "But right now, we are likely somewhere about midstream during this transitional period, as men and women are redefining their gender roles and identities to better accommodate individuality and personal preference rather than societal expectations."
Nonetheless, she says, there is a need to continue to help raise awareness of the discipline so that male students can have the opportunity to at least consider a career in CSD. "For those of us who know and love this discipline, we are well-equipped to broadcast the many benefits and rewards of careers in CSD," she says. "So, when the opportunity knocks—share your passion and be sure to mention that there are men in CSD careers who love what they do."
Do you have ideas or stories about how the gender disparity in CSD can be reduced? We welcome your comments at email@example.com.