Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to think hard about the issue of men in the field of Speech-Language Pathology. My biggest hurdle has always been whether or not this is, in fact, an “issue” at all. It may well be an observable and measurable phenomenon but that doesn’t necessarily qualify as an “issue.” By that, I mean does it really matter that the balance of men to women in the field is significantly skewed?
At the 2015 ASHA Convention in Denver, I attended a session entitled “SLTs in Europe – ‘United in Diversity’ – the Challenge of Promoting the Profession” presented by Michele Kaufmann-Meyer and Baiba Trinite  of the Comité Permanent de Liaison des Orthophonistes-Logopèdes de l’UE or CPLOL. At the beginning of the session, they brought up a slide highlighting the following three points:
- Diversity is challenging
- Diversity is welcome
- Diversity makes us grow
But the definition of “diversity” was one that focused on cultural, educational, linguistic, and ethnic differences and not gender. At the end of the presentation, I pointed out that when I qualified as a Speech and Language Therapist in the UK back in 1983, the data suggested that about 2% of the professions was male, and that 32 years later, the figures say that at best it’s close to 5%, which is as close to “no change” as makes no difference. So I asked the question that if “diversity” is challenging, welcome, and makes us grow, what was CPLOL actively doing to encourage gender diversity, the answer of “nothing” was oddly unsurprising. If it’s not seen as an “issue,” or so low on the “issue” totem pole that no-one cares, then why would we expect any change?
In fairness to CPLOL, they have two working groups on Education and Clinical Practice that are tasked with the following list of topics:
All of these are virtuous and worthy, and given that CPLOL is funded by subscriptions from its member organization, and any donations, the organization is not exactly awash with money, so one can understand the need to create priorities. Gender imbalance is clearly not a priority, although I should in all fairness add that Michèle gave me her business card and an open invitation to engage in some dialog, so that proverbial ball is now in my court.
Everyone talks about the weather…
To paraphrase a quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Everyone talks about men in the profession but nobody does anything about it.” That may be a little unfair because there have been sporadic events to try to increase the number of guys becoming SLP/SLTs but if the outcome over 30 years has been at best a 3% increase, whatever has been done has been minimally effective. This isn’t a criticism of individuals or organizations but a simple statement of an observable fact. My guess is that there’s been a bigger percentage increase of male strippers in the past 30 years – another field of endeavor that’s noticeably female.
Social media has offered opportunities for men to promote themselves via such things as the #speechguys hashtag and @speechguys Twitter handle, or the “League of Extraordinary Speech Gentlemen” on Facebook but these are all marked by low numbers. @speechguys currently has 328 followers and the “League” – admittedly a closed group – has 236. Compared with @Sockamillion the cat, a feline with 1.2 million followers, there’s a way to go before men in Speech Pathology make a splash on the internet.
So what’s to be done? Anything? Nothing?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a polemic as “a strong verbal or written attack on a person, opinion,” which is what this article is about to become. Let’s assume that there IS a need to have more men in the profession, and that there ARE benefits to this. If that’s the case, then I’m no longer interested in re-hashing the numbers; I’m not interested in interminable and repetitive discussion about why men don’t become SLPs; and I don’t want special treatment for men just because they are men. What I want is for some commitment from the Profession as a whole to do something that has the following THREE critical components:
- A written Plan of Action with measurable results. There’s a time for “raising awareness” and a time for “making a change” and after 30 years I suggest that awareness raising has had its chance. What we need is a list of goals that are defined in ways that can be measured so we can determine success or failure. Saying “we want more men in the profession” is not a goal; it’s an aspiration. Saying “we want to see the global proportion of males in the profession to be 7% by 2018, based on figures collected by at least six national SLP organizations all using the same metrics” is a goal . And on December 31st, 2018, we can actually see whether we’ve achieved it or failed.
- Resources. Informal clusters of men trying to co-ordinate “stuff” on the internet in their spare time are not “resources.” They are simply informal clusters of men. Like all of us, they have clients to see, families to care for, homes to maintain, and the usual list of “things to do” that get in the way of fighting for a cause. Resources are time, people, and money – and the latter is the key. Unless a fixed amount of money is allocated to a project, there’s no way to budget for the time and people. The international professional organizations already allocate money to other projects and there’s no reason why “getting more men into the profession” cannot be one of those.
- Rebel with a Cause. Over the past ten years of so, the term “champion” has become part of the business vernacular to describe a person who is identified as the prime mover of a project, cause, or product. If we are to have our own “Rebel with a Cause,” this champion has to have a budget, the power to hire and fire, and a position within the administrative structure of a national organization. This person needs to be passionate, articulate, engaging, and unfazed by the prospect of being in the limelight. And he needs to be comfortable with being a role model for other men.
Unless the Profession can commit to these three elements, I’m predicting that in another 30 years, just before I reach my 90th birthday, we’ll still be looking at the numbers and wondering why we’re only up to 7% of SLPs being men.
For what it’s worth, I am not that Rebel. I’m too old, too short, and have all the “media appeal” of Jabba the Hutt without his make-up. I want to see a media-savvy champion who can be in Washington DC in the morning and attending a meeting in San Diego that same evening. I want to see someone who can deliver a Skype conference at 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time and do it again at 9:00 AM Australian Eastern Standard Time. I want to see someone who can churn out press releases and articles on why men should be SLPs. In short, someone who treats this as a job and not a spare-time exercise.
It’s time to “put up or shut up.” I’m up for taking part but this isn’t a one-man show. It’s not even a 328 men show. It’s a challenge to the profession as a whole to find a Rebel with a Cause as opposed to our current Cause without a Rebel.
American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, 2010, Highlights and Trends: ASHA Counts for Year End 2010 (available at: http://www.asha.org uploadedFiles/2010-Member-Counts.pdf).
Litosseliti, L., & Leadbeater, C. (2013). Speech and language therapy/pathology: perspectives on a gendered profession. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 48(1), 90-101
McKinson, F. (2007). Why do men become speech and language therapists? RCSLT Bulletin, April, 12–14.
Mosheim, J. (2005). Men in Speech-Language Pathology. Advance for Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologist, 15 (30), 6. Available online from http://speech-language-pathology-audiology.advanceweb.com/Article/Men-in-Speech-Language-Pathology.aspx
Rowden-Racette, K. (2013). Where the Boys Aren’t. ASHA Leader, August 2013, 18, 46-51. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.18082013.46. Available online at http://leader.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=1785887&resultClick=3
Sheridan, J., 1999, A career in speech and language therapy: for white women only? RCSLT Bulletin, February, 9.
Speech Pathology Australia, 2012, Real Men Do Speech Pathology
(available at: http://www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au/
 Michèle Kaufmann-Meyer is the current President of CPLOL and has been representing Switzerland since 2004. She has also been working as a general secretary of the French-speaking Swiss organization for 12 years. Baiba Trinite is Assistant Professor in the Department of Education and Social Work at Liepaja University and President of Speech Therapists’ Association of Latvia.
 I’m sure each of the international organizations has ways of measuring the male/female ratio of their membership already in place. What I don’t know is whether they are all using similar methodologies and how reliable the metrics are. Clearly one of the first tasks to be included in the Plan of Action is to reviewing current measurement systems and make sure they are as accurate as possible.