This question seems to perplex many, and the numbers do seem pretty staggering. Recent figures are something like 96% of SLPs being women in the U.S., with similar numbers abroad. As a male speech-language pathologist I thought I would chip in a few reasons why I believe these numbers are the way they are.
Some of these reasons have been offered before. They include
- There’s a perception of low opportunity and pay, especially considering the cost of the at least six years of college education required to become an SLP. This has been extensively discussed, such as here and here. Generally, there seems to be some justification for the perception, though it’s probably true that opportunity and pay is decreasing in many professions as the middle class continues its long decline.
- Gender roles and expectations definitely play a part. Fortunately, I had someone who knew about the field that suggested speech and language pathology as a possibility for me – a college professor trying to finally give me some direction as I was just about to graduate with a degree in communication. I had never even considered this profession, nor did I even know about it, before I was 22 years old. I’m guessing that more women than men have speech pathology suggested to them by others thanks at least in some part to gender expectations.
- Speech pathology is a helping, nurturing profession, which tends to attract women. Many men just tend to think that they can’t derive as much satisfaction from helping others. I obviously disagree, but I do understand how it took me so long of my own life to realize this.
I have a few additional reasons contributing to the huge disparity which I haven’t seen before.
- A big one is recognition. I think men crave recognition more than women, and teaching, nursing, SLPs, and similar professions are just not appreciated nearly enough. Individual greatness in these professions tends to go unacknowledged, as does the importance of the professions’ overall contributions to society. Men want to be heroes. This is genetic and evolutionarily driven. Meanwhile, our society tends to idolize men in some professions – sports, military, etc. – while ignoring the hard work, sacrifice, and importance of people in helping professions.
- Many men are timid about working with kids. Many SLPs work with kids. Every now and then the media decides to start focusing on (what I believe to be) the extremely small amount of male teachers who do something inappropriate with children, which causes suspicion of all male teachers that I believe is inaccurate relative to the actual risk.
- There is also some genetic, inherent component to women enjoying being around kids more, and especially younger kids. This really shouldn’t be ignored as a contributing factor, but it usually is. My experience has been that many male SLPs end up working with older children, I think in some part because of inexperience dealing with the behaviors of younger kids.
So one question then always arises in these discussions. What can be done to attract more males to speech pathology? Some contributing causes are more easily addressed, while others may take a long time. We can try to get the word out to more males. We can try to better prepare males, especially in dealing with behavior issues in the population SLPs often work with. I think though, unfortunately, that the most biggest hurdle to overcoming this issue may with the factor that contributes the most. Societal expectations need some shifting. We can start by taking cues from how many people react to those in certain other professions. When we start seeing things like special parking spaces for teachers and words like “That’s great!” when hearing that someone is a nurse or SLP, then maybe we’ll start seeing more males in these professions.