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Why the Gender Imbalance in the Schools?


There is no one answer to the shortage of men in the communications sciences and disorders professions in general, and in school settings in particular. The article on this topic by Kellie Rowden-Racette in the August ASHA Leader presents several hypotheses—and elicits input from a variety of men who practice in school settings—to get at the root of the shortages.

Let me share my own story of why I became a school-based SLP. At Central Catholic High School in Pittsburgh in 1980 I took an aptitude test as part of the PSAT during my junior year. The test suggested that I had interests and strengths to become a priest, veterinarian or speech-language pathologist. I knew the pros and cons of the priesthood and veterinary medicine, so investigated speech-language pathology which I had never heard of before.

As I investigated that profession it seemed a perfect fit. Science and language were strengths for me. I loved helping people especially children and thought either a school or hospital environment working with kids would be ideal for me. I have to say I never once considered how much money I would make. My parents had always instilled in me the ideal of finding a career that I loved not just finding a job—and it seems this was also the experience of my friend Rob Dellinger and James Brinton, both mentioned in the Leader article. So with the help of Brother Clement Smith I further investigated the profession and where I might pursue a degree in communication sciences and disorders.

For a variety of reasons the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (where I now work) fit all my requirements and I thankfully was accepted there. In the 1980s I could begin taking classes in my major freshman year. As I searched for jobs at the time of my graduation, two pediatric hospitals and two school districts were my targets. I learned that the two hospitals did not accept clinical fellows and was offered both the school positions. I began work for the Rockingham County Schools in North Carolina. Initially I thought, “I will do my clinical fellowship year in the schools and then move to a pediatric hospital setting.” I loved my school job so much I remained there for 15 years rising to become the lead SLP as four districts, including mine, merged.

Enough of my personal story. Onto the more specific comment in the Leader article. I, like Tracy Ball, have many friends who have shared with me that while they may make a very good living, they just drone through their day at a job they in some cases dread. Some of my friends are in prominent positions on the national stage but still express envy at my job—one in which I feel I make a difference for kids and the greater good of our world on a daily bases. Every day I am thankful that I feel like this way about my career/ daily work.

In conversations with young men (and women) of college age, I am impressed by their interest in serving the greater good of humanity and the world at large. At least in our conversations they recognize the value of enjoying their work on a daily basis over the almighty dollar. I do realize that sometimes the reality of college loans and the pull of the American dream have some sway over their ideals.

As I mentioned in the article, my experience is that while this generation is interested in the related services, they typically have never heard of or had any experience with speech-language pathology. I believe all of us SLPs, both men and women, would do well to get the word out about our rewarding profession. We all need to cast a wide net to recruit men to the profession. Part of casting this wide net might mean to mention the other related service professions to help our occupational therapy, physical therapy, psychology and nursing brothers and sisters recruit men to all of those professions (but hopefully catch the cream of the crop for our own).

We all need to do a marketing blitz to recruit the next generation for our profession. We need to take time out from our jam-packed workload to get in high school classes, youth groups, Boy Scout troops and undergraduate classes to introduce our profession. Every young guy I talk to at the gym, in line for food at volunteer events, I seize the opportunity to mention what I do, talk it up and plant that seed. In a couple of cases, I know the seed has grown and my chat has paid off. We could all participate in a marketing campaign on a grass-roots basis.

Margaret Rogers, chief staff officer for science and research at ASHA, noted that cultural currents of gender roles are slowly changing, and I agree. We all need to be that change we hope for by both recruiting men and by contemplating “masculine friendly” conditions in schools. I also agree with Margaret in that we are “midstream” in this current change away from societal expectations toward assertion of individual preferences in choosing professions.

I can provide an example of my personal (inaccurate) gender expectations. When someone says to me the word nurse I still picture a woman in a white dress with a cap. I think that is a functional of my age/generation. When I take one more second to consider the word my vision opens to men in scrubs, as I have encountered many male nurses (who wear scrubs). In some ways the profession of speech-language pathology does not have to overcome that generational picture of an SLP because we do not have a historical “look.” Our marketing campaign can paint the “look” of an SLP however we want in promoting the profession to potential students. We have the opportunity to “sell” the profession at least initially as lacking a gender bias.

Tracy Ball noted that men have an intangible special something in working with boys. In many instances, behavior is easier for us to manage, boys are more attentive. Men in schools have a tremendous opportunity to influence the next generation, and that is a great privilege.

I will end with this thought. Membership in ASHA is like a cruise. I think many people see it as a luxury pleasure cruise involving deck chairs and endless buffets. I, however, see ASHA membership as more of a Windjammer cruise. While we are getting to enjoy the beautiful experiences of our profession, we all have to pitch in to contribute to and enhance the experience. Just as the crew of the Windjammer helps cook, clean and steer, all of us SLPs have to promote the profession, recruit for it and help change cultural currents. I hope all of you will join in helping to bring more men into our rewarding profession through recruiting efforts and affirmative marketing on a grass-roots level.

Perry Flynn, CCC-SLP, is an ASHA board member, 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. He is an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Groups 1, Language Learning and Education, and 16, School-Based Issues.Kevin Maier, CCC-SLP, an SLP in the Wyomissing Area School District in Pennsylvania, will share his thoughts on this topic in next Tuesday’s post on ASHAsphere.

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