Perception vs Reality: Why Women in PT Matters

#WomeninPT is a trend I have been hearing more and more about over the past couple years. While I am absolutely unqualified to describe the experiences of thousands of women in the physical therapy profession, I would like to briefly discuss why I have become convinced that the questions and issues this movement has raised is of vital importance to the profession of Physical Therapy.

Over the years there have been countless ways to describe perception and reality. Steve Young once said: “Perception is reality. If you are perceived to be something, you might as well be it because that’s the truth in people’s minds.” I believe this quote is an apt description to women in physical therapy.

Earlier this year Dr. Karen Litzy, who has been at the forefront of #womeninpt, posted the following question to the Doctor of Physical Therapy Students Facebook page:

For the past couple years, Dr. Litzy has asked questions such as: “Why do you think women in the  PT profession are not thought of as leaders in the field?” When I first came across this question on social media, I was much more defensive and close minded. I made the assumption that because I am familiar with women leaders in Physical Therapy there is unlikely to truly be a problem. I made the error of mistaking my own perceived limited experience of the profession with the reality of the entire profession.

I have since gone back and looked at those “Most influential Physical Therapists” lists, and found that there are many more men than women on them. At one point I counted posts on my PT twitter feed and found double the number of posts from men as women. I searched “Physical Therapy” on google maps and found again that the majority of private clinics in my town are owned by men. My limited and non scientific research forced me to conclude that the observation and experience of the student who emailed Dr. Litzy was both valid and unfortunately not an anomaly. The question that had once caused me so much ire:  “Why do you think women in the PT profession are not thought of as leaders in the field?” is in actuality a fair and valid question.

Does it matter that the majority of PT students, APTA members and Physical Therapists are women, or that the better part of the APTA Board of Directors is composed of women? Yes.  But more and more, in today’s age of google and social media I am becoming convinced that the experience and perception of the public and pre-PT students of the PT profession based in part on these online “influential lists” and the privately owned PT clinics at which these students shadow and observe is even more important.  Do High School and undergraduate students know that the first president of the APTA was a woman? Do they know that about 50% more women have won the Mary McMillan award than men? I would guess no.

If the next generation of Physical Therapists is being altered or skewed because of limited, or biased views of the profession that’s a problem. If the PT profession (or portions of it) isn’t truly inclusive, that’s a problem.

If smart, driven women, who would otherwise be excellent PTs are shunning the PT profession because they fear (rightly or not) that women are not afforded every opportunity men are, that’s a problem.

Name the area of Physical Therapy: academia, leadership, management, business. If capable, creative women are choosing not to enter the PT profession because they worry they won’t be encouraged, mentored, or simply allowed to rise to the top, that’s a problem.

The Rand Institute for Civil Justice in 1989 studied how the public’s perceptions of justice was impacted by their experiences and interaction with the legal system. Their conclusion was that it was the perception of fairness that influenced the litigants’ ratings of their experience as much as any other factor.

Although winners were more satisfied with their experiences than losers, the litigants’ satisfaction with their experiences had less to do with actual case outcomes, costs, and delay than with how the litigants’ experiences with the system compared with their expectations…

Of particular importance to litigants’ ratings were the perceived fairness, dignity and carefulness of the proceedings,

…whether they felt they had exercised some control over the proceedings, and how they evaluated their attorneys. Moreover, litigants translated those comparisons of what actually happened versus what they expected into very different evaluations of the different procedures in which they took part.

This assessment feels familiar and applicable to many other situations in our professional and personal lives. 

Is #WomeninPT an indictment on men?

In my opinion, not necessarily no. Ultimately, men and women both hold responsibility for the fulfillment and perception of gender equity. While there certainly are great allies and advocates for women within the profession, there is also likely more that men can and need to do.   

At Talus Media, we’re going to start an ongoing project of looking into Women in Physical Therapy. We don’t know how long it will take, but ultimately we will try to answer some of the questions that have been raised: What is the perception of women in PT? What is the reality? And what might this all mean for the future of PT? Because ultimately both perception and reality matter.