The profession of physical therapy is a unique outlier in the field of health science, having been female dominated for most of its existence. Today, nearly 70% of all physical therapists in the United States are female.
Physical therapy practice in the United States began with the poliomyelitis epidemic and evolved as the need for rehabilitation aides grew during the World Wars. As men fought on the front lines, women took up the responsibility for rehabilitating the wounded. While times have changed in today’s modern world, and the role of the physical therapist has evolved and grown massively, one constant is the presence of women.
Data and statistics
While women represent most of the physical therapy workforce, they are not evenly represented as leaders in the field. According to a review completed by WebPT on the State of Rehab Therapy for 2022, currently 53% of leadership positions in physical therapy are held by men, and 46% by women.
A study completed in 2018 identified various leadership styles observed between male and female leaders, describing women as taking more of a “transformational” approach, while men prefer a more executive leadership style. In a field based on transformation, the women who lead with this mentality are still underrepresented.
This highlights the need to investigate why women in physical therapy tend to remain in the workforce instead of seeking representation in leadership. According to a study completed by the Physical Therapy & Rehabilitation Journal surveying 919 physical therapy students, this disparity can be traced back to physical therapy school, before any of the numerous professional barriers facing women have even been experienced.
This study found that as students, men showed higher odds than women in the following:
- Owning a private practice
- Becoming a faculty member
- Becoming a manager/administrator
- Publishing professional articles
- Earning a higher income
While women may be present, and more numerous, they are also more stagnant and less likely for promotions and leadership.
Resources for women in physical therapy
Thankfully, the APTA has developed some resources for women in the field. Starting in 2016, the APTA introduced a “Women in Physical Therapy Summit.”
This summit highlights women in the field as professional speakers. In addition, the summit includes panels on public speaking, diversity, marketing, and negotiation to empower female attendees.
Though the pandemic has put a pause on this summit, the issues highlighted here are widespread throughout the profession. Women have played a pivotal role in starting and maintaining this field for decades. They deserve a fair share of influence in the leadership and future direction of the profession.
By Cristina Parker PT, DPT