At more than 90 percent, Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) as a profession is female-dominated despite efforts to attract a robust, diverse profile of practitioners who represent and align with all patients seeking care. Both the program and individual providers acknowledge that gender is nonbinary, undefined and socially constructed and many people may not subscribe to the labels mentioned below.
Recently, Robert Serianni, MS, CCC-SLP, FNAP,
the chair and program director of the SLP department at Salus University, spearheaded a discussion about the gender imbalance among the SLP profession with Eric J. Smith, MA, CCC-SLP, a clinical educator at the Speech-Language Institute (SLI)
of Salus, and alumni Kyle Lees, MS ‘18
, and Max Seager, MS ‘19
Many of the patients I've worked with have been male or identify as male. But many, if not all of my colleagues, have been female or identified as female. So, it's a topic near and dear to my heart. By inviting other male practitioners, some alumni and a clinical supervisor, to talk about our lived experiences as men in a female-dominated profession, I think it's a way for us to bring important information to those interested in becoming speech pathologists. Maybe even break down a barrier or two for other male-identifying therapists who are thinking about joining the profession. Let's start off with some introductions.
I graduated from Wayne State University in the heart of Detroit in 2000 with my master's degree in SLP. I’ve been a professional with my American Speech-Language-Hearing Association CEs for 20 years now. In addition to being a clinical educator at Salus since 2017, I'm also the director of speech and language services at CORA, a nonprofit in Northeast Philadelphia. I currently direct more than 50 speech therapists in early intervention and local public charter and non-public school settings.
After graduating from Salus, I completed my clinical fellowship in 2019 and I worked at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
After graduating from Salus, I did my clinical fellowship in New Jersey for a rehab company that contracted me to skilled nursing facilities. And, then I was lucky enough to get a job at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, working in outpatient voice swallowing and upper airway.
I graduated in 1996 from Loyola University in Maryland with my master’s in SLP and I practice predominantly in home healthcare with children and adults. I joined the faculty at Salus in 2014.
Q: Why did you want to become a speech pathologist?
I went through my undergraduate education with the intent of being a high school English teacher. After my student teaching experience, I quickly realized I did not want to spend my life teaching. So, I had something of an existential crisis. I actually took an aptitude test through our career center and SLP came up as my number one recommended profession, which really piqued my interest. After doing a little bit of digging around, I found that a friend of our family is a SLP. I asked to shadow her for several days and I really enjoyed the work. I enrolled in a post-baccalaureate program to get the needed undergraduate concentration courses out of the way for communication sciences and disorders hen pursued my master's degree in SLP.
I have never regretted my choice. I’ve found it to be a very fulfilling field to be involved in ever since. I always knew I wanted to be involved in a helping profession. I didn't simply want to make money for a corporation. And, I really thrive in one-on-one and small group interactions as opposed to the large group interaction. So that aspect of the professional always appealed to me.
Q: Tell me about your experience in grad school and the years you've been working. Have you come across any other male SLPs in your practice?
At my old job for my fellowship, I was the only male SLP, but I was also the only SLP in my building. It was a bit of a lonesome journey overall. I didn't have any direct colleagues, who were speech therapists. I worked very closely with occupational and physical therapist who were male and female, but no direct SLP contact at all. In grad school, I also happened to be the only male. So, that was a little bit of an attention grabber.
Now, where I'm working at Jefferson, I am one of two speech therapists working in my department, and I have a female colleague. And, at my location at Jefferson, I happen to be one of two male SLPs with both acute care and outpatient combined. So, it doesn't feel like I'm the only male because we're constantly working with nurses, physicians, social workers and other professionals who I would say are majority male, especially physicians. It's not that we're saying in the medical field overall, I feel lonely as a male. It's more so among SLPs in general.
Max, you bring up a great point. If we don't find a colleague who we can identify with, who we feel some comfort with, who might share the gender experience, we can go outside of our profession. I think I would agree with you that in my years of practice, I rarely ever worked with another male SLP. But I’ve worked with physicians, nurses, other community helpers, I'll call them, who identified as male, so I didn't ever feel like I was alone. Kyle, do you have a similar experience through schooling and through your current work?
My experience is similar. I am one of two male speech pathologists. Most of the male speech pathologists I know are probably on this podcast. I'm not only working with speech pathologists every day or part of the primary medical group; I'm working very closely with pharmacists, radiologists, physicians, so I never really feel alone as of now. But looking at the SLP community, I was one of three students from grad school and undergrad. I would say as a male SLP, there's not a lot of us out there. In the medical community working so close to other medical professionals, however, you never feel alone.
Q: Why do you think there are so few men who go into speech pathology?
I'm not sure. This is one of the perennial questions. I even look back to our field’s founding, which to my understanding of largely doctors; male doctors, who were looking to improve their stuttering. Then that was increased by World War II, and the number of people who had hearing loss as a result of their participation in the war, which really brought up audiology and speech related work to hearing impairment. And again, a lot of men were involved in that initial work in our field. My only thought is it's a traditional helping profession. Not unlike nursing, or teaching, which has historically been female dominated. But I really don't see any objective reason why that remains so.
Q: With the profession’s advantages, do you think gender has played a role in any way in the advancement of your career?
I don't feel like I had a distinct advantage. I feel like especially in a healthcare setting, your hard work and dedication really does show, and you can achieve a lot of things through that. I hope I haven't gotten where I am only because I was the only male. I hope that I have shown I can work hard and do my job properly and that's why I am where I am. If gender has played a role in any of that, then that's on the person who hired me or that's on the person who gave me that success. But I like to think it's because of the hard work. So no, I don't think so.
And, I think back to a point that Eric was making too in the sense that why so few men go into this field. I think it's because as speech therapists, as nurses, as occupational therapists, as helping professions; a lot of the time I feel like I'm performing. I feel like I sort of have a hat on where I'm this person who is meant to speak in front of you and tell you what you should do and how you should improve your life. And, I feel like that element of performance could be a reason why some people, or why most men don't want to go into speech therapy. But I think this element of performance is really something that drew me to the profession in the first place. I think it's also a lot of the reason why it might push other people away.
Q: Would you have any advice for colleagues or friends who are looking into a profession and why would you say speech pathology is, regardless of gender, a good place to practice?
When I first got into SLP, I didn't really know much about it. My whole vision of it was kids working on articulation disorders or fluency disorders. Once I started taking classes, I really learned that this is a very temporal field. That's the reason why I stay because there’s a whole other medical side to the field. And, that's kind of what I really fell in love with. Just to have that participation in the field where you can work in a school, you can work in an outpatient setting, you can work in a medical setting, etc. And, if I ever want a change in medical setting, there are options.
If people became more aware of all the different things you can do in the field. At my job, it poises room for growth and advancement in your career. But there's a whole managing side too. I think there's just a lot of different control in terms of career path and different things you can get into. If people knew that, you would see more males interested in the profession.
My advice would be to stay open-minded to a lot of different professions, especially in undergrad. There's this pressure that I felt as a high schooler to decide what I wanted to do. And, similar to Eric I kind of wanted to be a teacher. But at the time I was applying for college, there were not many teaching jobs available so I looked to healthcare. You are always going to have a job and that makes me happy that I did this. And, more personally, I have a music background, and a performing background, and so finding my little niche in voice therapy was really nice. The other reason I would encourage male SLPs to join the field is because there are so many options in terms of settings and populations.
I agree completely. I would say go for it. The last few years our profession consistently shows up in U.S. News and World Report’s
Top 10 careers for growth. I never have to worry about having a job. There are a lot of opportunities for both lateral moves, from schools to the medical setting, to different age brackets, and focus on working with populations who have different disorders and issues. There is also room for growth toward supervision, and more of a management position down the line.
I really feel like this is one of the few professions where I have a minority status and I would say use that to your advantage. So, that's a great feeling and I just feel like it's a rare opportunity, as a male, to be able to fill that need on a team of professionals.
Serianni concluded with “you're all shining examples of speech pathologists, regardless of gender. I think your stories really show why the field could benefit from skilled clinicians and educators who are not necessarily the mold that you find a speech pathologist.”