This article was published in Canadian Chiropractor and Naturopathic Doctor magazine in September 2020!
Leading with Purpose ~ Navigating Business as Women in Healthcare
Authors: Erin Kempt-Sutherland, DC, Maria Boyle, DC, Celeste Langdon, L (candidate), Kayla Mayberry, DC
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought to light many of the differences that men and women face in society in general. While both genders certainly have their own struggles, women commonly tend to hold the bag on childcare, work in the home, and other elements of ‘emotional labour’. These are things often not realized by men, but certainly can take a significant toll on women.
Chiropractic has been a traditionally male dominated profession, but since 2004, along with many other health fields, including naturopathy, female students dominate the classes. Yet, has the profession really pivoted to better accommodate the majority? In this article, we have brought together some of Canada’s most successful female chiropractors and naturopaths to discuss the unique elements of being a woman in clinical practice in 2020.
The female business owner
Dr. Erin Kempt-Sutherland was mid-way through the planning phases of starting her own multi-disciplinary clinic when she found out she was pregnant with her first child. “ I was just about to sign the lease when I found out that I was pregnant. My mother gave me the best advice I could have ever received. She said “if not now, you may never do it- It will certainly be a whole lot harder to start a clinic once you have that baby in your life.” She went on to advise new female graduates, “If you know that you want a clinic, just start it- ideally before the babies.”
Women probably receive more input or advice from patients, family and fellow doctors than a soon-to-be-dad DC would. “Everyone has an opinion and you simply cannot let other people’s opinion affect what you know is right for you. Plenty of people tried to talk me out of starting the clinic, knowing I would soon be a mom, including bankers and even fellow female DC’s!” she added “and everyone had an opinion on the length of my maternity leave- something I am sure most male DC’s do not deal with.”
Balancing practice and family life is a unique struggle for everyone. “I would give young chiropractors the advice of Sheryl Sandburg from her book “Lean In”- consider who you are choosing as your life partner, especially if there are going to be kids in the mix. How much you are able to “lean in” to your career is going to depend completely on them. How “leaned into” their job are they?
The two of you need to outline a clear plan that you both have to be happy with that works, together.” She goes on to say “You each have to view your career like an elite athlete views theirs- you have an on-season when you work hard, and an off- season where you take a step back.” She suggests planning your “on-season” to align with your life partner’s “off- season”. This “on- season” might be a few years long if you’re starting a practice- or on a smaller day-to-day scale, it can mean practicing a few days a week and staying home with the kids on the other few days while your partner works hard at their job.
Does the ‘old boys club’ still exist
Historically, chiropractic was a male dominated field, however, in recent years, there are generally just as many female as male DC’s in the graduating classes. This is a similar trend to many other professions such as medicine, engineering and law, however,in those fields, it is well known that there is still “the old boys’ club”, which can make it challenging for talented females to make their professional mark. But does this “boy’s club” exist in chiropractic today? “I think in some cases there can be a bit of a “boys’ club”, especially in the sports injury side of our field,” Dr. Kempt- Sutherland says. “Sometimes I know a female DC is just as awesome at treating sports injuries but the male physio or gym owner will continue to refer to the male chiro he has a “bro-mance” with,” she laughs.
She goes on to suggest that in fairness, perhaps the opposite is true with women. “I have found that I personally have had better success networking with and treating female athletic teams and found a niche working with female- owned gyms. When females support females, it can be a very powerful thing.” She suggests putting forth your strongest efforts where you continue to see the biggest return on your investment- like building relationships with professionals- male or female- who show an interest in your strengths.
Size isn’t everything
Chiropractic is a very physically demanding profession. The physical skills require years of practice to obtain. These skills require speed and accuracy to deliver the most effective treatments. When in chiropractic school, technique class is a large part of the curriculum. Students are introduced very early to the hands on side of the profession and to some, these skills come a lot faster than to others. In general, female students tend to have smaller hands and require increased development of skills related to speed, whereas male students may more easily rely on their strength. This creates a challenge for female students, especially if a technique class is taught by a male practitioner.
As a female student, it may be more beneficial to look for a female tutor around the same size and to pair up with fellow students of similar size to learn how they have adapted. It is imperative that even if they may be learning from a similar demographic, that they practice treating a much wider demographic of people, especially while in school, where they can be offered guidance on different body types and sizes as it may pertain to their treatment.
On many occasions, the female practitioner may find themselves in a situation where a patient, male or female, is underestimating their size in relation to their ability to treat the patient. Kayla Mayberry found her size has been judged, “I’ve found in the past that I’m given a passing glance and automatically my skills are questioned, or a patient may specifically choose not to see me out of fear that I may not be strong enough”. It is important to not let this be discouraging and to have confidence in the skills developed over years in school and practice.
On one occasion, a female chiropractor was donating blood, upon telling the nurse she was a chiropractor, the nurse had the audacity to say “you don’t look like a chiropractor”. The irony in this case was that the nurse was male and had multiple tattoos on both arms. The chiropractor chirped back, saying he did not look like a nurse, which they both laughed at, but this is something the majority of female practitioners will have to deal with at some point in their careers.
Naturopathic medicine is predominantly a female profession with 77% of those entering this profession being female. The reasoning for this may be explained by the patients that are seen. Typically, NDs are the last resort for many patients. Many of them have been dealing with chronic conditions for many years and have lacked compassion from medical professionals elsewhere, leading them to seek out alternative treatment options. This of course, leads them to naturopathic medicine.
Because naturopathic doctors are dealing with this patient population predominantly, they are expected to be very compassionate and empathetic, a trait more often thought to be attributed to females. A study done by Toussaint and Webb demonstrated that females were more likely to show empathy when compared to males. This could be one major factor as to why females are more drawn to this profession as opposed to males.
Being a female in a role as a primary care provider can also come with many challenges. One major challenge is people not taking you seriously. “Students in the program have had male patients stop them while trying to explain their reasoning for a diagnosis and the patient interrupted them, telling them why this wasn’t right” says Celeste Langdon, a 4th year ND student. “Perhaps this was simply a coincidence that he was male, however, it only seems to happen with male patients”. Having said this, it is rewarding when they do finally listen to you and they start to heal. Being able to see patients heal and improve after struggling with a condition for years and years is incredibly rewarding and well worth it.
Interpersonal and safety considerations
When choosing a career path it is usually the pro’s of the profession that essentially lead you to want to pursue the school and all of the work that goes into it. It is not until you start practicing or working in your new job that you start to see the cons that come with it. Something that female and male chiropractors must do in order to do their job, is put their hands on people. This is something that is a huge bonus of the job as we have the ability to help people using our hands but unfortunately it is also something that can open the door to inappropriate comments or incidents.
Sometimes this physical contact can make people do and say unprofessional things that many other health professionals may not experience. On occasion with a new patient interaction, it is not out of the ordinary to have males in the middle of the health history ask the doctor if she has a boyfriend or is married. Although this could be a harmless comment, nonetheless it always flusters the doctor and can make them feel uncomfortable. In addition some doctors have had occurrences where male patients will also “compliment” the practitioner in the middle of the treatment, talking to them about how nice their arms are, or how much they like their outfit today and although sometimes it can be flattering and be executed in an appropriate way, infrequently it can come off as unprofessional and unappreciated. “One thing that I will do if the comments were inappropriate but harmless, is refer them to a male practitioner at another location. This way he is still getting care, but another female practitioner does not have to deal with that any more” says Maria Boyle.
Another incident that once happened to an anonymous female chiropractor in the first few months of her practice was when a new patient to the clinic came in at the end of the night, after everyone had left. Thankfully the receptionist stayed for this one because she had a strange feeling about this patient. As the male patient was leaving he asked if they could give the chiropractor a big hug because she did such a good job at helping them. It stunned the doctor, it scared her and she didn’t know how to react to this without completely rejecting this patient and potentially setting him off. She was new to the job, she was in need of patients at this point and she was very uneasy about the patient’s mood; school did not prepare her for this one.
So the doctor hugged the patient and wanted to scream and cry all in the same insistence — yes, that was her choice, yes, the patient asked; however she said yes because she was afraid of what was going to happen if she said no.The chiropractor took that experience and tried to learn a lesson from that one, if you have a funny feeling about a patient, always ask someone to stay with you in the building and at the beginning of practice whenever you are nervous always ask your clinic owner or never schedule anyone late at night. Another way to get around these issues is to talk to fellow female practitioners, odds are something similar has happened to them and having someone to vent about these things with is much better than keeping it to yourself.
Leadership for women: Is the playing field fair?
In today’s business world, women face many challenges, one of which is known as “The Clinton Effect”- when certain qualities in a male make him a leader and very likeable, but those same qualities in a female make her “bossy” and unlikeable. Women are known historically to have higher levels of emotional intelligence than men, yet sometimes, as a business owner, you must make non-emotional decisions that are purely strategic and based on numbers and facts. “It’s an interesting era to be a female leader. If you show confidence and decisiveness, you can be viewed as ‘cold.’ When you show vulnerability you can be labelled as “emotional” and “weak”, ” Dr. Kempt- Sutherland says. “Society as a whole needs more awareness and discussion on these controversial issues- it is the only way women and men will ever have an equal seat at any table.”
Formal educational institutions barely prepare professional health graduates with business experience, let alone, discussing the ‘emotional load’ or unique circumstances that women shoulder vs. their male counterparts. The authors encourage this discussion begin at the student level, and continue among the professional ranks, both male and female. This is essential to help recognize these unique challenges and step up to support, what has become, the silent majority of these professions.
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