Imagine two physical therapy students, John and Jane. At the beginning of the semester, Professor Smith says, to earn an A in the course, John must complete 15 weeks of work. In order for Jane to earn the same grade, she must complete the same 15 weeks, plus an additional 3 weeks of extra work, because she is a woman.
Students of either gender wouldn’t tolerate this type of discrimination in the classroom. So, why, then, do we tolerate it once we graduate?
Today, April 14, 2015, is Equal Pay Day. It is observed to illustrate that since women in the United States, on average, make about 78 cents for every dollar a man makes, they have to work 104 days into 2015, to take home the same pay that men did by December 31, 2014.
While virtually no one disputes that a wage gap exists, there is some debate about just how much of a gap there actually is, mostly because it is not an across-the-board, apples-to-apples comparison. Making such a comparison in the physical therapy profession is a bit easier (a few more apples, a few less oranges).
Sadly, data reveal there is a significant gender wage gap in physical therapy. And it’s been getting worse instead of better.
Gender Wage Gap in PT
In 2004, 2005 and 2006 the median salary for male PTs was $10,000 more than the median salary for female PTs. In 2008, this wage gap grew to $11,000; in 2010, to $12,000. In 2013, the latest year that figures are available, it was $12,500. In 2013, female physical therapists (PTs) made a median salary of $80,000, while males made $92,500. This equates to female PTs making roughly 86 cents for every dollar a male PT makes.
To put this in perspective, let’s say the average PT works 5 days a week and does about 4 evaluations and 4 treatment sessions a day. Jane has to complete an extra 160 evaluations, plus 160 extra treatment sessions to make the same amount of money as John, even though they have the same job.
Wage Gap Facts
Equal pay is a complicated issue. Superficially, the reasons for it range from women not negotiating their salaries, to leaving the workforce to have a family, to outright discrimination. As more research becomes available, deeper psychosocial forces and biases are also being uncovered, that seem to put women at a disadvantage from the outset. (See here, here, here, here and here.)
For instance, women who don’t leave the workforce to raise a family still make less than their male counterparts. And women who negotiate their salaries and/or job benefits are judged more harshly than their male counterparts.
Even more disconcerting, is that the negotiation can very often backfire – even resulting in offers being withdrawn – for women, when the same does not happen to men. These cases are not isolated. Studies at Harvard and Carnegie Mellon are showing that gender bias is real, and that simply encouraging women to negotiate their salaries is not the answer. (See here and here.)
It’s an Everyone Problem
The gender pay gap is not just a women’s issue; it’s an economic issue that affects everyone. Women are more and more frequently the top wage earner in the family, and if they earn less, it means less money for working families, and less money to spend in the economy as a whole. One way to counteract the wage gap is with legislation.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 is one such example. This law makes it easier to file pay discrimination law suits by extending the statute of limitations. Other such legislation has been introduced in the House and Senate in the past few years. Examples include the Fair Pay Act of 2013 (HR 438) and the Paycheck Fairness Act (S 84), which, in part, aim to make individual workers’ wages more transparent, and put the burden on employers to justify that wage discrepancies are based on legitimate reasons, and not simply because of gender.
To many U.S. citizens, these changes seem like the right thing to do. However, an updated equal pay bill has yet to become law, despite several attempts to pass one in the last few years. One of the major reasons for this, is that there has been little or no Republican support for bills that reduce the gender wage gap. Another, perhaps surprising, group that has not supported closing the gender wage gap is the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA).
APTA and Equal Pay
Since the profession is made up of 70% women, it seems that equal pay legislation should be one of the top priorities addressed by the APTA. In fact, the APTA has never listed this issue among its top advocacy priorities at the state or federal level. Perhaps it is time to recognize that Equal Pay should be a focus of APTA advocacy, and here’s why.
First, if we accept the premise that the gender pay gap issue is a universal one, then it impacts 100% of APTA’s members. Even if we were to define it purely as a women’s issue, it would still affect 70% of the membership. The same can’t be said for most, if not all, of the federal advocacy issues APTA already supports, such as concussion management legislation and the Medicare therapy cap repeal.
This is not to say that concussion management, the therapy cap, and the rest of APTA’s legislative priorities are not worthy goals. They are, and we should keep supporting them.
The problem with adding the gender pay gap to our legislative priorities, though, is that it only spreads us thinner, and we become less effective in the legislative process.
But, consider that focusing on the gender pay gap, along with other issues related to women in the workforce, may very well increase membership, participation and leadership in the organization. The reason non-members most often cite for not joining APTA is cost. If Jane makes $12,500 less than John, who can blame her for not wanting for fork over $500 for an APTA membership? Especially, if the organization she is joining doesn’t actively support equal pay for women.
Provocative Statement Alert
I sometimes wonder if things would be different if we charged men more for membership because they make more. After all, we discount student memberships because we know that, on average, they make less money. We discount new graduate memberships because we know that, on average, they make less money. We discount PTA memberships because we know that, on average, they make less money. If we know that, on average, women make less money, why don’t we charge them less?
It would be really interesting if the whole country worked like that, wouldn’t it? Everything from groceries to cars to healthcare could be discounted by 22% for women because they are paid an average of 78 cents on the dollar. The policy could be in place, on a sliding scale, until the pay gap is closed.
Of course, the world doesn’t work that way, and neither does the APTA, so we need to focus on other solutions, like supporting legislation, education, and employment policies, that help to close the gender wage gap.
Time is Money
Again, an investment by APTA in activities to help close the gender wage gap, is an investment in the organization itself. Another common reason non-members cite for not joining (or re-joining) APTA, is that they feel that APTA does not represent their concerns at the state and federal levels. If the APTA supported federal advocacy priorities that were more applicable to a broader swath of physical therapists around the country, like issues related to women in the workplace, then there is the potential for membership and participation to increase.
You see, if Jane did have that extra $12,500 that John does, not only could she spend it on an APTA membership, but her family could, for example, hire a cleaning person to free up 8 hours a month, and in turn, Jane could spend one or two of them on local APTA chapter activities like board meetings, or meetings with legislators.
Call to Action …
Remember, if you are an APTA member, you are APTA. You dictate the direction of the organization.
… Within APTA
If you believe that the issue of equal pay should be a priority for the organization, start by contacting members of the Public Policy and Advocacy Committee with your concerns. This is a volunteer group that, “provides strategic advice, counsel, and options to the Board of Directors regarding … how to advance the profession within public policy arenas, including but not limited to legislative and regulatory venues,” and to, “identify and recommend public policy priorities for APTA to the Board of Directors.” You can also contact your state chapter delegates who will represent you during APTA’s annual House of Delegates (HOD) meeting. It is at the HOD that members put forth ideas and solidify paths forward on different priorities. As a member, you have the power to suggest and work on new motions voted into policy or position statements by the HOD.
… Within the Workplace
A very concrete step to reduce the gender wage gap in your own facility is to find out if your employer has formal restrictions on discussing salary in the workplace. If so, you might consider asking them to change that policy. Workplaces that are transparent about salaries have a smaller gender wage gap. (If they need any extra convincing to drop the restrictions on discussing salary, remind them that it can be good public relations to show that the organization is favorable toward women. Since most healthcare workers are women, it’s a good move, especially if they have open positions they are trying to fill.)
… And Everywhere Else
Whether you are an APTA member or not, arm yourself with knowledge about the gender wage gap and issues related to women in the workplace. If you haven’t already, read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Another good one is Overwhelmed: Work, love and play when no one has the time by Brigid Schulte.
Another insightful series about What Works for Women at Work, reveals the evidence-based gender biases that occur with staggering regularity. Many of them keep women from getting promoted, and therefore contribute to the gender pay gap.
Finally, spread the word. If you are a female PT or PTA, especially one that makes less than she should, or a male PT or PTA who thinks that equal pay should be provided for equal work, please talk about it, share your knowledge, and try to effect change where you can. It’s a universal issue and we’ll all be better off when it’s fixed.
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