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Why Aren’t There More Women Leaders in Healthcare? Surprising Insights and Discussions About ‘Leaning In!’

Karen Brandom discusses women in leadership roles in pelvic ph
Over the last few years, the disparity in women’s leadership opportunities has been highlighted by successful professionals such as Sheryl Sandberg (TED talk) and Anne-Marie Slaughter (Atlantic Article). CAN women have it all? 
Healthcare is not different from any other business model, and in hospitals, academia and private practice clinics women face challenges that can discourage their advancement and contributions to their field.  
In a recent blog article on Evidence in Motion, a PT clinical education website, Dr John Childs, asked the question “Where are the women leaders in PT?” (EIM March 2014)  It was the beginning of a storm of comments that culminated in a lively discussion at this years American Physical Therapy Association’s CSM Conference in Indianapolis.  
I was not able to attend this, but the rumor on the street is that it was a fantastic and inspiring discussion. It’s an honor for me to shine the professional spotlight on guest writer, Karen Brandon, DSc, PT, WCS. She’s a wonderful and dynamic friend and pelvic health PT colleague. She shares her perspective and the main themes discussed at this special session at CSM. She is so passionate about this topic, as you will see. Thank you, Karen!! We value your thoughts and comments.. ~Tracy
As I carefully and ever so gingerly unwrapped my 8-year-old daughter’s arm from around my neck to come and start this blog post, I thought about the countless hours after bedtime rituals that I have and will spend completing powerpoints, grading papers, reviewing articles and finishing business plans. Yes, I am a woman, a clinician, and a leader- a woman leader. My road is not so unique to any of those labels. However, the external and internal struggles that I experience are very real. As I set upon my journey as an idealistic and enthusiastic physical therapy (PT) professional, I did not know what was in store for me as I developed into a wife, daughter-in-law and mother along the way. The importance of contributing to the dialogue about women leading well, however is engrained in me as a Pelvic Health clinician that treats women intimately in every stage of life. You see this conversation didn’t start with a sensational blog feed on Evidence in Motion (EIM) for me. Nor for many women in our profession. It has been a constant rumbling within a community of intelligent and energetic PT’s who want to be their best, give their all, live up to their potential and leave their mark on our practice for the better. I am grateful, however scapegoated John Childs and Nicole Stout may feel, that a window has been opened to speak as one of my mentors Holly Herman says “in loud clear voices” about women in leadership in the PT profession. The Friday morning 11 am session at the APTA CSM 2015 Indianapolis conference was a “full house” and though the panel up front was full of “leaders”, there was a palpable energetic buzz in the room. “I want to welcome you all to the continued conversation”, said moderator Sandy Hilton, Director of Programming for the Section on Women’s Health. She introduced the panel and the premise for the initial idea of a dialogue about how our profession supports women to progress as leaders. After reviewing the current statistics on the number of females in physical therapy and the number of women in leadership roles in the APTA, there was a slight bewilderment that set in. “If there are more women PT’s than men as section/chapter and committee leaders, then why does it seem so incredibly hard at times for some of us?” She went on to share the national disparity that we are all too familiar with when it came to wages and c-suite opportunities. After introductions of the panel that included Justin Moore, Vice President Public Policy Professional Affairs APTA; Carole Lewis, Editor/Educator/Entrepreneur; Ann Wendel, Owner/Consultant/Advisor, John Childs, Author/Educator/Researcher; (Absentee: Nicole Stout), John Childs shared the catalyst for this discussion, a March 2014 blog post he made on the Evidence in Motion (EIM) website when he was reflecting on why it appeared to him there were not as many women at the forefront of Private Practice and what could be done to improve that fact. Sandy Hilton then shared the evolution of events that unfolded from that post, responses that ranged from offense that Dr. Childs was so oblivious to female leadership he could not see it all around our profession, to those thanking him for holding up great role models that are demonstrating excellent skills and mentorship. The topic certainly had a lot of emotion and interest, and a forum where people could share their perspective, insight and solutions was the intention of what was created at CSM.


One theme that opened the conversation was the age old “what do women want, really really want?” Does every woman see success as owning 20 private practices? Is that the definition of leadership? When asked for a show of hands in the crowd of over 100 people, less than 10 ladies raise their hands. Enthusiastically one caught the mic, “I do, I own 18 already, and I will tell you, I think I want to be a successful business owner for slightly different reasons than my male counterparts and partners, I want to contribute and be a mentor and we need to step up and not wait for any ‘help’.”  Many women from different leadership roles from chancellor of a graduate school to executive vice presidents, shared their story of their journey and the challenges they overcame. Several women commented that we as women still “hold back” when it comes to negotiating our jobs, asking for raises, going for promotions. “We need to get away from the idea that we have to ask permission to do things” Ann Wendel commented.  “One woman said “we tend to second guess ourselves, “imposter syndrome” I guess, and our male counterparts don’t think twice about if they are qualified or not, they just go for it. Another woman remarked “in my PT class there were many women that lead in class activities and projects throughout the year, then, when it came to stepping up to speak for our class at the coating ceremony they didn’t’ sign up, I asked 5 of them “Why not, you are so great at organizing us and leading” and they all refused saying “they weren’t good at being up front”. There was no doubt women’s leadership sometimes “looks” different but it was equally as valuable and powerful as the men in the audience and panel agreed. Someone mentioned that we need to frame our concerns as our strengths, “Look”, she demonstrated, “I can get my specialty certification, set up your program development and keep up with my busy family life even with an alternative schedule, and that is more than the other candidate that you just saw”.


The audience was very diverse with a range of different ages and experience from proud mentors to SPT’s and everyone in between. There was much wisdom shared “I believe as young women starting out making decisions, you must THINK about the choices you make, do you really WANT children? Is that a path you are committed to? Or are you committed to reaching a certain point in your career? If you are choosing a partner, have you talked about how this is going to work? Are they supportive of your plans?” Other women warned about the sacrifices, “It is hard work; it’s harder than you think”. “I never gave up, that is the difference, you don’t let things stop you, and you persevere”. I knew these comments were shared because of experience and concern and in and of themselves are powerful tenets, but, I couldn’t help but feel a bit stifled by the message “you can’t have it all, at the same time”. My gut said ‘But wait, then what did YOU do? And why would you open the path for others to follow if not to give the opportunity to make it work for them.’ Another seasoned professional got up and answered my gut. “I am a busy PT business professional with multiple offices and employees AND I am a busy mom. I know the struggles are real for all of us who aspire to make something big. I make it work, and you may disagree with the fact that I bring my nanny to meetings and conferences as part of my solution, but don’t judge me, that is what works for me to be successful.” Another woman stood up, “well, I don’t know about having it all at once, but I have seen my professional career as a continuous trajectory with phases, there are times when it was a shallow rise but still moving in the right direction for me, as I transitioned to a less demanding point in my family life it was a steep rise and I accomplished many things within a short time frame. I don’t think any of it is wasted if you think of your career in phases and keep focused on your ultimate goals”. Some attendees voiced that they self-initiated with creative solutions that fit their strengths versus waiting for opportunities. Many women underlined the value of having positive mentoring along their career path by both men and women who encouraged them to take the tough assignment or go for the leadership position because they believed in their skills. Working together understanding the contributions each generation brings is also key to moving forward as a profession and a group It was briefly mentioned that one detriment to our progress as leaders is other women, either judging our way of managing our work and family, or even sabotaging our progress versus supporting one another.


Every one of the successful speakers said they could not have made it to their current accomplishments without support. “You just can’t do it without a supportive partner/spouse” one woman shared. Many women mentioned their spouses as “partners in the plan” and understanding and working with them in everything from management to household duties. Also mentioned were extended families, nannies, mannies and networks of working family friends with similar challenges. Job hour flexibility, work, meetings and business online, and childcare options were highlighted as key factors allowing women to participate in home life and hold progressive roles in their companies. “Why don’t more hospitals think about those choices, then they wouldn’t lose their best therapists to private practice.” I overheard behind me. Mentorship was strongly encouraged.   One student got up and encouraged other students saying “I take advantage of the online wealth of knowledge that is available on Twitter (#pelvicmafia), Facebook, and online by amazing therapists I follow that I got to meet in person this week! Even if you don’t have a local mentor, hook up with one of these amazing ladies!” The CEO of a successful PT software company indicated that she has seen the value of empowering women in business and leadership and has started a group, Propel Her that meets monthly at her headquarters to discuss how to support each other’s process and solutions. Maybe you make your own group! One mentor got up and said “You new PT women are going to find new avenues and ways of doing things I never thought of and I just want to be here to support you in any way I can”.


Throughout the session, many voices of students and new grads spoke up about their challenges, their concerns and their conflicts. “How long do I have to wait to start a private practice?” Response: TODAY. “Do I have to put my family life on hold to take a supervisory role at work?” Response: NO. “Where can I find a mentor?” Response: HERE. Many seasoned therapists gave advice, stand straight and make me notice you, a strong handshake, clear speech and dress and eye contact commanding your attention. “Leadership is a mindset, not a position”, said a successful PT online journalist, Karen Litzy (check out her podcast). Many students spoke passionately about their dreams and their trajectory, and their brave steps toward their goals. One student leader said. “We need you all to keep sharing that message, YOU are enough, YOU can do it, from professors to clinical instructors until we bring out that confidence”. Another student said “ If you tell me I can’t, I will work harder to prove you wrong, that’s just how I am, that’s my generation”. “We all need to watch our language!” commented another, “even with each other, I want to be known as assertive not pushy”. Overall, there was an encouragement for the message that needed to resound. You CAN do it, and you will do it YOUR WAY. Step out and go for what you want. Take a chance, BE BOLD.


The session ended much like an unscripted but apropos benediction by the incomparable Marilyn Moffat, 6 year APTA president, 6 year director on the BOD of the APTA, World Confederation of Physical Therapy Delegate, Author, Professor, Dame Extraordinaire summed up the session. “This profession offers so many enriching opportunities to women, and there is a very important place for women to lead our profession to the next and greatest chapters to come! It requires integrity, sacrifice, and support, and I am not going to lie, a glass ceiling still exists, and occasionally you need to have a few brass you-know-whats, but I have every confidence that the future of PT includes a greater role for women who use all the resources they have to accomplish their goals.” You know it best, Dr. Moffat, but just to clarify, no “you-know-whats” needed here. In the words of Betty White “If you want tough, grow a vagina”. We will use it wisely. PROFESSIONAL SPOTLIGHT Karen B HeadshotKaren Brandon, DSc, PT, WCS, is a clinical specialist in Women’s Health/Pelvic PT who lives in Southern California and has practiced PT for over 19 years.   She teaches in the Post Professional Doctoral program at Loma Linda University for the PhD, DSc and DPT programs, and is a clinical research advisor. She also works at Kaiser Permanente Fontana as the Regional Clinical Lead for Pelvic Rehabilitation and also volunteers as Southwest Regional Membership Representative of the SOWH APTA and is on the steering committee for the Pelvic Floor Sexual Medicine organization.  She loves kick boxing to R&B, power yoga to Indie music, and cooking to Jazz. You can connect with Karen on Twitter at @kaybeept. She wants to thank those that hosted the CSM 2015 session “Women Leading in PT – Does Our Profession Welcome Us When We Lean In?” and disclaim, that, those in the audience were invaluable contributors but no names were mentioned to keep the uniformity of the piece. Quotes were paraphrased from live conversation at the session.   For more educational opportunities with leaders in pelvic physical, please check out Pelvic Global Academy for some incredible opportunities.


  1. Susan Clinton on February 12, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for sharing this important message, Karen! Thank you Tracy for giving her (us) a platform to keep the message fresh and relevant.

    • Pelvic Guru on February 12, 2015 at 12:39 pm

      Thank you, Susan! I was excited Karen had this message to share. This blog reaches 185 countries. It’s a great way to share dialogue about important topics:

  2. Karen Brandon on February 12, 2015 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you Susan! Leaders like you who partner with up and coming therapists are the reason we have as many as we do! Stepping out ahead and demonstrating a good example, THEN standing beside us and #keepingourhandsup

  3. Karen on February 14, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Karen, I LOVE how you articulate all of the nuances of this important topic. I wish I was able to attend and appreciate this re-cap of the 2 hour discussion. We are a unique section that has such compassion and in-site into the various realms of what success means and stand by each other to make it happen. Thank you for all you do! It was wonderful to re-connect with you in Indy!!

  4. Sana Johnson-Quijada MD on February 14, 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Sing like a bird, Karen! Thank you for your voice and perspective. I especially loved your call to community. I often feel alone but know I am not. Water water everywhere and nothing to drink in our case is perhaps a false perception. We have each other. Keep on!

    • Karen Brandon on February 16, 2015 at 8:07 pm

      Thank you Sana! You are a vibrant voice in this area, not only because of your specialty that reminds us to “build ourselves and the rest will come” but also because of how you celebrate others!. No matter how high we climb or what direction, we AREN’T alone.

  5. Jim Glinn on February 15, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    Our Team is led by Dr. Kelly Sanders, PT. Your comments about women leaders in our field ring true with our fearless leader taking our Team amazing places. We are now the largest employee owned PT practice we know of and could not be more proud!

  6. Karen Brandon on February 16, 2015 at 8:11 pm

    Jim, THANK YOU, for sharing! I love your “people driven” philosophies. With that perspective there is no ROOM for bias!. And the fact your vision says “we can help more people together than we can alone!” recognizes that there is room for everyone’s contributions. BRAVO! I think it’s time people like Dr Sanders share how she got there as well! We could all learn from other’s journeys!

  7. Pelvic Guru on February 16, 2015 at 8:25 pm

    I am lovin’ these comments! Thanks to those who wrote in! Let’s keep the discussion going!

  8. Karen Brandon on February 23, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Thank you Karen L, funny thing, I believe this conversation is ongoing. Walking to lunch afterwards with Marilyn Moffat and Carole Lewis, I commented “This can’t be the first conversation you all have had re: this at CSM!” They laughed knowingly, heartily, NO, NOT AT ALL. So, as with many civil issues, we have to keep asking and answering and defining better solutions – but you are right it is best done TOGETHER! Great seeing you also!

  9. […] words of wisdom from the room and a parcel of links plus two great posts on this session here and here.  These discussions are about people, collectively and individually being courageous and leading […]

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