Thanks to the bravery of women who are now coming forward with their #MeToo stories, a much-needed conversation has been initiated across the country, a conversation that illustrates the very different experiences that men and women can have in male-dominated professions such as Hollywood, the media, and yes, even chiropractic. The timing could not be better for the American Chiropractic Association’s new Commission on Diversity, which will focus on how to better support and expand opportunities for both women and minorities within the ACA.
I am not going to pretend that I understand the professional barriers within chiropractic imposed by race or ethnicity. However, I have a great deal of experience in navigating these waters as one of a very small handful of women who has served in chiropractic leadership roles since I was a student. Recently I had a business conversation with an older male in a chiropractic leadership role. The conversation started with his declaration that he had been looking forward to getting a hug from me all afternoon, launched into a discussion that was, frankly, condescending and then concluded with him referring to me as a “pretty lady.” I felt uncomfortable throughout the discussion and yet I was silent. The same silence I have practiced more times than I can count for almost 30 years in similar and, in truth, far worse situations. I am only now realizing that my silence makes me complicit, in that an opportunity is lost to create a more common understanding—even if some of the conversation needed to get there is uncomfortable.
To be clear, with very few exceptions, I think my male colleagues in chiropractic, including this one, are wonderful people who respect women in general, as well as me personally. We all can recognize that the behavior of Harvey Weinstein is despicable. And that it is unacceptable to hire a less-talented man instead of a well-qualified woman. But what about the subtler ways in which women are treated differently than men in the professional arena?
To get some idea of what I am talking about, I would like to ask all of my chiropractic male colleagues and friends to imagine that, from the time you were a bright and ambitious student, women 15 to 20 years older than you were the only executives at your chiropractic educational institution, held nearly all leadership positions within your state and national chiropractic associations, and were the only available mentors—effectively the sole gatekeepers to achieving your career goals. Imagine having to figure out which of these women leaders were truly interested in helping you advance your professional goals and which were interested in unwelcome advances of another sort. Imagine being the only man in the room again and again and again when you attended chiropractic leadership meetings. Meetings where, at the beginning of your career, you work up the courage to speak…only to have the conversation pause ever so slightly and then continue as if you had said nothing. And later, when you have more experience, your demands to be heard are met with casual dismissal, often accompanied with just a hint of contempt. Imagine hugs that are a little bit too tight and last a little bit too long, and smiling tightly through off-color jokes that are demeaning to your gender. Imagine standing in a circle of colleagues as all are introduced to someone you respect and admire, and the woman making the introduction calls you by your first name while all the women in the group are introduced as doctor. Imagine watching a 20-minute PowerPoint presentation during a gala event that looks back on the history of chiropractic, and out of the dozens and dozens and dozens of photos of chiropractic leaders, there were only two pictures of men, one of which is wearing a bathing suit, the winner of a Mr. Posture competition in the 1960s.
Not long ago, a male colleague who is the CEO of a large company told me that he makes a practice of taking his employees out to lunch to get to know them a little bit better as he considers their potential for career advancement within the organization. Only very recently has he realized that he treats younger, attractive women differently than he does his male colleagues. He tends not to spend as much time with them, to keep the conversation focused on work topics rather than attempting to connect on the more personal level that facilitates the pathway to advancement and promotion. Now that he has had this self-awareness, he is beginning to understand the negative ways in which gender bias impacts professional women, something that up to this point has simply been outside of his realm of experience.
I am going through my own epiphany on this issue. As a result, the next time I have a conversation with a male colleague that makes me feel uncomfortable, I plan to tell him so, and explain why.
Dr. Goertz is senior scientific advisor for the ACA. She also serves as vice chancellor for research and health policy at Palmer College of Chiropractic and CEO of the Spine Institute for Quality (Spine IQ).
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