Diversity Story Slam: Susan Sigward

Susan Sigward portrait
Susan Sigward PhD ’04/Photo: John Skalicky

Was It Because I’m a Girl?


LET ME START BY TELLING YOU ALL THE REASONS I DON’T DESERVE TO SPEAK TO YOU ABOUT DIVERSITY.  I am a white woman who grew up in a Catholic family in a Catholic Midwest city. I never missed a meal, was always clothed, had a roof over my head with fully functioning utilities and modern comforts. My parents were not divorced. I grew up in a family and community that valued education, and I was given every opportunity to excel. I went to private school and college without a huge personal financial burden. But when I look back at my life and what drove my career decisions I can’t help but ask: “Was it because I’m a girl?”

When considering colleges and future careers, I thought I could be a nurse or a teacher. I was educated in an all-girls college prep high school, and the only options I could come up with were nurse and teacher. Don’t get me wrong: These are great professions, and they suited my personality, but they were stereotypically for women. I was in an environment that supported me and my growth but I didn’t see any other possibilities.

Was it because I’m a girl? No, it was because I wasn’t creative or thoughtful enough about my future.

One week before the application deadline, a classmate of mine said she wanted to be a physical therapist. At that time, I was in physical therapy treatment, rehabbing after a meniscectomy. I thought my physical therapist was a god because he knew everything about anatomy, and he knew how to get me back on the basketball court strong and without pain. But me, be a physical therapist? I never considered it.

So I went to physical therapy school with more than 60 women and maybe five or six men. OK so, this is female-dominated profession. I didn’t think of it not because I was a woman but because I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to consider it. I only saw a physical therapist as male. I graduated and started working at a hospital in acute rehab. Why rehab? Why not ortho or sports? Being treated as an athlete in a sports medicine clinic was what I knew and what motivated me to go to physical therapy school. After all, my sports physical therapist was a god!

Was it because I was a girl? No, I mean 92 percent of my class were girls. Just based on the numbers alone. So there had to be girls treating athletes, so why not me? Rehab was great. There is nothing more rewarding than helping someone find their independence again, but sports medicine is where I wanted to be.

Local sports medicine clinics weren’t going to hire a new grad with only rehab experience. So, I found a job in an outpatient clinic, treating mostly people with orthopedic and some neurological conditions. Then I applied for jobs in the local sports medicine practices and finally convinced the “god” to hire me. Finally, I was where I wanted to be. The practice was a high volume sports clinic seeing 80 percent athletes and sports injuries. The PTs, ATs and MDs covered several local high schools and one larger university. My first year consisted of treating the other 20 percent and an athlete or two that couldn’t make it onto my coworkers’ schedules. I had done all this work to get there. Why couldn’t I see more athletes?

Was it because I was a girl? No, I was new. I didn’t get the athletes because that is what happens when you are the new physical therpaist. I needed to gain their confidence. I need to work my ass off to be one of the physical therapists trusted with the athletes. I shifted my hours around to be able to cover games and practices with my colleagues and to shadow the MDs and PAs during office hours. No one mentored me, included me in courtside discussions, talked me through injury evaluations or return-to-play decisions.

What if we got to the table with the same respect, the same pay, the same promotions, without having to doubt ourselves, without having to fight so hard to be considered valuable? What if we never had to consider, “Is it because I’m a girl?”

—Susan Sigward PhD ’04,
Associate Professor of Clinical Physical Therapy

During MD visits, the surgeon would only talk to the PA or AT in the room even if it was a patient that I had been treating. I had to psych myself up every day to insert myself into the situations I needed to be in to learn. I had to be careful not to be too persistent or in your face, I had to figure out how to learn from the back row. But I learned … I learned a lot.

Being in a clinic that was 80 percent athletes gives you a lot of exposure. At that time, we saw patients forever, which meant that they were with us when it was time to return to their sport. We would work with the athletes in an indoor field at the clinic on sport specific drills and then follow up with them that week at their game or practice. It was an ideal situation. I was good at it. Male, female, football, basketball, soccer … it didn’t matter. The athletes trusted me, and we worked well together. I even perfected the on-field knee injury assessment that the MD used as a metric of any clinician’s worth. I had arrived!

Then came the new guy. New grad, played football at a Division III school. They talked to him, they taught him, they let him practice, they gave him athletes to treat. He didn’t need to get outpatient experience before getting the job. He didn’t start with all non-athlete patients. I had been out of school for three years and at that practice for at least a year, putting in the time.

Was it because I was a girl? No, it was probably because I wasn’t a competitive athletes. They valued his football experience. He knew what it was like to be an athlete. I needed more experience. So, I took another 10 credits of classes and 2,000 hours of practical experience, passed the certification exam and became an AT. Keep in mind, the 2,000 hours is roughly equivalent to one year of full-time employment, and I did this outside of my full-time job. I did 50 percent of those hours with the people I worked with. I learned a lot … a lot! It was a great decision, and I would do it all over again if I were to go back. But guess what? Every new guy that came in, whether they were an AT, PT or high school intern, got more exposure than I did.

Was it because I was a girl? Maybe it is my personality. Maybe I am too quiet. Maybe I’m not quiet enough. Maybe I don’t show my confidence. Maybe I’m not mature enough. How could I be more like the guys? Or maybe this wasn’t the place for me. I left that job and took a position as the sports medicine physical therapist in a growing sports medicine clinic associated with a major hospital in adjacent city. It was a new medical facility in a growing suburb that had a large and competitive high school. I was perfect for the job. I remember being interviewed by a new grad with no real sports experience, thinking wouldn’t that be great if I could have started out like that. I grew the practice and took care of the local high school and a large running community.

I eventually went back to school to get my PhD and ended up here. The funny thing is I don’t remember dwelling on the question, “Is it because I’m a girl?” Don’t get me wrong, I thought about it in certain situations. But, more often, I though “what is wrong with me?” “What is the weakness that keeps me from being considered and how can I be stronger?”

Was it because I’m a girl that I only saw careers in traditionally female professions? No, I just wasn’t creative enough

Was it because I was a girl that I had to get experience before being considered for a sport medicine job? No, employers want people who know what they are doing.

Was it because I was a girl that I had started out treating non-athletes and complicated patients? No, all new people start with the less desirable assignments.

Was it because I was a girl that the newer hires got the mentorship and attention that I had to fight for? No, I needed to advocate more for myself, be more confident and assertive.

These are all good reasons (other than being a girl) for why I shouldn’t expect anything more than what I got. Who knows whether it was because I am a girl?

Being respected in the sports medicine setting is not easy for anyone. Did boys have the same conversation in their head? What if, as a young clinician, I had more support, more mentorship? Would I have said at some point I am good and I am strong? I deserve this job. Maybe, or maybe it would have kept me from striving to be better?

If any of you heard Judy Seto talk, she never focused on “I didn’t get treated right because I was a girl.” You heard her say, “I kept making myself better!” So we just kept making ourselves better so we could be at the table. It doesn’t seem so bad.

But what if we got to the table with the same respect, the same pay, the same promotions, without having to doubt ourselves, without having to fight so hard to be considered valuable? What if we never had to consider, “Is it because I’m a girl?”

—Susan Sigward