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Hey you! Yes you, reading my little blog in between massage clients. Can we talk?

You and I have so much in common, see, so I feel like I know all about you. For instance, it’s likely you are

  • mid 40’s or older
  • probably a sole practitioner
  • giving about 15 hours of massage a week
  • charging about $65 for an hour of massage
  • rely mostly on repeat customers
  • and FEMALE

Wow, we are a lot alike! How do I know this? Well, survey data from the AMTA bears those numbers out. Even looking at the demographic data from the Massage Therapy World Facebook page, the demographic data is almost all women and the average age is in the 35-44 range.

MTW Facebook demographics
If you’ve looked around at meetings, spas, or conventions, you’ve probably noticed this, too. And it’s a problem for all of us.

See, I come from the world of engineering. Electrical Engineering, to be exact. EE is almost the opposite of massage – the profession is dominated by men with about 11% of the profession being women. When I went to industry conferences and events, I was one of about 10%. It had it’s perk: I never waited in line to use the restroom during breaks since there were so few of us.

But it had its downsides. Subtle, if not overt, sexism. I made less money than my male peers. I advanced slower than my male peers. I actually had men tell me they didn’t want a woman (on their design team) (as a manager) (working in their lab). I was told, in those exact terms, all three of those by a man at least once.

It sucked. It was wrong. In some cases, it was illegal.

Here’s massage’s dirty little secret: the men in our profession are subject to the exact same sexism as I was in engineering.

This is what they hear: (I don’t want a male therapist) (He’s a male therapist, are you sure you’re comfortable with that) (I’m sorry, we aren’t looking to hire a male therapist, only female).

In only one of those examples was it a client. Almost always, the sexism comes from women in the industry.

Being a male massage therapist has it’s perk: there’s no line to the restrooms, but in every other respect, it mirrors women in engineering:

  • less pay
  • fewer job opportunities

Things can be tough for the odd man out, but not impossible. I had men in the corporate world who believed in me. They provided opportunities for me to demonstrate that a woman could do just as well as a man. I was promoted to Director of Engineering and the men who gave me the opportunity also worked as advocates to help convince the tougher nuts on my staff to ‘give the woman a chance’. Without that support, the opportunities would not have been as effective.

As a little shout out: Thank you Fred, Bill, Mike, Steve, Peter, Wes, and Jim.

This is where you come in.

See, the men in our profession need our help. They need the opportunities to demonstrate to the client base that a male massage therapist is just as good as a female therapist and they need us to advocate for them to the public.

We need to start educating the public that male therapists are just as safe and competent as female therapists.

As the majority in the profession, it’s up to us to help end the sexism. That needs to start inside the profession, but it also needs to include how we talk about male therapists to the public and our clients.

When clients call to book a massage:

  • Don’t go all “make sure the client knows there are male therapists available and that they are ok with that”
  • Do simply give them an option “You’d like an appointment at 6pm? We have Matt available or Beth available”. Let the client decide.

When someone you meet tells you they would never have a male massage therapist, ask them why and

  • Don’t confirm their bias
  • Do explain when you have had a male colleague massage you that was a great massage experience.

Example: when I refer people to my favorite massage therapist, who happens to be a male, my endorsement of him goes like this: “I want to refer you to Todd, because I’m sure he can help you. In fact, Todd is the therapist I go to for massage and I’m very picky.” It’s not about him being good despite or because of his gender, but simply that he’s good.

If you have a clinic with male therapists, start getting them some clients! Once your customer base starts to realize that a male therapist is awesome, they will rebook and tell their friends. Ending sexism begins by changing minds and you can change minds one client at a time.

And lastly, when a male MT applies for a job at your clinic or spa, unless there is a legitimate, legally defendable reason, do not turn him away because he’s male. That’s called discrimination and it’s illegal.

Why you should help

I know you’re probably wondering why you should help the men in this profession, since they tend to have advantages in society, so here are the reasons I think you should help end sexism in massage:

  1. The men in this profession give great massages!
  2. Diversity in any profession can increase the number of ideas to advance the profession and the people in it. With an industry that is predominantly female, white, and middle aged, we don’t have enough diversity in our ranks.
  3. In female dominated professions, average pay is lower. So, if we get more men in the profession, we might see pay increase.
  4. It’s the right thing to do. Discrimination sucks, regardless of who is being discriminated against.
How can we help the male therapists in our profession? Add your ideas and discussion in the comment section below.
You'll find this filed under: Ethics

43 Responses to The profession needs your help

  1. WOW, this article really hit the nail on the head!

    All my years of teaching, I only had one class with more males – it was a class of three 😉

    I would LOVE to see more males in the massage profession!!!

    Thanks Kelli

    • That makes two of us, MassageNerd! The class I’m currently teaching has more males than ever – almost half of the class. I’m really wanting them to be successful.

  2. Thank you for the” Why you should help” bit. While I am not guilty of perpetuating the bias (I don’t” let” clients make general, untrue statements about male MTs without gently educating them) I am guilty of feeling like men have so many advantages that I am not obligated to help. I have changed my mind. Or rather you have changed my mind. I never thought about it being an issue of diversity.

  3. I too have worked in a male dominant field, and sexism just downright insults all!

    The bottom line: we need good therapists!
    And we need more male therapists!

  4. Thanks, Kelli! I guess the advantages I get from the other areas of my life add up to so much that I’d feel a little silly bitching about this one area where it’s a disadvantage. But I am reasonably sure that I would have built up my practice in half the time, had I been female. There’s always that headwind.

    • Dale, it’s a shame that you are sailing into that headwind – you’re a terrific massage therapist and that means that people have been missing out on your massage for far too long.

  5. I am a former United States Marine and I completely understand what men in our profession are going through. Men have to be amazing Bodyworkers in order to survive in the massage therapy profession. Though I do not agree with sexism I do understand though. I’ve spoken to many male massage therapists who don’t even want to go to a male therapist simply because they can’t relax with the male energy. That leave only a small pool of clients for male massage therapists and it is about demand. If only 1/4 of the clientele is willing to go to a male therapist then it isn’t cost effective to have too many men on one shift. It creates a handicap for a business owner. Some of the best therapists I know are men and they have a following. The struggle is getting the bodywork to a higher quality because when you work in a sexist field you have to be 10x better than your competition. Bottom line.

    • Casey – thank you so much for your comments. That’s similar to the experience of women in STEM (science technology engineering and math) fields – they have to be better to be seen as equal. The fact that so many clients won’t see a male therapist is a huge part of the problem. Like you said, if they can’t book clients, then it’s hard to get hired. And that’s where everyone in the profession can help, by getting the word out to the public that male therapists are safe and competent. Men have been trying to convince them of that for years, but it’s going to take all of us to really reach critical mass.

  6. I agree! In my Adv Neuromuscular Therapy class there are a small amount of male therapists and I’m concerned how well they’ll do in the field. Thanks for writing this. I will share your article with other fellow MT’s to remind them this is happening and why it’s beneficial to speak up for them.

    • Angela, thanks for offering to share this with your colleagues! That’s just wonderful!
      If there’s anything I can do or any questions I can answer, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

  7. This is great. I am 21 and recently finished my massage qualifications and have been turned down a number of times because they were ‘looking or preferred a female only’ . Finding it pretty hard at the moment not sure if it has always been the case.

    • Hang in there, SK. It’s definitely harder for you than for your female classmates, but when you do find that job, work hard and you’ll end up with a loyal clientele. You’ll need to work a little harder at establishing trust with your employer and clients. And, yes, it’s been this way for a very very long time.

    • SK – see the comment by Jonathan Smith. You can succeed. You can even win “best of massage” from your community. I’m going to assume that the employers who turned down Jonathan are now a bit sorry that they did. ‘-)

  8. Basically my forte is chronic pain management and almost all my clients are women’s with any kind of chronic pain. I rarely have male client. I work on a client from Singapore with pain problem from upper traps low back and plantar pain ask me to set up a training center for Hilot/therapist. Well finalized it this coming December. Here in the Philippines the massage therapist are almost even numbers male and female. For example my wife is a good one also.

    • Danilo – thanks for your comments. I’m pleased to see that the Philippines is so much more equal than in the US. Good luck with the training center! Let me know how it goes.

  9. I am a male therapist . I’m 28 and have been practicing for 7 years and experienced early on how sexists the industry but i pushed on and last week 7 years into this career I was voted best massage therapist in Carmel ca in the newspaper . I’ve been receiving a lot of praise and it was funny cause I worked on a client today and it was a good session at the end of the session the lady saids ” that was a great Massage . I was. A bit nervous having u a male therapist work on me because the last time I had a massage it from a male therapist and he made me feel very comfortable ” I said well I’m glad I could redeem the role of a male therapist in your life . This is sad that some perverts have to ruin the massage profession for all guys . And I’m glad that many spa owners most of which are female have given me the opportunity to give massage in there establishments .

    • Jonathan – thanks for your insight. And congratulations on the “Best of Massage” award! You’ve also just converted one more client into not caring about the gender of their therapist – great job on that! I’m hoping SK can see your comments and take hope that he’ll be as successful some day.

    • After running a day spa in San Francisco for 20 years, I found clients req females more. On a 3 to 1 ratio. For every male I had 3 females. And the male got as many massages as the females

  10. I feel very *fortunate* to be an outlier. But like most males in this field, I’ve overcome many obstacles and setbacks along the way. And there have been many times where it was extremely difficult to persevere. That being said, I appreciate that you took the time to shine some light on this issue, Kelli. So thank you for caring enough to do that. (Especially when it doesn’t have a direct impact on your career.) To me, that says a lot about you as an individual.

    For the most part, I have more males in my Kinesiology class in Dallas, TX than I did in Connecticut. I have no idea why(?). But I do. And every semester I feel this urge to take each male student aside and tell them what they are up against after graduation. And then follow up with some advice on how to avoid some of the things that I have experienced over a 20 year career. But I don’t. Because I have found that until an individual experiences what can happen in say..a spa setting, they’ll never really feel the impact that being a male in the massage therapy field can have on a career. So instead, I try to be a good role model for them.

    Although I don’t think many people in this field share my thoughts on this – I do feel like a lot of the challenges that a male massage therapist faces comes back to what is being taught in the massage schools. Meaning, when it comes to hands-on practical application, I do the complete opposite of what I learned in a 600 hour program 20 years ago. And the sad thing is, the same things are being taught today (e.g., stretching).

    In other words, when there aren’t as many job openings for males, or in many cases, not enough hours to make a living; combined with the fact that their hands-on education doesn’t allow for anything unique (or long lasting!) in the way of results, a male massage therapist is between a rock and a hard place.

    • Rick – thank you for sharing. You’re right that it’s hard to explain to someone what they are up against until they are up against it (“nothing is impossible for the person that doesn’t have to do it”) and I’m glad you are working to be a role model.

      I am curious as to what you would change about the massage program. I’m not exactly clear and what you think is being done wrong or left out. As someone who has been in this business for a while, I’m sure you have some valuable suggestions.

      • I get what he is saying. Male MTs have to overcompensate to succeed in this field and those skills usually come from medical massage, clinical massage, sports massage, or other highly technical modalities that require a high level of kinesiology or medical knowledge. We have to get results from our work for our clients that make them say “wow, i really need more of that” or make them feel like they got their money’s worth *despite* having a male MT. Our work has to be the best they have ever had and not just adequate.

        Schools don’t often provide classes in unique, specialized or the highly technical aspects of massage. There is still a focus on minimum number of education hours and spa work, and spa’s are really really tough places for male MT’s to work. I was lucky…. my school had several unique programs. I took a thai massage class and I also took part in the integrative health classes and I spent two classes at the local hospital, as well as an additional class in other medical settings such as nursing homes, visually blind centers, etc. And in my business class (also a part of my program) I wrote an 80 page dissertation on massage therapy in integrative health settings. This gave me the tools to start branching out into working with mental health, especially depression, anxiety, and PTSD. I just copyrighted part of my model today! Without the business skills and the specialized knowledge I don’t think I would have lasted 6 months.

        • Alex – Congratulations on your copyright and all the hard work that went into it. This is what diversity gets us – more ideas and more viewpoints and more solutions.
          You’re right, as a minority in the field, you have to work at least twice as hard to be considered almost as good. A lot of males in the industry to gravitate to the medical and sports fields, two areas where clients are already accustomed to seeing males at work and providing safe touch.
          Keep me posted about your work. I’d love to hear more about it.

  11. In many ways we are mirror images. I’m male and I studied Electronic and Electrical Engineering and had a career in computing. In almost 100 students in my university year there were two women. One of them is still a dear friend of mine – and yes, she was and is amazingly competent.

    Towards the end of my IT career I had the privilige to work for several companies where women, at least to me, appeared to be equally valued as technicians and managers. In one (A major insurance company in the UK) the head of IT and four out of five of her board were female. None of the men seemed to have any complaints – it was a great place to work!

    My major hobby has been pottery. There are fewer and fewer male potters. I think this is a combination of it not being economically viable to fulfill the traditional main breadwinner role as a potter and the fact that women have found it easier to enter the field through adult education following a career break when having children.

    For three years I’ve been studying Thai massage. In every class men have been significantly outnumbered. I work from home and have no intention of working in a ‘spa’ or clinic environment, so am unlikely to encounter the same employment bias. I have, howver, found some reluctance amongst potential clients to receive massage from a man – even though Thai massage is performed clothed. And in lage part that reluctance is not from the women – but from the men. Get over it guys.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and informed post.

    • Mike,

      Our careers do seem to have taken parallel paths. I’ve always heard that men are more reluctant to get a massage from a male therapist than women are, so thanks for the extra data point. It’s a shame, because they are missing out on some terrific massage. Best of luck with the Thai massage!

  12. As a male therapist I can tell you I have experienced the bias many times some from employer but most from clients. I have been at an all female chiropractic clinic for the last three years female Dr.’s and staff I was the only male in the building besides patients/clients and never really felt like I “fit in” there. I was mainly focused on treatment of conditions for the patients but also performed regular massage also and have enjoyed some success in repeat clients but more have refused to have me massage them soley because I am a male than any other reason I have seen personally that people would rather have a female intern who is still in school massage them rather than a male with years of experience and who graduated top of his class. I am contemplating leaving this profession that I love because of this bias.

    • I would hate to see you leave the profession, DJ. Have you tried talking to the chiropractor about this problem? They might be giving some subtle suggestions to clients to avoid you that could be changed with a small change in language. I’m sure the doctor would rather not lose a member of her staff, either. Best of luck and let me know how it goes.

  13. Thank you Kelli for a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. Whilst I agree with many of your comments and those of many of those commenting on your article, I would just like to point out that it is not all doom and gloom for male therapists. Males who can survive past the first year or so of practice tend to earn more and have a longer career span than females (based on data from an albeit old survey in Australia, search for ATMS 2002 massage survey for .pdf file for the data).
    The question then, for me, is how to facilitate male therapists in the first few years of the practice. You mention in your article about giving clients an option “we have Matt or Beth available at 6pm” – in my experience if you asked that question probably around 75% of clients would opt for Beth. If you instead asked “does it matter if you see a male or female therapist?” then probably the split would be around 50% specifically requesting female, 10% requesting the male and the balance would have no preference in which case you could load “Matt” and “Beth” with an equal workload.

    • Richard – Thank you! those are interesting statistics. I’ll have to dig into the document a bit more and see if there are any other interesting bits.

      As for the phone option, it might be an interesting experiment to do. Spend one week with “we have Matt or Beth available at 6pm” and track which answer you get and the next week “does it matter if you see a male or female therapist?”. I’m a big fan of data, so actually doing an A/B test would be wonderful. If anyone tries this experiment, I would love to see your results.

  14. Kelli – Since you mentioned *change* in your reply, I’ll preface my comment with this: No matter the gender, I realize that many practitioners are not ready to hear this.

    If the goal is to make the biggest impact on the challenges within the field in the shortest period of time, the current mindset has to change. To say the same thing in a slightly different way, the thought process that has gotten us to the point in which we find ourselves now, is not going to launch us very far into the future.

    Even though the most recent buzz words are “evidence based”, I can tell you that not everybody is seeing the research in the same way. This is partly due to the fact that some of the people that are making these claims, are looking at the supposed evidence from a skewed perspective and world view. And in today’s world, the bigger the platform, the more leverage they have to tell their story.

    Even when the story they are telling is not true, their tribe will still buy the message. And then, spread that same message (that’s not true).

    When it comes to crafting a story, the mind is wired in such a way that the truth doesn’t matter as much. It’s sad. But *true*. This is mainly due to the fact that the practitioner is telling a story that just so happens to be a message that the person on the other end is ready to hear.

    To quote the late great Stephen Covey, “We see the world, not as it is but as we are.” Or in this case, where we are. Meaning, the education has to leave a recent graduate with a solid foundation from which to make decisions from. And as a profession, with people that say they want to move forward, we are just not prepared to make that leap. The chasm is just to vast. Because, whether it is unconscious or not, people want to promote stories that just aren’t true. I mean, how many ways can a person repackage what is at the end of the day, the same message (e.g., stretching). Or, “releasing” muscles and/or fascia without really knowing what the ramifications are for that.

    In other words, the muscles and fascia are restricting motion for a good reason. And encouraging more mobility and flexibility is not improving the client’s performance. And within a matter of minutes, those same tissues are going to tighten up (again and again…). This is the mindset that allows for books, professional publications and DVDs to be sold (and marketed!). Sold to anyone that is willing (and waiting) to listen to a message that they are ready to hear.

    Just because a teacher puts the terms “active” and “isolated” in front of “stretching”, doesn’t mean that it is doing anything more than an old school static stretch. And if the practitioner that invested their time and money had a solid foundation to begin with, they would have known better. But because they paid the money and spent the time to learn this “magical” form of stretching, they are all in. So of course, they have to continue recycling the same tired message on stretching.

    I mean, to the muscle, stretching is still a stressor. And it is decreasing the client’s performance. (At least that is what the research has shown consistently for over 10 years). If there are any benefits to any form of stretching, they are more psychological (which does have its place).

    With a solid foundation, a recent graduate that is trying to find their way, their unique story, and their niche doesn’t have to invest money into the most recent form of stretching that hits the market. Because they can see through the marketing (Read: Story).

    When we’re talking about having success and longevity in this field, the ability to see the story that the marketing is telling for what it really is, is a BIG deal. Then, a recent graduate can invest their money into something that allows for a much bigger return on that investment.

    I’m not only referring to practical application here, I’m also pointing to the fact that recent grads are not taught how to market and/or sell themselves. Because the reality is, in order to make a better living in this field, you have to not only build career capital, you also have to have something that people are willing to pay for. And when you have something that people are willing to pay a good amount of money for…they will. But most massage therapists (male or female!) can’t see themselves charging over $200, ever. Which is also a problem. (Explanation coming soon.)

    If the multitude of massage franchises have done anything, they have creating a need for change, in a very short period of time. So quick, that many seasoned professionals are having a difficult time keeping up. They’re scrambling. And whether they realize it or not, the franchises are capitalizing on their pre-existing blind spots. Those blind spots were always there, but there was no need to look at them before. It wasn’t a priority. But now, more than ever, being open to seeing those blind spots is extremely urgent.

    All of this being said, I realize that there are also things like a lack of motivation, discipline and effort that come into play. Going above and beyond what the CE requirements are is also important. Keeping in mind that it’s not so much about what the practitioner does that makes the biggest impact, it’s more about how they do it.

    I mean, if I were to tell a recent graduate to go to their local library and check out every Seth Godin book they could find, would they do it?

    I could also tell them about FREE podcasts that could help them to market their business. Or, I could suggest that they subscribe to this blog. And while they are at it, they should look into Allissa Haine’s blog.

    And then start a blog. And a YouTube channel. And a Facebook page Be active on Twitter. Find their voice. How many massage therapists would actually take action, consistently?

    • BradRick – That comment is a blog post all by itself!
      The state of massage education is, shall we say, in need of serious improvement. I teach the business and ethics courses at the local massage school and do my best, but I still hear students talking about toxins and water and massage even though it’s all hogwash. How many people are still hearing that massage helps remove lactic acid from muscles when it has been proven that massage inhibits lactic acid decrease in muscles and it doesn’t really matter because lactic acid is not a toxin.
      One of the things that many massage therapists need to learn is critical thinking. They’ve probably never been taught that because most schools don’t favor critical thinking, they prefer rote learning. Without critical thinking skills – and it is a skill, not an inherent character trait – we end up buying into stories that are demonstrably untrue because they are well told and we have a desire to believe them.
      I also agree that business education is lacking in the schools, but as the business teacher, I simply cannot teach all the skills the students need in just a few 4 hour classes. Plus, they are so concerned with their kinesiology quizzes, anatomical landmarks that need memorizing, etc. that the business stuff is kind of ignored. I think those who want to go into business for themselves should be able to get all their CEs taking business classes the first couple of years. But would they? Probably not. Most simply don’t want to.
      So here we are, with an industry that has reached an inflection point accelerated by the big franchises and many are scrambling to keep up. It’s too many big problems to solve in one blog post, but at least therapists like you are thinking about these issues and about how to solve them. Thanks again!

      *edited to get the commenter’s name right. Sorry Rick!

  15. Kelli – It’s funny that you addressed my comment as, Brad. I only mention that because a couple of weeks ago, I did something similar. I participated in some of the live Super Hero Business Summit that the ABMP offered, and in the chat on Facebook, I’m pretty sure that when I replied to Allissa Haine’s message, I wrote Melissa. Which I meant to apologize for. But by the time I realized that I *might* have addressed her in that way, it was too difficult to confirm if I had actually done it. So, I just let it go. I totally knew her name, and I’m familiar with her work, but I was trying to do too many things at the same time. Anyway, thanks for your reply.

    • Oops! my bad. Sorry about that. I edited the reply to get your name right. Thanks for keeping me from looking like a complete bonehead, and for being such a good sport about it.

"Dream large, laddie!" - Local Hero, 1983