One of the things we want to do with our Critical Physiotherapy Network is to promote people writing critically about physiotherapy.
As well as posting up recent publications and maintaining an archive of resources, we’ll profile the authors and try to get behind their work.
In this piece, Tone Dahl-Michelsen -Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Professions, Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, Norway (link to Tone’s profile and CV) talks about her recent paper When bodies matter: Significance of the body in gender constructions in physiotherapy education.
You can find a link to the article here.
This article examines which bodily performances indicate the significance of gender in the skills training of physiotherapy students. It is based on a qualitative study of first-year students’ skills training in a Norwegian physiotherapy education programme. The study draws inspiration from Paechter’s theory of the communities of masculinities and femininities, which argues that the material body is significant in gender construction. These findings indicate how, both historically and contemporarily, gender norms are strongly interwoven into students’ bodily performances during their professional training. This bodily performance conforms to heteronormativity. Based on these findings, we argue that within critical educational studies of gender there is a need for theoretical frameworks that include a focus on the material body as a site of gender performance.
How did you become interested in the question of gender in physiotherapy education?
My interest in questions about gender in the physiotherapy education started when I was a physiotherapy student myself back in 1992-1995. From day one the we focused on the body primarily as a generalized, anatomical and biomechanical body. I remember that in the first skill training class the teacher told us that “inappropriate behavior” was not tolerated. However, at this time, I was not aware of how these issues revolved around gender. I think it was the paradox of learning that gender was of no concern in physiotherapy and experiencing the quite opposite that boosted my interest for questions about gender in physiotherapy education. Based on my PhD work which looked at why some bodily behaviors in physiotherapy education matter and some don’t, it seems that gendered bodies are still silenced both in Norway and internationally.
After working seven years in a clinic, I started in a teacher position in the physiotherapy education, which implied a need for taking a master where I was introduced to critical thinking in the master program (Master in Health Science, Oslo University), and it felt like a completely new world opened up. As a student in the master program, I became more interested in questions of gender and when I later on got the opportunity for a PhD I decided that I wanted to go deeper into gender issues in order to answer the questions I wanted to pursue.
In your paper you argue that heteronormative attitudes are a problem for a female dominated professions like physiotherapy – why is that?
This paper demonstrates that students bodily performing in physiotherapy education conform to heteronormativity by revealing how both historically and contemporary gender norms are deeply interwoven into student bodily performing in skills training classes. Whether or to what extent this heteronormativity is a problem, I think is an open question. The examination of the historical roots of the physiotherapy education reveal that issues of sexuality seemingly were not regarded as a problem when physiotherapy was a male profession, however as it turned into a female profession this certainly became an issue and heteronormativity regulated how the problem was solved. That said the findings in this paper demonstrate how contemporary trends in masculinities (such as the metrosexual man and Sporno) are evident in today’s education. These trends both confirm and contest heteronormativity as they integrate both performances of what is seen as heterosexual and homosexual body performing. Interestingly, although the female students are also raised in an increasingly sexualized culture, they apparently do not bring trends of sexualisation into their bodily performing and they conformed to the traditional script of heteronormativity in physiotherapy. As pointed to in the paper this tendency might be seen as a way female students demonstrate agency by not taking on sexualisation of present youth culture and girl power discourses which limit their access to protest rather than rendering them power.
You talk a lot about how shifting cultural attitudes in the 21st century are changing our attitudes towards traditional gender roles. How do you think this is going to affect physiotherapist’s practice in the future?
In this paper, we do not explicitly discuss how these shifts might affect physiotherapist’s practice in the future, however I discuss this topic in one of the other paper in my PhD thesis (Published 2014 in Physiotherapy Theory and Practice, entitled Curing and caring competences in the skills training of physiotherapy students). In this paper, I argue that although it might be that physiotherapists will continue to emphasize curing, how they more specifically perform their competences might be changing quite considerable. In short, this revolves around how male students are able to perform caring competences in a similar manner as female students.
Who’s work have you been most inspired by, and in what ways have they influenced your ideas?
In this particular paper, we have been inspired by the work of Carrie Paechter who conceptualizes gender as communities of femininities and masculinities. This way of viewing gender fitted students’ bodily gender performing in skills training classes. In particular, Paechter emphasizes the significance of the material body in gender constructions. This paper has been a contribution to an ongoing debate of the relationship between sex and gender within educational studies. In short, viewing gender as distinct from the sexed body has helped destabilize binary and essentialized gendered thinking, and thus strengthened possibilities for analyzing shifting and transgressive gender performing. However, as this paper argues, some contexts still seem deeply defined by bodily performances represented by a sexed body, and therefore, a fundamental split between gender and the sexed body clearly has some limitations. Physiotherapy students’ skills training is an example of such a context.
I also have been inspired from the writing of other physiotherapists who have written on issues of gender in physiotherapy, for example Hammond, Ӧhman, Sudmann, Dahle, Ottosson and some others.
What are you moving on to next?
Up to now, I have published several research articles related to my PhD project and my thesis will be submitted within a few months. After my dissertation, I will probably return to my teacher position in the physiotherapy education and from there the way further is open. I hope to pursue my research interest in gender and physiotherapy in some future project. To do a comparative international project would be excellent, I believe such a design would generate most needed knowledge on the cultural aspect of how physiotherapy is shaped in the 21th century. Time will tell.