Same Profession, Different Challenges

Overcoming the Hurdles Facing Men and Women in Massage

By Les Sweeney and Kristin Coverley
[Business Side]

Are you a male in the bodywork profession? Female? Perfect—this column’s for you! Les and Kristin explore the unique challenges facing both male and female therapists today.

It’s (Not) a Man’s Man’s Man’s World
Les Sweeney: In 1966, the year I was born, James Brown recorded “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” a song that was characterized by Rolling Stone as “biblically chauvinistic” but nonetheless was ranked number 123 of the 500 greatest songs of all time (and later achieved true immortality when featured on the show Glee).
The massage therapy profession is not a man’s world. That is a common notion that has been expressed to me, and generally held, since the time I began working in the field in 1994. About one in six massage professionals are male, a number that has stayed fairly consistent over the past 20 years. Interestingly, when I look at our ABMP membership data, approximately 23 percent of therapists working at franchise massage clinics are male, while only 15 percent of members who do not work at franchise massage clinics are male.
Which brings me to my thesis: massage is one of the few professions where men do not enjoy an advantage in the marketplace. In many other fields, men historically have dominated, set the ground rules, and, in general, skewed things to their own advantage. (Don’t believe me? Just ask women.) In massage, a higher percentage of males work in franchise clinics because (1) it is more difficult for males, on average, to establish and sustain an independent practice; and (2) working in a clinic provides a sense of security for males.
These statements might seem a bit strong, but I’m just reporting the facts here. Surveys show that female clients, on average, prefer a female therapist; male clients also prefer a female therapist. So, who’s left for us guys?
When I was in massage school, the only slight I probably received because I was male was when we partnered up—I think early in my schooling the women preferred to pair up with each other rather than get stuck with “the guy” (until they realized what an awesome therapist I was, he says humbly).
Now, this issue does not mean males cannot excel and have a successful career in massage and bodywork—actually the contrary. As I have told therapists for two decades, there is always room for one more good anything. The massage and bodywork profession is a mosaic—as evidenced by its name alone. Massage alone doesn’t cover it; where or how you receive your bodywork can be varied and unique. That’s what makes regulation so challenging: things aren’t standard. And who delivers the work is what defines the work as well.
Thinking about the qualities of a good massage therapist—or a successful practice—will help define the ways that any therapist, male or female, can build a sustainable career. There are more than 3,000 male members of ABMP who have been in the field for 10 years or more. There is no reason a male therapist can’t be successful in this field. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy (or will get easier). To that end, here are a few things to remember to make success a reality.

Create an authentic image that projects who you are—and be consistent.
The essence of massage is relaxation; a client has to trust you to serve their needs. Be confident, thoughtful, and respectful, while remaining true to your personality. Clients choose therapists because of their personality, not in spite of it. Tell your story; don’t be afraid to show who you are. However, be mindful of your professionalism. There is plenty of negative publicity out there about male massage therapists who have taken liberties with (usually) female clients. Even joking references or innuendos are off-limits. Professional therapists must always maintain clear boundaries with their clients.

Show your stronger (and softer) side.
Take advantage of your uniqueness. Big strong guy? Bring those skills to the table (literally). Many clients like deep work, and your strength may set you apart. Massage is many things: clinical, invigorating, relaxing, spa-like, sporting, therapeutic. Show off your nurturing skills as well—allow your clients to feel safe, relaxed, and cared for.

Work smart.
Male therapists may be at a disadvantage because of long-held biases, or bad apples who generate stereotypes, but you can overcome those. Set yourself up to dispel those myths. Remember that statistic about the percentage of males in franchise clinics? That’s a way for those males to gain some traction. For some, it may be too difficult to have your own office when first starting out. Through no fault of your own, clients may decide they need an environment where they feel more comfortable. If you are interested in practicing independently, you may need to look into partnering with another therapist (likely female) to establish your viability.

Focus on your business.
You are engaged in this field to serve others, but serve yourself as well. And that means developing a healthy practice. Every therapist—male or female—has a challenge to cultivate a thriving practice. Make your primary focus this year be the growth of your client base. If being a male in a female-prominent field is a challenge, strive to be the best-marketed practice in your area. Many biases are just initial ones—education and demonstration of your skills, your work ethic, and your professionalism will make your gender irrelevant.

Harness your girl power.
All good therapists should welcome feedback about their practice—we can always improve, and who better to give you constructive input than your sisters in practice? You undoubtedly went to massage school with female classmates; have them give you some guidance and share thoughts. Offer bodywork trades and ask them about ways you can improve and make your practice more open and welcoming.
As mentioned, developing a thriving practice is a challenge for anyone. Males just may have a few more hurdles than females. But that’s not the end of the world. We men can do it. Instead of listening to James Brown singing, “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” go back a few more years to 1959 and listen to Frank Sinatra and “High Hopes”—oops, there goes another rubber tree plant …
Shout out to my brothers in arms (and elbows) out there doing great work—let us know your secrets of success! Email us at

It’s Not Easy Street Over Here, Either
Kristin Coverly: OK, now for the female perspective. Do male therapists have a unique set of challenges? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s always a breezy “Easy Street” sing-along (I just saw the Annie remake with my niece) over here on the female side of the profession. We’ve got our own set of challenges to deal with. The good news is that with some preparation and practice, these are hurdles we can clear.
Let’s explore a few of the common challenges for women in our profession, with the caveat that what follows are generalizations that won’t apply to all female therapists and may or may not apply specifically to you.

Challenge: Age
Data shows the median age of massage students is dropping. Does this younger population of female therapists face a unique set of challenges? You bet. Younger therapists have to work a little harder to be perceived as professional and competent therapists. For our purposes here, let’s define “younger” as therapists in their 20s.
Many employers, based on previous experiences, believe younger employees lack professionalism and won’t show up on time or be able to carry on a professional conversation (with eye contact) with clients. Some clients believe age equals experience and talent, which ends up being a plus for older therapists, but a challenge for younger ones. However, some clients also believe that older therapists may not be able to deliver the pressure they want (this goes for petite therapists, too). Frustrating, right?
What can you do? Know the assumptions and plan your countermove. Younger therapists, be prepared to address professionalism in a job interview. Older and petite therapists, include client testimonials praising your level of pressure in your marketing materials.

Challenge: Confidence
Almost all female therapists I’ve met in 14 years of practicing and teaching have struggled with confidence at one time or another in areas ranging from setting rates and enforcing policies to promoting their practice. We get into the field because we love helping people, but the business of helping people doesn’t always come naturally or feel super comfortable.
Whether you have your own practice or work for someone else, your level of confidence when communicating (verbally and nonverbally) conveys an impression of the quality of your work. If you drop eye contact, lower your voice, and hunch your shoulders when sharing your prices, clients will believe you don’t think your work is worth that price, so they won’t believe it’s worth it either. Is it uncomfortable to ask for money? Yes, it can be. But it doesn’t have to be! Set a fair price based on your experience and your local market, and then practice saying it out loud to people until it’s easier. This might sound a little wacky, but try it, it works!
To increase your confidence in all business situations, remind yourself that what you’re selling—your work— helps people. Believe that what you offer is valuable. Trust that you deserve to have a full practice. If you have to “fake it ’til you make it” for a while, that’s OK—your confidence will grow. Don’t let a little nervousness limit your ability to do what you love.

Challenge: Safety
Female therapists also have concerns about physical safety and clients with questionable expectations. We can get nervous when working with new clients in an outcall situation, home office, or isolated office space.
My first rented massage room was in a physical therapy suite in a large office building. After 6:00 p.m., the building cleared out and had a slightly dark and eerie feel to it, and no one else was working in my office suite. For a few evening appointments with first-time male clients I didn’t know, I turned the lights on in the empty offices and had a friend sit and read in the waiting room during our session so there was someone else present in the space when my new client arrived. Was this absolutely necessary? Maybe not, but it gave me the peace of mind that she was nearby if I needed her and allowed me to focus on the session. You can also set up a buddy system with a friend to check in with each other before and after sessions.
Moral of the story: do whatever you need to do to protect your safety and reduce worry. Have a solid phone interview with new clients and, bottom line, be willing to say no if you don’t feel comfortable scheduling a session with that person.
Most of the time it’s a bonus to be a female therapist in our profession. What do you do when it’s not? I suggest forming a group with your colleagues to help each other with challenging situations when they pop up. It’s nice to have a community to lean on when you need support. Find ways to clear those hurdles so you can keep doing what you love!

Les Sweeney is ABMP’s president and resident blogger. Contact him at and read his blog on Kristin Coverly,, is the manager of professional development at ABMP and teaches workshops for therapists and instructors across the country. Both are massage therapists with business degrees who care about you and your practice. Want more? Check out their ABMP BizFit video tips on