Degree In Sight

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Are you a feminist? “Yes,” some readily answer. Others grimace and deny any involvement with that “bra-burning, man-hating” movement.

To Cynthia de las Fuentes, PhD, past-president of APA's Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women), such negative perceptions derive from media distortion-not the movement's mission of equality for the sexes at work and at home. What's more, many young women--and men--don't realize that equality has yet to be achieved, she says.

She laments the division's relative absence of men, minorities and members younger than 30--the last of which is a trend across all APA divisions.

"We've had trouble communicating feminism's continuing relevance to young people and people of color," says de las Fuentes, an associate professor at San Antonio-based Our Lady of the Lake University. "Most current Div. 35 members were active in women's rights in the '70s, and they still are."

So de las Fuentes made it her presidential initiative to convey that message, particularly to the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS), 75 percent of whom are women. She formed a Task Force on Making Feminism Relevant, which met with APAGS members at APA's 2005 Annual Convention. Students also wrote reaction pieces to feminist-relevant programming at the 2005 and 2006 conventions.

Task force members point to data they say show feminism's ongoing relevance: In psychology, women's median salaries are generally lower than men's, according to APA's 2003 Salaries in Psychology report. And the gap grows the further psychologists get into their careers: Men make about $5,000 more than women initially. The gap widens by 15 to 24 years of experience, with men making just over $10,000 more than women, and those with 25 to 29 years of work experience making $10,000 more, though the gap lessens slightly to $7,000 among those with more than 30 years experience.

Moreover, in academe, across all fields, female professors earn 12 percent less than male professors, according to a 2004-2005 survey by the American Association of University Professors. Also, full-time male professors still outnumber full-time female professors at doctoral institutions two to one.

gradPSYCH recently spoke with a cross-section of self-proclaimed feminists in psychology about the future of feminism. In addition to de las Fuentes, they include:

  • Karla Gomez, an undergraduate French and psychology major at New Mexico State University who attended the Div. 35/APAGS convention meetings.

  • Nadia T. Hasan, a fourth-year counseling psychology student at the University of Akron and APAGS chair-elect.

  • Oliva Espin, PhD, a psychology and women's studies professor at San Diego State University and Div. 35 fellow.

  • Andrea Dottolo, a personality psychology and women's studies student at the University of Michigan.

  • Cynthia Garcia Coll, PhD, the Robinson and Barstow Professor of Education, Psychology and Pediatrics at Brown University.

  • Kate Richmond, PhD, a clinical postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania Counseling Center who attended the Div. 35/APAGS convention meetings.

  • Arnold Kahn, PhD, a psychology professor at James Madison University and Div. 35 member.

  • Sara Wright, PhD, a neuropsychology postdoc at the University of Michigan and Div. 35's 2003-2005 student representative.

  • Debra Kawahara, PhD, an assistant psychology professor at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University and chair of the Div. 35 Task Force on Making Feminism Relevant.

Q. What does feminism mean today?

Gomez: It's being who you are-being the woman that you are, without fears of judgment or a joke. It's being successful, not in a materialistic way, but in the way you want to be. It's about doing what you want to do in life, fighting for what you want-not waiting for others to give you what you need. There are still obstacles for women in doing that. People are still surprised when I say I'm thinking about getting a psychology PhD, and I think that has to do with me being a 21-year-old woman.

Hasan: To me, feminism empowers women to achieve their goals, whatever they may be. It's a positive force in their lives.

Q.What are the biggest challenges in feminism today?

de las Fuentes: A lot of young people think that women's rights has already been accomplished. We've got Title IX; we've got laws against gender discrimination. But they don't realize there are still so many forces against women's rights, like reproductive rights and pay equity. We still have 73 cents on the dollar a man earns.

Espin: People make all sorts of excuses for the earning gap. Maybe women don't work. They stay home from work and take care of the kids. Yet studies show that even when the woman earns more, families more often move to where men get jobs. The most important thing for many women is still to have a man, and pleasing him comes first.

When the woman works outside the home, she still does more housework, and when men do it, it's usually things that can be postponed. The more immediate things, taking out the garbage, cooking, changing diapers, she'll do after work, as discussed in the book "The Second Shift" (Penguin, 2003) by Arlie Hochschild.

One of the things floating around in APA is that with the feminization of psychology, the field will lose prestige. That's a statement right there on the status of women. It shows we need broader-scale changing of attitudes related to women. Maybe we could look at it differently, like is feminization making the profession wiser? Maybe we're asking more questions and interpreting results more broadly.

Q.Why is feminism considered "the F word" by many of today's young women and men?

Dottolo: A movement of powerful women is seen as threatening. Reflecting that, the media creates negative stereotypes of these powerful women: Who would want to be a bra burner?

A related reason is a lot of people just don't like labeling. They say, "Don't put me in a box," and have a defensive reaction to the idea of calling themselves a feminist. Others think the women's movement is a political relic, and that kind of thinking becomes a useful tool for the patriarchy. And it's harder to accept that there's structural inequality. It's upsetting and disturbing in the same way that people deny personal problems.

Garcia Coll: I see a reaction, with some women saying, "I don't want to be like my mom, struggling with balancing family and career--the costs of feminism are too high." Others think they can do it all. And that's why many don't end up making it: They don't realize the high costs until they get there.

In academe, for instance, we still have the same male models for promotion and tenure. So when we're meant to be earning tenure, most of us are having kids because we've postponed it through grad school. Yet the psychological research shows men and women still have largely traditional expectations in the household. So if one of the kids is sick, the woman misses the faculty meeting.

That's not equality. As long as raising families is considered women's work and is not valued in society, that's not equality.

Q.Does feminism need redefinition?

Richmond: Yes. Perception of feminism needs to change. One misperception is that third-wave feminists ('80s through today) are not doing enough or that they do not appreciate what has already been accomplished within the movement. I don't agree with this. I think politically we're in a time of backlash that's dangerous for minorities in general, and for women. But that doesn't mean that young feminists aren't trying to figure out new ways to address these challenges.

We should value the groundwork the second-wave ('60s and '70s) feminists laid for us and also become innovative and move in a direction that's helpful for all women, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation and so forth. Historically, feminism has been perceived as a white, heterosexual, middle-class movement. Many of us want to see it broadened. The Div. 35 task force is an exciting step in the right direction.

Kahn: No, not redefinition. Rather, it needs to be reclaimed through education about what feminism really is. I teach an undergrad class in the psychology of women and gender. On the first day of class, almost nobody says they are a feminist. By the end of the course, they all say they are.

If you have a group of right-wing commentators who claim feminists are braless lesbians who want to destroy the family, and who repeat that message for 40 years, lots of people will think that. It behooves women to stand up and say, "No." The most powerful T-shirt from the 2004 March for Women's Lives, worn by a very diverse crowd, was "This is What a Feminist Looks Like."

Q. How does feminism apply in psychology today?

Wright: Even though the majority of degrees in psychology are granted to women, we are still under-represented in upper positions, as journal editors, full professors, department chairs.

Also, qualitative research has been encouraged by feminists, and it still has not gained the respect that quantitative research gets. So we need to move toward seeing benefits of both.

The personal is the political. It's imperative that those of us who identify as feminists spread the word about how feminism is relevant for us, that we show people every day, "I am a feminist. This is what I look like, and do I fit your stereotype?"

Kawahara: Professionally, it matters beyond just how it affects psychologists. Each person needs to think about how they, in their own way, would seek social justice for things like prejudice and inequality in the workplace and careers for women. It's changing things so the obstacles aren't there for our clients-making a difference in the daily lives of all people.

Visit the Division 35 Web site.

“As long as raising families is considered women’s work and is not valued in society, that’s not equality.”

Cynthia Garcia Coll
Brown University