Nearly three-quarters of the psychology field's doctorates are held by women, yet they hold fewer than half of all tenure-track psychology positions, according to the National Science Foundation.

In fact, the higher women climb on the academic ladder, the more those numbers shrink: Only one-third of full psychology professors are women, and those numbers drop far lower for department chairs, provosts and university presidents.

Teaching women the skills to right this imbalance was the focus of the Aug. 12 APA Committee on Women in Psychology (CWP) Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology, where 30 mid-career women psychologists from academe and academic medicine honed their skills in negotiation, mentoring, applying leadership skills and making more informed choices about their careers. They also practiced day-to-day skills directly related to their jobs, which included balancing research and administrative duties, negotiating raises and promotions, and realizing career goals.

"We wanted women to have the opportunity not only to hear excellent didactic information on leadership, but to engage in skill-building exercises, goal-planning and networking that would impact their professional lives once they returned to their home institutions," said CWP Vice Chair Helen L. Coons, PhD, who also chaired the institute.

The institute's content was designed by well-known leaders in the psychology field: Coons, Lula A. Beatty, PhD, Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD, Ruth E. Fassinger, PhD, Mary Casey Jacob, PhD, Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD, Susan H. McDaniel, PhD, Sandra L. Shullman PhD, and Karen F. Wyche, PhD.

The 30 participants were a diverse group of psychologists with 10 to 25 years postdoctorate: 16 identified themselves as white, five as African-American, four as Hispanic/Latina, two as Asian, one as Arab-American and one as biracial (Asian-American/white).

Broad goals

Institute planners chose the 30 participants based on a competitive application process. California State University associate professor Ramani Durvasula, PhD, says she came to the program wondering whether to stay the course in traditional academe or pursue two other ambitions as well: getting more involved in APA governance and promoting psychological research by pursuing media-related work.

The institute definitely encouraged her instinct to branch out, she says. "The faculty were saying that this is a very important transitional time in women's careers, and that they support women's movement into leadership," Durvasula said. "It was very emboldening to know that senior women in the field could help folks like me make the transition."

University of Maryland psychology professor Karen O'Brien, PhD, added that an exercise helping participants to identify their leadership styles made her consider taking a slightly less hands-on approach with her students.

"I'm not sure my grad students will like this," she chuckled, "but I realized that in some ways, the way I work with them doesn't encourage their independence. I'm going to be thinking about ways to provide them with challenges that will spur them to greater growth."

Ethnopolitical violence researcher Priscilla Dass-Brailsford, EdD, of Lesley University, was moved by the institute's emphasis on women supporting women and on "reciprocal mentoring"—that is, mentoring among equals. The South African native who attended graduate school in the United States didn't receive much mentoring as a student or early in her career because people assumed she would return home on graduation, she said.

"The institute was an amazing opportunity to be with a cohort of women who will encourage and support me, who I can get ideas from and who I can work with in the future," she said.

An eye to the future

The institute was the first in what the faculty hopes will be an ongoing program, if funding is available, says Coons.

Based on participant feedback and on available funds, faculty plan to hold a similar institute before APA's 2009 Annual Convention in Toronto that would include women in academia and academic medicine as well as clinical and consulting psychology. A third institute in 2010 would target senior women in psychology.

In the meantime, faculty will work on ways to help the inaugural group stay connected via webcasts, listservs, continued evaluations of the program and its effects, and other means. They also want to reconvene the group in March to continue to shepherd these women to become leaders in the field.

Coons was delighted by participants' enthusiasm about keeping in touch and trying out some of the strategies in their home institutions, she said.

"Programs for women in other fields such as academic medicine have successfully boosted the rates of women in senior leadership positions," she said. "By applying similar concepts and strategies to our field, but in a tailored way, we hope to have the same impact."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.