Women are leading the field of psychology, but in numbers only. While they hold three-quarters of the field’s new doctorates and early career positions, they make up only 39 percent of tenured graduate department faculty and 49 percent of all graduate department faculty, according to 2008–09 APA Center for Workforce Studies data. Similarly, women continue to earn less money on average than men across all employment settings, the same data show.

Since 2008, the APA Committee on Women in Psychology has been working to change that through its Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology. In its first three years, the institute offered leadership skills and insights to midcareer women in academic and academic medical settings. This year, the committee is also welcoming female psychologists in clinical and consulting settings, with the aim of helping them expand their leadership potential in venues such as health, hospital and mental health settings and systems; community institutions; APA and state psychological association governance; and the media, where women can promote psychological issues to the public.

“Learning the skills for effective leadership is essential as women psychologists advance to senior roles in professional settings,” says the institute’s founding chair, Helen L. Coons, PhD. “We are committed to giving participants practical tools to navigate professional challenges and to be successful in influential positions. The Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology focuses on teaching skills to support women’s advancement as innovative leaders who have the ability to create environments that promote positive change.”

The institute began as a one-day workshop in 2008 but has blossomed to three days. Two of the days take place before APA’s Annual Convention. In addition to didactic sessions delivered by psychology leaders, the women participate in hands-on sessions where they learn such critical skills as how to set career goals, manage time and resources, find and be a good mentor, and balance family and work life. The third day, held in March, focuses on financial and budgetary strategies, such as money management and negotiating raises.

In general, faculty strive to help participants to think more broadly about what they can contribute as leaders, says Sandra L. Shullman, PhD, partner with the human resources consulting firm the Executive Development Group and a member of the institute’s executive committee. 

“Women tend to favor leadership styles that are collaborative and participative rather than competitive — qualities research shows can nurture employee satisfaction and creativity,” Shullman says. “We think these qualities can enhance all sorts of leadership positions.”

So far, 68 women — whom APA chose out of a field of applicants — have participated in the institute. The course fee is $500, which represents only a small portion of the institute’s expenses; the rest is covered by grants and donations.

A new group of leaders

This year’s addition of clinical and consulting psychologists promises to further expand the definition of and possibilities for female leadership potential in the field, says APA Board Member Jennifer F. Kelly, PhD, a faculty member for this new institute track and a member of its planning committee.

“There is definitely a big world outside of practice that can expand your professional identity and increase your ability to effect positive change in a variety of arenas,” says Kelly, who heads a behavioral medicine practice in Atlanta. Those opportunities include community work and leadership opportunities in APA governance and in state, provincial and territorial psychological associations. Kelly, for instance, is a member of Leadership Atlanta, a grassroots initiative that taps citizens’ input on city policy.

Breakout sessions for clinical and consulting participants will be tailored to this group’s unique settings and issues. For instance, participants will learn how to implement innovative models of practice and consulting in their own and others’ businesses. They’ll also learn how to negotiate contracts in clinical settings, and become involved in state and federal advocacy for practice and health-care issues.

By expanding the institute, its leaders are building in more time for participants to practice the skills they’ve learned, says Coons. The institute is also increasing opportunities for participants to keep learning and networking, by, for instance, joining in bimonthly interactive webinars on difficult work relationships, advocacy work and strategic career and project planning. The webinars allow participants to log onto their computers and view a presentation, and call or log in to ask questions and interact with presenters and with each other. Participants also stay in touch via listserv. And last year marked the institute’s first reunion breakfast, where all current and past participants were invited to share their professional experiences, challenges and victories post-institute.

The institute places special emphasis on supporting women of diverse backgrounds, Coons adds. Some 42 percent of participants have been women of color, and 13 percent have been openly lesbian or bisexual.

In the future, institute leaders hope to expand the institute to include a track for senior psychologists 20 years or more postdoc — women who were trailblazers in the field but who often had to go it alone, says Shari Miles-Cohen, PhD, APA staff liaison to the institute.

“We hope that a track like this could be an important source of support for women who didn’t necessarily have structured opportunities to grow professionally or to develop a community of female psychologists with similar experiences,” she says.

Changing the dynamic

Regardless of participants’ career stage or path, institute leaders want to help them undo a pattern in which they don’t consider leadership roles unless they think they’re 100 percent prepared — a pattern women fall into starting in elementary school, says Dorothy W. Cantor, PsyD, a former APA president and longstanding expert and author on women’s leadership.

“We want to change the dynamic of women waiting, holding back, being concerned about speaking up and being absolutely right before they do,” says Cantor, who is also on the clinical and consulting faculty.

To this end, the institute encourages participants to get comfortable nominating themselves for positions, Miles-Cohen says. “The worst thing that can happen is that the group you’re volunteering for will say they’re not interested in appointing you,” she says. “The best thing that could happen is that you get the position.”

As the institute grows, institute leaders look forward to sparking participants’ potential to create and define leadership as individuals, psychologists and women, Miles-Cohen adds.

“We want to foster the idea that there is a universe of possibilities for leadership,” she says. “We really feel that female psychologists have a special combination of skills that would benefit any sector of employment.”

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

The deadline for the 2011 institute has passed, but interested psychologists can visit Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology for more information, or contact APA staff liaison Shari Miles-Cohen, PhD to apply for next year’s program.

Women's leadership faculty

For affiliations and biographies, go to Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology.

  • Lula A. Beatty, PhD
  • Kathleen S. Brown, PhD
  • Helen L. Coons, PhD
  • Dorothy W. Cantor, PsyD
  • Jean Lau Chin, EdD
  • Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD
  • Rosalind S. Dorlen, PsyD
  • Elena J. Eisman, EdD
  • Ruth E. Fassinger, PhD
  • Mary Casey Jacob, PhD
  • Nadine J. Kaslow, PhD
  • Susan H. McDaniel, PhD
  • Shari E. Miles-Cohen, PhD
  • Elaine Rodino, PhD
  • Sandra L. Shullman, PhD
  • Karen Fraser Wyche, MSW, PhD