Feature

In the mid-1960s, 33-year-old Helen Astin, PhD, moved to Washington, D.C., hoping to find a job as a psychology professor. But each door she knocked on closed quickly in her face. Potential employers cited her lack of research experience, but Astin suspected the real strike against her was her gender.

"Those days, there was blatant discrimination operating everywhere," says Astin, who earned her doctorate in 1957, when only about one in eight new PhDs in any field were women. Women psychologists were often excluded from the social inner circle of male psychologists. Even APA's employment office posted positions indicating "men preferred," she says.

Today, the scene is much different. Women outnumber men in higher education, and employment discrimination based on gender is illegal. Astin, who eventually found a job at the National Academy of Sciences and later became a tenured professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, says she feels vindicated.

But such advances did not come without the work of APA's Committee on Women in Psychology (CWP) says Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, executive director of APA's Public Interest Directorate. The committee, which promotes the health and well-being of all women through advocacy, training and research, is celebrating its 40th year.

"I look to what APA is now and what APA was then, and think that the CWP and the Women's Programs Office were major contributors to that change," says Keita, who served as the committee's chair-elect in 1986 before becoming the director of the Women's Programs Office in 1987.

Stormy beginnings

Before there was a Committee on Women in Psychology, there was a Task Force on the Status of Women in Psychology. Before there was a task force, there was outrage: In 1969, APA's leadership had no statement on the status of women in psychology and its Annual Convention did not provide child care. So that year, 10 members of the Association for Women in Psychology stormed APA's council meeting with a list of 52 resolutions and demanded to be heard. The council developed the task force in 1970 and tapped Astin as chair.

In its early days, the committee (officially formed from the task force in 1973) routinely challenged psychology department chairs to consider how they were improving the status of women in psychology. Its members — including men, in some years — fought for government agencies to fund health research with women participants and for journals to publish articles on women's issues. They drove the development of dozens of APA resolutions and policy recommendations, including those related to equal pay, employment discrimination and reproductive rights.

"From the beginning, filing a report was not our purpose," says Astin, now 81. "Our purpose was to be activists for change."

40 years young

Today, the committee is less activist but no less active.

"There's a lot of sexism in society, there's gender inequality, violence against women, sexualization of girls," says Joan Chrisler, PhD, CWP's current chair and a psychology professor at Connecticut College. "We need psychologists to be well trained in these areas, to understand these social problems, to be ready to participate in making social change and to guide interventions with clients who are suffering."

To help achieve that, in more recent years the committee has helped to develop task forces on violence against women, the sexualization of girls, mental health and abortion, and trafficking of women and girls. It initiated the development of APA's Leadership Institute for Women in Psychology, a series of webinars and in-person workshops that equip women in psychology with the skills and resources to become leaders of state associations, department chairs, deans, provosts and university presidents.

The committee would also like to see more women journal editors — "one of the thought leadership roles that has so much power in the field over what [psychologists] are reading," says Shari Miles-Cohen, PhD, director of APA's Women's Programs Office. As such, the office, CWP and Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women) continue to host programming at APA conventions through which women journal editors can share their experiences and advice.

Within the next year, the committee will begin revisiting its 1995 report on the changing gender composition of psychology. It will collect data to find out where women are still falling behind and why.

Chrisler remains committed to recognizing the accomplishments of women psychologists through CWP's annual leadership awards. "Women's contributions are often overlooked," she says. "When people think about great psychologists, they tend to think about men."

Learn more about APA's Committee on Women in Psychology

Read "52 Resolutions and Motions Regarding the States of Women in Psychology (PDF, 296KB)

Celebrate CWP's 40th anniversary at APA's annual convention in Hawai'i

  • Learn what it takes to be a woman journal editor at "Roundtable Discussion: Why YOU Should Consider Becoming a Journal Editor: A Panel Discussion with Women Journal Editors" on Aug. 1, 2–2:50 pm, AWP/SPW Hospitality Suite, Hilton Hawaiian Village.
  • Hear from current and former chairs at "Symposium: Living History: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the Committee on Women in Psychology" on Aug. 2, 8–9:50 a.m., Convention Center, Room 327.
  • Check out the presentation of CWP's Leadership Awards at the Div. 35 (Society for the Psychology of Women) Social Hour on Saturday, Aug. 3, 3 p.m., Hilton Hawaiian Village.
For more on convention programming on women, go to APA's convention website.