In 1970, women made up just over 20 percent of PhD recipients in psychology, according to the National Research Council. In 2005, the last year for which data are available, nearly 72 percent of new PhD and PsyDs entering psychology were women, according to APA's Center for Psychology Workforce Analysis and Research. And when you look even further down the line, graduate enrollment in psychology, including those pursuing master's-level degrees, reached nearly three-quarters female in 2005.
"Just by their sheer numbers, women are changing the field of psychology," says Carol Williams-Nickelson, PsyD, associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students.
But is this trend just a product of our society? By 1960, women made up a majority of the U.S. population, and are increasingly well-educated. For example, in 2004, women earned 44 percent of science and engineering and 60 percent of non-science and engineering doctoral degrees, up from 8 and 18 percent, respectively, in 1966.
A 1995 APA task force explored the changing gender composition of psychology and partly attributed the growth in women to an increased demand for psychological services and improved access for women to training and employment in the field. Federal fluctuations in social science funding tightened money for research in the 1980s, and pressure to contain health-care expenditures caused a slight decline in salaries in psychology during that time, as well. In response to that, men pursued other interests, says Dorothy Cantor, PsyD, chair of the task force. Women filled in the gap.
"Women get blamed for any decline in the autonomy, status and earning power of a profession because what people see is women come into it, and then the profession earns less money and is less well-regarded," says Cantor. "What really happens is that those facets start to decline, men leave and women come in to fill the vacuum." Similar trends occurred in other fields as well, she says, including pharmacy, real estate and public relations.
The 1995 report remains an important analysis of the dramatic demographic changes within psychology, says Shari E. Miles-Cohen, PhD, senior director of women's programs in APA's Public Interest Directorate. But given the complexities of the issue and in light of changes over the past 15 years, the Committee on Women in Psychology plans to revisit the concerns raised in the report about social, cultural and economic changes diminishing the status of an occupation, says Miles-Cohen. And as the demographics of the field continue to shift, psychologists are examining the ways women have changed the field, and how to best ensure a diverse work force.
"Because of historical social values, we must emphasize the value of what we do as men and women in psychology, and guard against the profession being devalued by those biased attitudes," says Stephen McCutcheon, PhD, chair of the Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers. It's critical, he says, for the field to take action to maintain fair and equitable pay for everyone in the discipline.
The 1995 report, says Miles-Cohen, also noted the critical need for psychologists, particularly women psychologists, to advocate for the continued strength of psychology both in pay and prestige.
A historical view
Beth Doll, PhD, remembers the struggles she endured as a woman in school psychology in the 1970s. Despite her impressive qualifications and a master's degree in clinical psychology, a doctorate advisor discouraged her from pursuing her PhD, worried she would forgo completing the program to start a family. Doll chose not to heed this advice and went on to complete her doctorate in school psychology in 1983.
"That simply won't happen today, in part because women have moved into some positions of power," says Doll, now an educational psychology professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and chair of the Council of Directors of School Psychology Programs.
Luckily, women no longer have to fight their way into graduate programs, says Miles-Cohen. And they're even finding ways to throw family into the mix as well, she says.
"Women have always wanted to be psychologists...they just didn't have an opportunity to do it," says Miles-Cohen.
Despite their advancements, women in psychology earn nearly 9 percent less than men on average, though that number increases with experience level. In addition, a number of psychology subfields and position levels still lack a substantial proportion of women. In academe, for example, about 25 percent of full professors at U.S. graduate departments of psychology are women, despite a nearly proportional gender ratio at the associate professor level. Even within APA, women have not yet caught up with their representation in the field. In 2005, women held less than 38 percent of the editor and associate editor roles with APA journals. And only 11 of APA's past 115 presidents have been women. Time will tell whether more women will eventually end up in these top spots, both in governance and academe.
"It's not necessarily resistance from the field to accommodating women, but that structures and systems that were established decades ago and are still in place today really aren't welcoming...for women," says Williams-Nickelson.
Some schools are working to change those statistics, however. In 2005, Princeton University introduced a number of family-friendly policies and programs for faculty to help them manage the "converging tenure and biological clocks," says Joan Girgus, PhD, Princeton psychology professor and special assistant to the dean of the faculty. One policy in particular grants an automatic one-year tenure clock extension for each child to assistant professors who become parents by birth or adoption.
"We want to create a situation in which not just women, but men, too, can...get tenure and at the same time have a family life that's in reasonable balance with that," says Girgus.
As this "feminization" trend continues, however, psychologists seem unsure whether the field will reach a point where the numbers are too disproportional. Some see the shift as a natural outcome of more women in professional careers, and don't see any danger in the continuing increase in women. Others, including Cantor, believe the imbalance might be due to a more innate attraction of women to the field and to helping people, but worry about maintaining the diversity of the psychology work force if trends continue. Still others believe the field has already reached its tipping point, and that more needs to be done to encourage more men to enter the field.
"I don't think we're giving [gender] the same kind of attention that we do other forms of diversity," says Doll.
The risk of such a disproportion, some say, might lie in the loss of valuable perspectives and views from men. And as more women enter, men may feel out of place, says Williams-Nickelson. In school psychology, for example, some psychologists worry about the lack of male counselors in elementary and high schools, due to this subfield's high percentage of women-75 percent in 2005.
What the field can agree on, however, is the need to maintain the value of psychology to society at a broader level. That means ensuring that psychologists, regardless of gender, meet clients' needs to the best of their ability, says Frank L. Collins Jr., PhD, psychology professor at Oklahoma State University and chair of the Council of University Directors of Clinical Psychology. Some clients, he says, request a certain gender therapist and it's essential to have both options available.
"In order to do some of the things we do, we need both men and women in psychology," says Collins.
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