It’s Not Me, It’s Sexism: My Relationship With My Psychology Major
Emmy Fisher | On 13, Aug 2013
When I was six years old, I told my Mum that when I grew up I wanted to be a psychologist. I didn’t really know what that meant, having only a vague idea that it was about trying to understand people. I spent the next 12 years having no idea what career I wanted to pursue at all. Then one day it occurred to me that psychology seemed like an attractive choice for university, and kind of like falling in love with someone you’ve been friends with for ages, I fell in love with psychology.
That’s not to say it’s been an easy relationship. The first few heady years at university saw me immerse myself in psychology. I would think, dream, and talk about psychology constantly. I wanted to learn everything I could; I felt like psychology could teach me everything about the world and about myself. There were times I felt there was something missing, but they were fleeting and I could overlook them, like when a new partner mentions they voted Tory at the last election, but then you get too distracted gazing into their eyes to enquire further.
Eventually though, the honeymoon period ended and reality set in. It started to become apparent that psychology and I didn’t always see eye to eye. I began to realise that, sometimes, psychology just didn’t get my friends. Sometimes psychology just didn’t get me, and I would feel frustrated and a little bit disappointed.
You see, I knew about psychology’s difficult past. In the spirit of honesty and self-deprecation, it told me as I read papers or sat in lectures – “this research is biased,” or “this theory cannot be generalised.” I knew it didn’t have the best track record with women, that female psychologists had been overlooked throughout its history. I knew from the outset that psychology had been criticized for representing a white, well-educated, middle-class, male perspective. As Russo and Denmark put it back in 1987, “until recently, the history of psychology has been virtually equivalent to the history of male psychology.”
But I thought these issues were a thing of the past. I heard terms like ‘androcentric,’ ‘gender bias,’ ‘culture bias,’ ‘heterosexist,’ and thought to myself, at least you’re trying to accept your flaws and better yourself. I assumed that psychology had moved on, that like its friends sociology, anthropology and gender studies it had begun to embrace diversity, both in terms of content and within representation of people working in the field.
Now I am beginning to realize that these issues run deeper than psychology would like me to believe. My distrust in psychology started to grow when I looked round my lecture hall one day and saw that out of the 100+ students, around 10 of them were male. It seems that this is common to many undergraduate psychology courses – according to the Higher Education Academy, about 80% of students majoring in psychology are female. Yet when I read my textbooks or researched papers, the vast majority of citations were for male psychologists.
While women’s access to psychology has improved drastically over the past century, we’re still experiencing barriers to academic success. Despite the majority of graduates being women, only 25% of psychology professors are women (Cynkar, 2007). Women are also vastly underrepresented in editor and assistant editor roles in British Psychological Society and American Psychological Association journals. In addition, only 11 out of APA presidents have been women, and only 30% of BPS award winners are female.
Nadya Fouad (2000), in a report for APA,comments that, “while there is some progress in terms of women’s greater participation numerically, the academy has not completely embraced them nor the values they bring to their faculty roles with respect to teaching and serving.”
Fouad asserts that men tend to be more focused on self-enhancement in their roles in psychology, while women tend to be more concerned with humanistic and community values. Carol Williams-Nickelson, previously associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students , supports this idea, commenting that, “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.” This may be one of the reasons why unmarried women and those who do not have children are those least affected by institutional sexism in psychology. Those in the top academic positions are predominantly white, middle class men who are reinforcing and sustaining the status quo, valuing self-enhancement and ambition over the more traditionally feminine and caring aspects of psychology.
Fouad also comments that “gender bias and stereotyping today are more covert and subtle, hence, more difficult to confront.” Institutional sexism rears its head in may forms, and women in psychology are often given a heavier workload, as well as more administrative and teaching work compared with men. Their work is published less, and women receive less funding and tenure than men.
Women also earn 9% less than men for equivalent posts, which may have a considerable impact on their ability to continue working in a field which is arguably underpaid to begin with. With all these barriers to women achieving and progressing in psychology and not enough being done to remedy the situation, it’s no wonder I feel frustrated even as I take my first steps in my career.
The reason all of this is so important is that the progress of psychology, like any other science, is dictated by the research interests of the people involved in it. Psychology can’t move forward if women are underrepresented, if issues relevant to women’s lives are not explored, and if we only work from a white, middle class, male perspective. Psychological research has so many applications to areas making tangible differences to people’s lives: education, health, government policy, mental health, work, forensics, sports, social care. The people doing the research, providing the funding and working at the top of organisation need to be as diverse as those people whose lives are being researched and who will ultimately be affected by the findings.
Psychology, I hate to say it, but it’s not me, it’s you. I know that however much I love you, you won’t love me back quite as much as you should, just because I’m a woman. That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but I’m willing to try as hard as I can to make this relationship work, because underneath I know we want the same things, to understand people and try to make their lives better. I know it won’t be easy, because you’ve got yourself into some bad habits and we have a long way to go.
But I think I’m worth it. I think we’re all worth it, all of us fighting against institutional sexism, every one of us who has ever felt let down by psychology and the organisations which try to prevent us from fulfilling our potential. I’m holding out for the day that you finally love us all back.
Written by Emmy Fisher
Find her on Twitter here!
December 6, 2013
December 5, 2013
December 4, 2013
December 4, 2013
December 2, 2013
November 27, 2013
November 25, 2013