Tackling gender imbalance in psychology

Judith Johnson, Anna Madill, Gina Z. Koutsopoulou, Charity Brown and Richard Harris.

Eighty per cent of psychology undergraduate students are female and at Russell Group institutions, the proportion is even higher, standing at around 85 per cent. The result is that psychology professions are pervasively female-dominated: 80 per cent of Clinical Psychologists and Educational Psychologists are women. This gender imbalance has negative ramifications for all concerned; members of the public who are more comfortable seeing a male psychologist may find it challenging to find one, and for those of us within a psychology profession, research suggests that gender-balanced teams operate more effectively within the workplace. The gender imbalance also fails to offer women any career-long benefits, with ‘a leaky pipeline’ effect meaning that only 63 per cent of university psychology lecturers and 33 per cent of psychology professors are female. 

At the University of Leeds, School of Psychology, we have been investigating this issue as part of our Athena SWAN Silver Award Action Plan and have made changes which we hope will increase the number of applications we receive to study psychology from prospective male students. However, we are one psychology department trying to tackle a much wider problem. Not only is the gender imbalance seen in psychology a national problem; it stretches right across the higher education sector, with 57 per cent of all undergraduate students identifying as female. Alternatively, when viewed from an international lens, it is quickly apparent that other countries are struggling with the same challenge of a psychology gender imbalance. As such, we believe that for any local initiatives like our own to be truly effective, a national strategy is needed to address this issue. 

While it is clear to us that a national strategy is needed, knowing what this strategy should look like is less clear and there are few positive examples to draw on, as previous initiatives to try and improve gender balance in other areas of education have had only limited success (see, for example, Smith, E. (2011). Women into science and engineering? Gendered participation in higher education STEM subjects. British Educational Research Journal, 37(6), 993-1014). We recently conducted focus groups with our male students to understand this problem better and found our male students perceive psychology as a degree primarily relating to health and education professions; careers which they perceived as being 'women’s work' and which do not strongly appeal to them.

This led us to be aware of two key issues: the first is the need to highlight the important role of male psychologists in all professions; ensuring that male psychology role models are available and visible to both the school students who we engage with as part of our community and schools work and to prospective applicants who attend our open days. The second is the need to showcase and promote the wide range of careers that a degree in psychology can lead on to for both our prospective applicants and our existing student body.

At the School of Psychology, University of Leeds we already have a strong emphasis on supporting student employability: we offer a work placement (industrial) year option to enable students to gain valuable work experience before graduating and our Careers Director (Dr Gina Z. Koutsopoulou) oversees a range of ongoing student career development opportunities. However, our findings have led us to now identify and advertise a range of remunerated industrial placement year opportunities in sectors such as public services (e.g. civil service, local government, statistical services), industry and business (e.g. management consultancy, banking, human resources, accountancy, marketing, advertising), on a weekly basis and provided workshops to support students with their applications. 

We will now monitor the effectiveness of these changes and continue to engage in initiatives to improve gender balance within our own department. However, we continue to believe that for our efforts to be effective, a wider and broader national strategy is needed. Furthermore, given the limited success of gender-balancing strategies in other educational areas, we think that research to better understand this issue and how it can be addressed will also be crucial. 

- Judith Johnson, Anna Madill, Gina Z. Koutsopoulou, Charity Brown and Richard Harris

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