‘Representation and methodology need to change’

Dr Rose Capdevila is Senior Lecturer at The Open University, and Chair of the BPS Psychology of Women & Equalities Section (POWES). For International Women’s Day, Deputy Editor Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne asks the questions.

The Section was originally founded in 1988 as The Psychology of Women Section. Tell us about the change to incorporate Equalities.
The reason for the name change, the addition of ‘equalities’, was to allow for a fuller representation of our membership and to better reflect the development of research in this area. As we argued in the application for the name change, the addition of ‘equalities’ meant that the section could recognise the breadth of work on/by women and/in psychology as well as more intersectional research which draws on the relationship between gender and the body, class, race, sexuality and other markers of difference. Conceptually, our focus has always been on the psychology of women as an issue of equality and social justice. The name change made this explicit and the membership voted overwhelmingly in favour of it.

What do you think needs to change in the psychology curriculum to address gender issues and inequalities?
That’s a huge question. Primarily, I think, we need to stop assuming that the experience of one group is the experience of all groups. We have a long history of psychologists pointing out how our discipline can fall short in terms of representation – from Mary Calkins’ Community of ideas of men and women in 1896 to Robert Guthrie’s Even the Rat was White in 1976 to Carole Tavris’ 1992 The Mismeasure of Woman and countless others. More recently, we’ve all been reminded that psychological data are still dominated by samples from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) populations (Henrich, Heine & Norenzayan, 2010; Muthukrishna et al. 2020) and that this has a direct impact on the claims that can be made. To be fair, psychology has made some efforts to respond to these critiques and there has been some progress (Eagly et al, 2012)… but not nearly enough. This is because it is not simply a question of adding in a few variables or diversifying your study sample. 

If we want a curriculum that represents our world and our values, we need to think about how we go about producing knowledge in line with those and consider how power is playing out in the process. As feminist psychologists have been arguing for decades, we need to think more carefully about methodology. So, I would say, two things in particular need to change: representation and methodology. Currently, I am working with Dr Hannah Frith on a book that compliments current methods provision from a feminist perspective. It is part of the Feminist Companions series which draws together feminist research and theory in each area of the psychology curriculum. You can find more information about this in the POWES Newsletter.  

Tell us about the most exciting feminist and emancipatory research and theory at the moment.
There is so much wonderful work going on at the moment. It’s great to see how many researchers are embedding feminist and emancipatory approaches in their work. In the last decade we’ve seen feminism go from being an ‘f-word’ to becoming part of everyday talk in popular culture. For many young people it’s become a taken for granted. What’s most exciting is how much excellent work is being done.  

For instance, we have four excellent keynote speakers at our annual conference (7-9 July) that all make important contributions in different ways. Chris Griffin, Professor Emerita at the University of Bath, has been a long-time member and supporter of POWES. Her work around young women has been a foundational influence for many members’ research and teaching, including my own. Bridgette Rickett’s contribution to feminist methodology along with her work on gender and class have brought something new to the way we think about these issues. Jen Slater’s work in disability studies, has taken a critical approach to the embodiment of gender, having recently completed a fascinating arts-based project exploring the toilet as a space of exclusion and belonging. Our fourth speaker, Jacy Young, a historian of psychology, has recently been challenging the norms of conduct in social psychology with a focus on sexual harassment. We’re all looking forward to their presentations.

What activities has the Section been involved in recently?
In spite of the challenges this year has brought our focus has been on community and communication. We are continuing with most of our usual activities such as organising our annual conference, coordinating the POWES Student prizes, editing our journal POWER (Psychology of Women and Equalities Review), putting out a newsletter and running our social media accounts. We also find working with other organisations within and outside of the BPS really rewarding. 

So, in the coming year we are running, with PsyPAG, a workshop for postgraduates on dealing with the media, we’ve organised anti-racism training for our committee and members with Nilaari, a BAME-led voluntary sector organisation, and we’ve initiated a project on the history of POWES and feminist psychology in the UK with the History of Psychology Centre and Psychology’s Feminist Voices and with the support of the History and Philosophy Section. At this year’s conference we will also be instituting a new prize in honour of Professor Marcia Worrell, a member of the POWES committee and past chair who died tragically last spring. The prize is for mentorship, an activity which members have told us is one of the most important for them in POWES and at which Marcia excelled. 

If you could make one policy change to support women and equalities what would it be?
I would suggest that psychology has shown us that change rarely works that way – as a single event that can be decontextualised from everything around it. POWES champions the values of equality and social justice in all of the work we do and to inform any engagement with policy. Most recently a group of POWES members have contributed the BPS response to the government’s consultation on Violence Against Women and Girls. There are some issues with how the policy has been conceptualised. For instance, it focuses on specific and sensationalised examples of violence which don’t engage with or capture the realities of people’s everyday experiences, as we’ve seen highlighted by the #MeToo campaign. We think our recommendations would improve the policy. Getting this right is hugely important and would definitely make a big difference to the lives of women and girls but also society as a whole. 

What are the challenges and priorities for POWES going forward?
Making sure there is a supportive space for academics to work, think and research around the psychology of women and equalities. We all know that for many people, life has become much more difficult in the last year. Research also indicates that some groups have carried more of the caring burden during this time, for instance, women have taken on a greater share of the responsibility of home schooling (Myers et al., 2020; Wenham, Smith & Morgan, 2020). How do we assess and mitigate the negative psychological impact of these inequities and learn from the good practice we can identify? The role of POWES, and now with the new equality, diversity and inclusion agenda of the BPS as a whole, would be to facilitate and promote this work. 

 

References 

Calkins, M.W. (1896). Community of ideas of men and women. Psychological Review, 3, 426-430.

Eagly, A.H., Eaton, A., Rose, S.M. et al. (2012). Feminism and psychology: Analysis of a half-century of research on women and gender. American Psychologist67(3), 211.

Henrich, J., Heine, S.J. & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences33(2-3), 61-83.

Muthukrishna, M., Bell, A.V., Henrich, J. et al. (2020). Beyond Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) Psychology: Measuring and Mapping Scales of Cultural and Psychological Distance. Psychological Science31(6), 678-701. 

Myers, K.R., Tham, W.Y., Yin, Y. et al. (2020). Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists. Nature human behaviour4(9), 880-883.

Tavris, C. (1992). The mismeasure of woman: Paradoxes and perspectives in the study of gender. American Psychological Association.

Wenham, C., Smith J. & Morgan R. (2020). Covid-19 is an opportunity for gender equality within the workplace and at home. BMJ369, m1546.

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