The Gender Hierarchy Problem in Psychology

by Kassandra Burd

When people think of the field of Psychology, they may be aware that the majority of students who major in this discipline are female; it would only make sense to assume that both academic and leadership positions would primarily be occupied by women. Why would a field that is significantly made up of women be dominated by men? Unfortunately, the pressing issue of gender hierarchy in academia is the sad reality of Psychology today.

As a graduate student pursuing my Master’s degree in Cognitive Neuropsychology in the UK, I couldn’t help but notice the disparity in research citations between men and women while conducting research for my thesis. Unlike the overwhelming majority of women who choose to pursue a career in Psychology as a whole, the subfield of Cognitive Neuropsychology (the study of structure and function of the brain associated with psychological processes) is roughly 50/50 male and female. If my specialization is comprised of a balance of men and women, why are the research publications in my literature searches predominantly male authors? Where are the studies conducted by women researchers? Unfortunately, academic publications in psychological studies led by female authors were hard to come by. As a result, I decided to delve deeper into the issue and was surprised to find discouraging statistics. For instance, in Canada, data from the NSERC has found a progressive decline in the proportion of female cognitive scientists at each career stage, particularly at the transition between graduate and postdoctoral studies (Titone, Piv, & Pexman, 2018). In the UK, only 13% employed in STEM fields are women (Rigby, 2015). Unfortunate findings for women in STEM fields and leadership positions are not just true for Canada and the UK: Globally, research papers by women in any authorship position (sole, first, or last authorship) are cited substantially less than men who hold any one of these authorship positions (Larivière et al., 2013).

The gender hierarchy problem in Psychology is a serious issue that requires extra attention. In my findings, I stumbled upon an article confirming an overwhelming majority of Psychology male faculty compared to women. A study in the U.S. has found that only 34% of women occupy faculty positions compared to 56% of men; these figures are presumed to be similar in other nations, including Canada (Vaid & Geraci, 2016). Moreover, less than 15% of women in Cognitive Psychology are recipients of lifetime career achievements awards (Vaid & Geraci, 2016). It is evident that women in the field are not procuring the same opportunities as the men, which ultimately diminishes women’s efforts, and renders them less visible in the academic community.

In addition, lack of leadership and visibility for women is contributing to a decrease in their confidence. A recent study discovered that women are less likely to share their ideas, and more likely to dismiss praise for a job well done, and disregard their own capabilities (Gerdeman, 2019). Due to the gender disparity–especially in a field that is predominately female and should sensibly hire more women in positions of power–it is easy to see why women might doubt their own competence and skills. Lack of visibility of women in STEM may play a role in deterring them from pursuing careers in this area due to intimidation and feelings of unworthiness. Incidentally, it is important to note that lack of women leadership in STEM is not simply due to women not applying for these higher positions, but rather, often times, women are not hired for leadership positions due to “likeability” problems (Agarwal, 2018). For instance,

since women are often perceived as the more “caring,” “nurturing” type, many believe that women possessing these traits are not fit to lead. However, if women possess more male-oriented traits, she is perceived as being overly aggressive and displaying unnecessary “bitchiness.” Why are these traits perceived as favorable for a man in power, but not a woman? In these circumstances, women are always on the losing side.

Furthermore, over 50% of women who do work as STEM faculty have been physically and sexually harassed by their male colleagues, which forces many of them to step down (Novotney, 2019). In fact, the harassment women have to deal with in STEM is the worst of any sector outside of the military (Johnson, Widnall, Benya, 2018). Women of color and sexual minority women are even more likely to be harassed, which underscores a still racist/sexist/ homophobic culture in academia. Last year, Neuroscientist, BethAnn McLaughlin started the hashtag “MeTooSTEM” on Twitter, which allowed STEM women to share their experiences with harassment (Corbyn, 2019). The fact that female students and faculty alike are often not taken seriously in higher education is baffling, which is why we must put forth considerable effort to dismantle the system.

Women face a myriad of other problems in academia, such as earning lower pay than men. In terms of wages, the American Psychological Association recently reported that women in Psychology make only 78% of what men in the field earn (Novotney, 2019). For example, in 2015, McMaster University found a $3,515 gap between male and female faculty salaries, with women making significantly less, even after taking into account other factors such as age, tenure, and seniority (Humphreys, 2015). To rectify the problem, the university granted its female faculty a raise of $3,515. While it’s a positive step in the right direction, more academic institutions need to address the disparity between women and men’s earnings.

It is clear that these issues create interminable obstacles for women in Psychology and academia in its entirety. What are some steps we can take to ameliorate the problem? First, it is critical that men in positions of power speak up for women and serve as our allies, rather than as hurdles that prevent women from advancing in their careers. Second, it is important that STEM employers are aware of the gender disparity problem so that they can make strides in hiring more women and counteracting any discriminatory practices transpiring within their institutions. An example could include making gender diversity objectives, where workplaces actively keep track of their hiring practices and encourage more women to apply. In fact, organizations with gender-balanced management are shown to yield stronger performance outcomes (Science & Technology Committee, 2014).

While we are becoming more educated about the myriad of issues STEM women face in today’s society, we are still far from attaining equality when it comes to the treatment of women in academia, as well as equality in the fulfillment of leadership positions. It is time to remind ourselves of the incredible contributions that women can, and will, achieve in various STEM fields, and to make sure that their voices are being heard, and their accomplishments made visible.