There's a lot of interest in under-representation of women in certain science subjects, but in psychology, there's more concern about a lack of men. A quick look at figures from UCAS* (Universities & Colleges Admissions Service) shows massive differences in gender ratios for different subjects. In figure 1 I’ve plotted the percentage of women accepted for subjects that had at least 6000 successful applicants to degree courses in 2011.
|Fig. 1. % Females accepted on popular UK degree courses 2011|
- Oxford University, where I work, may be biased in favour of men
- The proportions of women decline with career stage
- The proportion of women in psychology may have increased since I was a student
- The proportion of women may vary with sub-area of psychology
Is Oxford University biased against women?I’m leading our department’s Athena SWAN panel, whose remit is to identify and remove barriers to women’s progress in scientific careers. In order to obtain an Athena SWAN award, you have to assemble a lot of facts and figures about the proportions of women at different career stages, and so I already had at my fingertips some relevant statistics. (You can find these here). Over the past three years, our student intake ranged from 66% -71% women: rather lower than the UCAS figure of 78%. However, acceptance rates were absolutely equivalent for men and women. The same was true for staff appointments: the likelihood of being accepted for a job did not differ by gender. So with a sigh of relief I think we can exclude this line of explanation.
Does the proportion of women in psychology decline with career stage?I have a research post and so don’t do much teaching. Have I got a distorted view of the gender ratios because my interactions are mostly with more senior staff? This looks believable from the data on our department. Postgraduate figures ranged from 65%-70% women. Ours is a small department, and so it is difficult to be confident in trends, but in 2011 there were 16/27 (59%) female postdocs, 6/11 (55%) female lecturers, 6/13 (46%) senior researchers and 4/11 (36%) female professors. This trend for the proportion of women to decline as one advances through a career is in line with what has been observed in many other disciplines. We also obtained data from other top-level psychology departments for comparison, and similar trends were seen.
Has the proportion of women in psychology increased over time?My recollection of my undergraduate days was that male psychology students were plentiful. However, I was an undergraduate in the dark ages of the early 1970s when there were only five Oxford colleges that accepted women, and a corresponding shortage of females in all subjects. So I had a dig around to try to get more data. The UCAS statistics go back only to 1996, and the proportion of women in psychology hasn’t changed: 78% in 1996, 78% in 2011. However, data from the USA show a sharp increase in the proportion of women obtaining psychology doctorates from 1960 (18%) through 1972 (27%) to 1984 (50%). This, of course, is in part a consequence of the increase of women in higher education in general. But that isn’t a total explanation: Figure 2 compares proportions of female PhDs over time in different subject areas, and one can see that psychology shows a particularly pronounced increase compared with other disciplines.
|Fig 2. Percentages of PhDs by women in the USA: 1950-1984|
Does the proportion of women in psychology vary with sub-area?The term ‘psychology’ covers a huge range of subject matter with different historical roots. Most areas of academic psychology make some use of statistics, but they vary considerably in how far they require strong quantitative or computational skills. For instance, it would be difficult to specialise in the study of perception or neuroscience without being something of a numbers nerd: that’s generally less true for developmental, clinical, interpersonal or social psychology, which require other skills sets. I looked at data from the American Psychological Association (APA), which publishes the numbers of members and fellows in its different Divisions. The APA is predominantly a professional organisation, and non-applied areas of psychology are not strongly represented in the membership. Nevertheless, one can see clear gender differences, which generally map on to the expectation that women are more focused on the caring professions, and men are more heavily represented in theoretical and quantitative areas. Figure 3 shows relevant data for sections with at least 700 members. It is also worth noting that the graph illustrates the decrease in the proportions of women going from membership to fellowship, a trend bucked by just one Division.
|Fig 3. Data from American psychological association: Division membership 2011|
What, if anything, should we do?The big question is how far we should try to manipulate gender differences when we find them. I’ve barely scratched the surface in my own discipline, psychology, yet it’s evident that the reasons for such differences are complex. Figure 2 alone makes it clear that women in Western societies have come a long way in the past half-century: far more of us go to university and do PhDs than was the case fifty years ago. Yet the proportion of women declines as we climb the career ladder. In quantifying this trend, it’s important to compare like with like: those who are in senior positions now are likely to have trained at a time when the gender ratio was different. But it's clear from many surveys that demographics changes can't explain the dearth of women in top jobs: there are numerous reasons why women are more likely than men to leave an academic career – see, for instance, this depressing analysis of reasons why women leave chemistry. In our department we are committed to taking steps to ensure that gender does not disadvantage women who want to pursue an academic career, and I am convinced that with even quite minor changes in culture we can make a difference.
The point I want to stress here, though, is that I see this issue - creating a female-friendly environment for women in psychology- as separate from the issue of subject preference. I worry that the two issues tend to get conflated in discussions of gender equality. My personal view is that psychology is enriched by having a mix of men and women, and I share the concerns expressed here about difficulties that arise when the subject becomes heavily biased to one gender. However, I am pretty uncomfortable with the idea of trying to steer people’s career choices in order to even out a gender imbalance.
Where this has been tried, my impression is that it's mostly been in the direction of trying to encourage more girls into male-dominated subjects. In effect, the argument is that girl's preferences are based on wrong information, in that they are unduly influenced by stereotypes. For instance, the Institute of Physics has done a great deal of work on this topic, and they have shown that there are substantial influences of schooling on girls’ subject choices. They concluded that the weak showing of girls in physics can be attributed to lack of inspirational teaching, and a perception among girls that physics is a boys’ subject. They have produced materials to help teachers overcome these influences, and we’ll have to wait and see if this makes any appreciable difference to the proportions of girls taking up the subject (which according to UCAS figures has been pretty stable for 15 years: 19% in 1996 and 18% in 2011).
It's laudable that the Institute of Physics is attempting to improve the teaching of physics in our schools, and to ensure girls do not feel excluded. But if they are right, and gender stereotyping is a major determinant of subject choices, shouldn’t we then adopt similar policies to other subjects that show a gender bias, whether this be in favour of girls or boys?
Interestingly, Marc Smith has produced relevant data in relation to A-level psychology, which is dominated by girls, and perceived by boys as a ‘girly’ subject. So should we try to change that? As Smith notes, the female bias seems linked to a preference for schools to teach A-level psychology options that veer away from more quantitative cognitive topics. Here we find that psychology provides an interesting test case for arguments around gender, because within the subject there are consistent biases for males and females to prefer one kind of sub-area to another. This implies that to alter the gender balance you might need to change what is taught, rather than how it is taught, by giving more prominence to the biological and cognitive aspects of psychology. If true, it might be easier to alter gender ratios in psychology than in physics, but only by modifying the content of the syllabus.
One of the IOP's recommendations is: "Co-ed schools should have a target to exceed the current national average of 20% of physics A-level students being girls." But surely this presumes an agenda whereby we aim for equality of genders in all subjects, with equivalent campaigns to recruit more boys into nursing, psychology and English? I'm not saying this would necessarily be a bad thing, but I wonder at the automatic assumption that it has to be a good thing - or even an achievable thing. There are obvious disadvantages of gender imbalances in any subject area - they simply reinforce stereotypes, while at the same time creating challenges at university and in the workplace for those rare individuals who buck the trend and take a gender-atypical subject. But the kinds of targets set by the IOP make me uneasy nonetheless. The downside of an insistence on gender balance is a sense of coercion, whereby children are made to feel that their choice of subject isn't a real choice, but is only made because they have been brainwashed by gender stereotypes. Yes, let's do our best to teach boys and girls in an inspiring and gender-neutral fashion, but, as the example of psychology demonstrates, we are still likely to find that females and males tend to prefer different kinds of subject matter.
Smith, M (2011). Failing boys, failing psychology The Psychologist, 24 (5), 390-391 Other: WOS:000290745000037
Howard, A., & et al, . (1986). The changing face of American psychology: A report from the Committee on Employment and Human Resources. American Psychologist, 41 (12), 1311-1327 DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X.41.12.1311
*Update 10th March 2016: The link I originally had for UCAS data ceased to work. I have a new link, and think this should be the correct dataset, but I have not rechecked the figures.