It’s time to change the face of psychology

Worm emerging from an apple - hungrymindlab.comVanessa Günther, Hannah Rachel Scott and Sophie von Stumm are a psychological research group at Goldsmiths University of London.

Our lab is called Hungry Mind Lab (@HungryMindLab) and we investigate the complex interplay of various dimensions of individual differences.

We focus on cognitive ability and personality traits and explore how and why these dimensions are interrelated, their causes and consequences for lifespan cognitive development, and their behavioral manifestations. 


Although females outnumber male psychology students at undergraduate levels, senior positions in psychological science are mostly held by men. This disparity has been previously attributed to two principal reasons:

  1. Women’s tendency to prioritise raising a family over pursuing a scientific career, and
  2. Systematic faculty gender biases against hiring and promoting women in academia.

We want to raise awareness of a third crucial issue that hinders women’s progression into the most respected posts in psychological research:

  1. The typical image of the psychological scientist.
Nine smiling female psychologists

Faces of psychology

As (female) Individual Differences researchers, we are particularly concerned about the glaring gender inequality in our specific field of psychological study. Individual Differences is at the core of modern psychology. It includes the study of personality, motivation, intelligence, interests, values, self-concept, and self-esteem. As such, its inherent focus is on the diversity of human individuality. Many famous female scientists, such as Nancy Bayley, Mary Ainsworth and Magda Arnold, have shaped Individual Differences research during the past century. It strikes us that Individual Differences should be the exemplar model of gender equality for psychological science.

However, we found evidence that, although many women work in Individual Differences research, they are mostly invisible.
We investigated gender ratios in Individual Differences in three ways:

  1. Authors of 157 journal articles published in the field’s flagship journal Personality and Individual Differences (PAID).
  2. Authors of the 30 chapters in the latest edited Handbook of Individual Differences.
  3. Conference keynote speakers across the 5 most recent meetings of 5 scientific societies (25 in all) most relevant to the study of Individual Differences:

Our results show that approximately 53% of all journal articles published over the past year in Personality and Individual Differences had at least one male author – thus, just under half of all Personality and Individual Differences authors were female (Figure 1).

By comparison, 76% of handbook chapters were authored by male psychologists and a staggering 78% of keynotes were given by men. In short, where Individual Differences is most visible – in keynotes and edited handbooks – men were overrepresented, although this is not the case at the ‘typical’, less visible level of scientific dissemination like journal article publications.

Three columns showing percentages. Column 1: slightly less than 50% of PAID authors are women. Column 2: Just under 25% of handbook authors are women. Column 3: less than 25% of keynote speakers are women.

Figure1. Percentages of male and female scientists as journal authors, handbook chapter authors and keynote speakers in Individual Differences research.

Our findings corroborate recent reports that women’s under-representation in non-mathematic-based STEM areas, like psychology and the social sciences, is primarily due to systematic gender biases at the senior level.

In the mathematic-based STEM areas, such as physical science and engineering, the gender disparity in higher academia is mainly caused by pre-college selection factors that are reflected by radically lower proportions of female undergraduate students. But this is not the case in psychology. Given that about half of all articles in Personality and Individual Differences are authored by women, there are clearly enough female experts in Individual Differences research available that could fill the visible positions of keynote speakers and handbook chapter authors – but they don’t.

We suspect two reasons account for the underrepresentation of women in visible senior positions in Individual Differences research. The first results from the way in which visible senior positions are traditionally filled: A committee of predominantly male senior psychologists will sit together to nominate one of their long-standing colleagues or friends.

We found that 77% of the members of scientific committees that organised the 25  Individual Differences conferences investigated here were male. Furthermore, of the 75 corresponding societies’ presidents, including president-elects and past presidents,  87% were also male (Figure 2). We do not wish to imply that such committees necessarily select on purpose other men over potential female keynote speakers or chapter authors, but we suspect that their own overwhelming maleness muffles any perception of gender disparity.

Bar chart showing 90% of presidents elect, 82% of past presidents, 87% of society presidents and 62% of conference organisers are male.

Figure 2. Ratio of males to females in presidents elect, past and current research society presidents, and conference organisers of Individual Differences conferences.

The second reason applies to keynote speakers specifically and lies in the nature of conferences itself. As women continue to perform the vast majority of the household labour, including childcare, it is incommensurably more difficult for them to travel to and stay over at scientific meetings, compared to male scientists. Thus in those rare cases, when a woman is indeed invited to keynote, she often has to decline the offer to avoid a clash with her personal life.

Encouraging young female scientists to pursue careers in psychology requires:

  1. Strengthening their confidence to resist against stereotypes and discrimination, and
  2. Providing opportunities to combine motherhood and leading position in science.

To this end, we propose ameliorating the under-representation of women in visible senior positions in psychological science by two means.

1. Quotas for scientific committees

We suggest a quota for scientific committees that nominate authors and keynote speakers outlets to include at least 25% female members and that at least 25% of the invited scientific contributors must be women. Some may argue that quotas promote scientists for criteria other than their merit and thus, ‘normalize’ discrimination. Considering the overwhelming dominance of men in the selection committees and as scientific contributors, a quota seems to us as indispensible for starting to change the face of psychology. A quota, we hope, will allow creating role models for early-career female scientists and pave the way for a balanced gender distribution at all academic career levels.

2. Conference funds for family care costs

We propose introducing conference funds that are specifically reserved for family care costs. Alternatively, conference nurseries could be set up so that female scientists can bring their children to scientific meetings (and not have to leave their grouching toddlers on a blanket on the side of the lecture room while giving their own talk, under the condemnatory looks of a predominantly male audience. Yes, this happened). Such measures will create more flexibility for female scientists to travel to and speak at conferences and scientific meetings.

In closing, we want to point out that increasing women’s visibility in psychology will not only encourage talented young women to pursue a career in this discipline but it will also attract talented young men who long to work in a field that acknowledges and respects human individuality. And it is this kind of talent that produces the most successful psychological science.


Declaration of conflicts of interest: All authors are female Individual Differences researchers. None has children; none has keynoted; one has co-authored a handbook chapter (she also co-edited the volume). All like attending psychological conferences.

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12 Responses to It’s time to change the face of psychology

  1. Anya says:

    Brilliant… Thanx! Getting male researcher and management to acknowledge this is still a big challenge. Love your sentence: …but we suspect that their own overwhelming maleness muffles any perception of gender disparity.

    Like

  2. Ryne A Sherman says:

    I appreciate this research. Uncovering the cause of gender/sex disparities is an important issue. However, putting on my journal editor hat, the results here are screaming “what about age?” Indeed, the report frequently refers to “senior level” positions, etc.

    Yes, there are more women in psychology now than in the past, but was that the case 30-40 years ago? If historically more men were in psychology than women (is this true? I think it is), is it surprising to find out that men currently occupy more senior level positions? That is, seniority is highly tied to age. Further, given that senior level people are more likely to be invited to write book chapters and given keynote talks, is it then surprising to find out that they are more likely to be men?

    The conclusions of this report would be much stronger if age were controlled as it appears to be a clear confounding variable. Indeed, I could imagine someone reading this report and concluding that “all will be well 20-30 years if we do nothing.” Controlling for age would allow this report to show that this conclusion is false.

    Again, I really do appreciate this work. I know it must have taken a ton of effort to put together.

    Like

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment — that’s a very good hypothesis!

      Unfortunately, we didn’t look at age in our little study. However, Stephen Ceci and colleagues published a paper in 2014 with data on gender ratios in psychology in the US that may help us explore your question (http://www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/Women-Academic-Science.pdf?utm_campaig).

      According to Ceci et al.’s analysis, since the mid-1980s women have earned 50% and more of the PhDs awarded in Psychology (Figure 3c). Around the same time, just under half of all tenure-track assistant professor positions were held by women, increasing to 60% in 2000 (Figure 4a). If we assume that building an accomplished career in psychology takes on average 20 to 30 years post-PhD, we’d look for women and men in senior positions between the years 2005 to 2015. (By coincidence, this time window matches the period covered in our analysis, which reviewed conferences over the past decade).

      Ceci and colleagues report that since 2005, 45% of tenured and tenure-track faculty positions were held by women (Figure 4b). In 2010, the last year included in their analysis, this figure was close to 50%.

      Overall, the data suggest that since the 1980s as many men as women work in psychology, with almost as many men as women holding established senior positions in the field. Our analysis showed, however, that far fewer women than men obtain the most visible senior positions in psychology until today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ryne A Sherman says:

        Hi Sophie,

        Thanks for taking the time to investigate my question. Your response is really useful. I admit I had only read the abstract of the Ceci et al. paper before and now have only added to my knowledge a look at the figures. The numbers you present here are spot on with those figures and indeed suggests that something is problematic. (Sometimes I forget how long ago the 1980s were, they don’t seem that long ago to me!)

        If 50% of the PhDs were women in 1980s one would certainly expect (all other things being equal) that 50% (or at least close to it) of the most senior positions would be held by women today. The actual numbers you showed aren’t even close to those figures. In this light, your case is pretty persuasive.

        Following up, I also wonder about other metrics for senior positions? Are they just as bad? What about things like named chairs, distinguished professor status, and journal editorships? Again, I’m persuaded by the evidence you present. Now I’m wondering to what other levels of “seniority” this may extend.

        Again, very valuable work. Much appreciated!

        Cheers,

        -Ryne

        Liked by 1 person

  3. goldsmithspsychologyblog says:

    Reblogged this on Psychology @ Goldsmiths and commented:
    Vanessa, Hannah and Sophie are members of the Hungry Mind Lab, which is currently based at Goldsmiths University of London. Their research focuses on the causes and consequences of individual differences for lifespan cognitive development. Vanessa normally studies for her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Chemnitz in Germany, but she visited the Hungry Mind Lab last autumn for a placement. Hannah is as a research assistant and the lab’s co-ordinator since two years, while also doing an MSc in Forensic Psychology at King’s College London. Sophie is the lab’s director and a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, where she teaches Personality and Individual Differences.

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  4. Julia R says:

    Is there also a question, at least with conference presentations, of confidence? Boys, and men, tend to take a gung-ho attitude to the risk of standing in front of a lecture theatre of peers and presenting, the same I suspect is not true of women, it certainly isn’t true of girls at school and college. Lecturing to a relatively uncritical (or at least less informed) audience of students is not nearly so daunting as presenting to fellow staff.

    Like

    • hungrymindlab says:

      Thank you for your comment Julia, this is a fair point.

      However, I think it’s worth noting that senior lecturers will have been presenting their work at conferences since quite early on in their careers, as it’s a key part of academic dissemination. So it’s possible, but unlikely, that women are turning down invitations to keynote at conferences due to not being comfortable with public speaking in front of peers.

      Hannah

      Like

    • That’s a good thought. Men are often more confident and assertive in public speaking then women. That said, it strikes me as unlikely that female professors, who will have had the same amount of public speaking experience in lectures, public talks and seminars as male professors, lack the confidence to keynote.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Weekend reads: A publisher sends the wrong message on data sharing; jail for scientific fraud; pigs fly - Retraction Watch at Retraction Watch

  6. Klavs Hansen says:

    ‘Our results show that approximately 53% of all journal articles published over the past year in Personality and Individual Differences had at least one male author – thus, just under half of all Personality and Individual Differences authors were female (Figure 1).’

    Ehh? Are all the papers single author works? If not, your last part of the sentence does not follow from the first.

    On a wider perspective, although it seems tempting to introduce quotas, don’t do it. The system is widely used in Sweden, with disastrous consequences for science. It begets politics, unscientific decision processes and is used in practise to reserve jobs for white middleclass Swedes who happen to be female. Their own little apartheid.
    Check out the reports from the Swedish Royal Academy on the state of Swedish science and please heed their carefully and very diplomatically phrased warning against political interference with science.

    Like

  7. raeann_a_phd says:

    Will you be publishing this in a scientific journal? I would like to be able to cite this work in some of my own research.

    Like

    • We have been talking about publishing our findings in a journal but it’s difficult, because for a publication we’d need to look at many more psychology areas than just individual differences. We currently don’t have the funds to support this work. But we’ll let you know if things change:)

      Like

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