People Tend To Believe That Psychology Is A “Feminine” Discipline

By Emily Reynolds

Despite the fact that psychology students are more likely to be women than men, and that women outnumber men in the clinical psychology workforce, women in psychology publish less, receive fewer citations, and are underrepresented at senior positions within university departments. This juxtaposition of over and underrepresentation poses an interesting question about how people perceive gender roles within the field.

It’s this question Guy A. Boysen and team explore in a new study, published in the Journal of Social Psychology. They find that people associate psychology more strongly with femininity than masculinity — and that this may affect how men and women feel about working or studying within the field.

In the first study, participants filling in surveys online were asked what percentage of students studying psychology at university level were women, and what percentage of psychologists were women. The results showed that people see psychology as a more women-heavy profession and discipline, with participants estimating that 62% of psychology students and 59% of psychologists are women.

A second study looked more directly at people’s perceptions of how “feminine” or “masculine” psychology is as a field. Both online participants and undergraduate students rated various university degrees and careers on a scale from “extremely feminine” to “extremely masculine”. The breadth of majors and careers listed were included due to their association with particular gendered stereotypes — engineering, for example, is stereotypically assumed to be a masculine job while nursing is thought to be feminine.

A psychology major was considered by both groups to be slightly more feminine than masculine, and was rated as significantly more feminine than typically “masculine” subjects like engineering, business, and maths (though majors like nursing and education were considered more feminine than psychology). Similarly, while a career in psychology was seen as less feminine than teaching or nursing, it was considered significantly more feminine than being a neuroscientist, historian, doctor, or business person.

In the next study, participants were asked to imagine a stereotypical person in one of three subjects at university: engineering, nursing, or psychology. After being shown stereotypically masculine and feminine traits — for example “gentle” for feminine or “egotistical” for masculine — participants rated how well each word described a person studying the subject they had been assigned.

As expected, participants tended to believe that both positive and negative masculine traits better described engineering students than psychology students, while positive feminine traits better described psychology students than engineers. The only difference between nursing and psychology was in positive masculine traits: these were believed to better suit nursing majors than psychology students. This suggests that psychology, like nursing, is largely considered to be a “feminine” subject.

In a fourth study, participants indicated how satisfied they believed men and women would be with a career in psychology. Participants who read that psychology students were 75% women and 25% men rated men’s satisfaction as significantly lower than women’s. But those who read there was an equal percentage of women and men didn’t show any difference in ratings of men’s and women’s satisfaction. A similar follow-up part of the study also found that men were seen as less likely to have their needs met by a career in psychology than women.

Overall, the results suggested that psychology is considered to be significantly more feminine than it is masculine, and that people assume men’s needs may therefore not be met by it as a subject of study or a career.      

But is this actually true? Future research could look at how men and women in psychology feel themselves — just because a field is perceived to be “feminine” doesn’t mean that men will necessarily be less satisfied or fulfilled when working within it. Whether men are actually put off careers in psychology is a different question that could be explored in more depth.

It’s also important to go back to the fact of the overrepresentation of men in certain positions. If psychology is seen as a “feminine” occupation, and if women outnumber men, why do men dominate positions of power? Looking at ways for everyone to succeed and feel comfortable in psychology is crucial.

Evidence for a gender stereotype about psychology and its effect on perceptions of men’s and women’s fit in the field

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest