Skip to content

Gender Bias in Psychology Graduate Degrees

2015 October 14

A few days ago, I was looking at numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics in order to get a better sense of the gender bias in some STEM fields. Specifically, as part of a grant application, I wanted to know how much greater the rate of degrees awarded to males was than to females in a few scientific fields relevant to my project. The basic logic is that women make up 50% of the pool of degree candidates, so they should be around 50% of the number of degrees awarded. This sort of comparison is often used as a piece of the justification for allocating resources to increase the representation of women in STEM. As I expected, quite a few STEM fields have a significant gender imbalance; for example, only 14% of Master’s degrees in nuclear engineering go to women.

Out of curiosity, I decided to check the stats for Psychology and found something surprising: women are overrepresented, sometimes dramatically, in Master’s and Ph.D. degrees awarded. Far more women are pursuing graduate education in psychology than men, across domains. This certainly reflects my undergraduate classrooms, which are often quite lopsided, but I did not expect it at the graduate level.

I’m honestly not sure if this is a problem or not. We have evidence that women are systematically discouraged from pursuing most STEM careers in ways that are often quite explicit. Men do not generally face these sorts of problems. Although societally-prescribed social roles in part shape career paths for both men and women, women face unique problems not faced by men, and there are active efforts to address these problems.

Recognition of this gender imbalance in psychology, although not in the direction we usually hear about, is not new. Apparently the gender balance flipped around 1986 and became more extreme over the years. But we don’t seem to be doing anything about it. If the degree of imbalance seen here was in the opposite direction, in a natural science, it would be a problem to be solved. Are the same forces at play here? Is psychology seen as stereotypically feminine, discouraging men to pursue it, in the same way that stereotypically masculine fields discourage women? (Although assuredly, men probably do not face the same sort of outright harassment.)

I’ve created a couple of charts below to illustrate the extent of the imbalance in both Master’s and Ph.D. degrees awarded. My own area, I/O Psychology, is one of the more gender-balanced, with 36% male at the Master’s level (versus 50%, p < .001) and 42% male at the doctoral level (versus 50%, p = .056). In developmental psychology, around 1 in 10 graduate degrees awarded are to males. Should we be concerned?

Previous Post:
Next Post:
4 Responses leave one →
  1. November 18, 2015

    Are you raising this as a concern because you think more men should pursue degrees in psychology or because you think it is evidence that women are choosing to study psychology rather than “hard” science?

    • November 18, 2015

      I’m raising it for the reasons I explain above – it’s an interesting data pattern, and I’m not sure if it’s a problem that should be addressed or not. Both positions you suggest are rather extreme to jump to without more evidence (and I’d also question the implicit value judgment that social sciences are somehow less preferable to natural sciences, in the grand scheme of career paths).

    • November 21, 2015

      I personally don’t think the social sciences are less preferable, but I often think the language of people pushing for more women in STEM shows that they think natural sciences (i called them “hard”) are intrinsically more valuable. Do you think psychology falls under the STEM umbrella?

      But you’re right, you didn’t imply either of the positions i raised in my comment in your post. You’re asking if we should be concerned, not saying that you are concerned! I guess my answer to your question is no. In my opinion, women outnumbering men in a field can’t be a bad thing 🙂

    • November 21, 2015

      I would say it depends on which part of psychology you’re talking about, but it is “mostly” STEM. Most of psychology, including I/O psychology, is based on the scientific method. Most psychologists take a logical positivist or post-positivistic philosophy, which I would characterize as scientific. There are a number of highly visible exceptions though, which affects the reputation of the whole field, both inside and outside of the broader scientific community.

      The second part of your comment is where I am still unsure. If women outnumbered men in every field, it certainly would be a problem. Right now, men outnumber women in many (most?) STEM fields, so that’s a problem in the opposite direction. That means there is a balance somewhere in the middle. Is it ok for there to be a degree of gender imbalance in some fields but not others? Does this balance need to be consistent across every field?

      In this context, I often think of nursing, where there is a selection/hiring bias against men. The bias is demonstrable in research studies, so that makes it an obvious problem to be solved – yet even in that field, there is still a bias in favor of men in terms of salary, so the classic gender problems in Western culture still exist there, even when men have a harder time getting into the field in the first place.

      In psychology’s case, there is no selection bias – the field seems to simply be more attractive to women, so more women pursue it – but that attractiveness is probably socially/culturally driven in similar ways to how computer science tends to be more attractive to men. The major difference I can see is that there are _additional_ barriers for women pursuing computer science that I am assuming do not exist for men pursuing psychology.

      So as a bit of a thought experiment, if these additional barriers were removed (that’s a big assumption, I know) but women still didn’t make up 50% of computer science majors, would there still be a problem to be solved? In other words, if we were able to create a computer science culture of inclusiveness and welcoming such that women felt no more barriers to computer science than any other field, but women still made up only 25% of computer science majors, should people still fight at that point to increase the representation of women in computer science? If the answer is yes, then I think that means we do have a problem in psychology. If no, then we don’t. And I am not sure which makes the most sense to me.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS