Gender Disparities in British Psychology

For nearly 40 years (1920-1958), there was just one woman president of the British Psychological Society (BPS) and men (white, middle class) dominated much of the decisions in the field of British psychology. In 2016, nearly 100 years later, we should expect that the gender balance is slightly more equal. However, between 1920-2016, just 17% of past presidents of the BPS have been women. Since the 1980s, approx. 1 in 3 have been women.

Decision-making positions still appear to be dominated by men despite over 80% of psychology students at university being women and it’s likely that a large percentage of women make up the membership of the BPS.

Let’s dig a little deeper…

The British Psychology Society presents over ten different types of awards to psychologists for recognition of their work in different fields. 35% of past award winners have been women, but just 17% of women have won the President’s award – notably one of the most prestigious awards.

In a relatively new section, the Division of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 3 (out of 9) past chairs have been women (1993-2015).

This is a complex issue that isn’t just about the exclusion of women in selection processes but also to do with the way the posts themselves are set up. For example, whilst women may be encouraged to ‘put themselves forward’ for posts, the (voluntary and demanding) posts themselves by their nature exclude people with remotely complex lives which leave these roles available only to those who have the time and (financial) resources. This is not to mention the disparate representation of women in the discipline along the lines of race and class, which constrains access in the first place. For many women candidates who are already performing ‘double shifts’ this would mean squeezing the role (e.g. BPS Presidency) alongside other commitments (e.g. care, domestic commitments) and our ever increasing multifaceted institutional roles.

Indeed, an institutionalised culture biased against women seems to exist in the sciences:

  • Women have to provide more evidence of competence
  • Women walk a tightrope between being seen as too feminine or masculine
  • Women have to battle myths and assumptions around the notion that women lose their ambition, commitment and competence after motherhood

One study (2014) found that bias exists and furthermore, it exists for black and minority ethnic women: “100% of the sixty scientists interviewed for this study reported encountering one or more of these patterns of gender bias“. A survey by the British Psychological Society in 2015 reported that only 181 (1.8%) of its members are Black. Whilst there is little known about the sexuality of women and men in academia or the sciences, we wonder how much diversity there is being represented in the society.

This bleak picture is just one of the many reasons why there was a necessity to found the Psychology of Women’s Section in 1988. Now, it seems the goals of feminist psychology are still essential in raising awareness and action around gender and inequality disparity within the British Psychological Society, the psychology profession and the teaching of psychology; issues that extend far beyond ‘just’ the exclusion of women in psychology.

Blog by Helen Owton. You can find Helen on Twitter @Dr_HLO. With thanks to Jane Callaghan, Lucy Thompson and Glen Jankowski.


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