The Shifting Gender Demographics of Clinical Psychology

The Shifting Gender Demographics of Clinical Psychology:

Implications for Graduate Students and Early Career Psychologists?

Derek Giannone, B.A.
Section 10 Secretary

          As I walked into orientation for my current graduate program and took a seat, I briefly surveyed the room and noticed a familiar sight. One I have grown accustomed to since I had first chosen to pursue a psychology degree. It was the sight of being surrounded by women. I can honestly say this has never bothered me, as my closest friends and confidants in the past few years of my life have been women, most of whom I met through my previous psychology department as well as a student support-network I helped to co-found at my undergraduate institution. However, as a male with hopes of a future in psychology, this gender differential is something that has continually intrigued me on some level. In my last year of undergraduate psychology classes, there appeared to be a ratio of around 8 females to every male (unfortunately, I do not currently have access to those classes e-mail lists, so the precise ratio will be forever lost).

          The gender distribution is not something of which I had ever thought critically about, until I recently had the opportunity to observe and assist in doctoral candidate interviews this past month, where there were nearly 5 female applicants for every male applicant. Being involved with this organization consisted of burgeoning young students and professionals, I thought to myself, where are all the men in clinical psychology? This observation prompted me to conduct a Google search for gender demographics in clinical psychology. I did not have to look far, as the first result was a 2011 GradPSYCH article posted on the American Psychological Association’s website entitled “Men: A Growing Minority?” by Cassandra Willyard. The article presented statistics that, while not surprising, deliver a concrete illustration of the phenomenon. The APA Center for Workforce Studies reports that there are three women for every one man being conferred with a doctorate degree in psychology. While there does appear to be some variability in this ratio in the sub-disciplines of psychology (cognitive psychology, 1:1; developmental psychology, 5:1), the gender distribution for clinical psychology is consistent with the overall 3:1 ratio.

          As a field and discipline I find so enthralling, challenging, and important, it often saddens me to think of why males might be gravitating towards other disciplines. Has clinical psychology come to be perceived as a “women’s profession” or a “helping profession”? Do younger male students entering into higher education opt for majors which they perceive to be more financially lucrative, such as STEM-based or business-oriented disciplines? Could there be some external pressures to enroll in these disciplines instead of psychology and other social sciences? I fear that while we might have some basic instinctual answers to these questions, they are the byproducts of broader, complex, and less malleable societal values and trends. However, whether or not we have the ability to conceptualize a proper etiological understanding, we may still explore the possible effects this might have on our lives and on the future of our discipline.

          Since I joined this organization and have transitioned to graduate studies, I have inevitably begun to frame certain issues in terms of how they are related to graduate students and early career psychologists. As such, when first reading the aforementioned GradPSYCH article, the question immediately coming to mind was whether there was, or would be, any significant effect on our specific population, our future in the field of psychology, or the individuals we seek to understand and assist. Surveying additional opinion pieces on the subject and having discussions with fellow students and professors yielded many varied perspectives. Some feel as if this is not of much concern and reflects a natural progression of the profession, while some voice fears of wages decreasing or possible marginalization of males as a result of the increased female presence. Others cite feeling out of place or having difficulty forming connections in their programs, workplace, or conferences. Still others cite concerns about the ability to address male issues and easily provide gender matched psychologists to males who desire as much.

          I am undoubtedly apprehensive about some of these concerns and speculations, and do not feel as if I am particularly qualified to make evaluations regarding their validity. Furthermore, I often fear these arguments, and even more general discussions of the topic, might be viewed as a product of threatened patriarchy or a remnant of previous male dominance in psychology. However, despite my inability to satisfactorily evaluate them, I believe these concerns in and of themselves are important because they encourage us to explore more deeply that to which they are related. The title of this post is “The Shifting Gender Demographics of Clinical Psychology”, but upon reflection, it is not completely fitting. The demographics have already shifted and continue to shift. And while it might be disappointingly anti-climactic, I do not offer any broad statements for how we should proceed, nor do can I state definitively what implications it might have. It is quite conceivable that we will be able to properly address the needs of those in our profession and those in the greater world whom we hope to serve regardless of the gender distribution. However, I am continually intrigued and feel discussion can be a catalyst for inquiries we would be wise to pursue. Some of the questions which become apparent to me include, but are not limited to:

  • How might the experience and development of graduate students and early career psychologists be affected?
  • Should we take steps to ensure incoming males in graduate programs and entering the profession feel comfortable and at home in academic programs and professional organizations?
  • How might this distribution differentially affect opportunities in practicums and internships or clinical and professional leadership positions?
  • Despite the changing gender distribution, why is it males are becoming tenured at higher rates and are more likely to currently hold upper echelon leadership positions than females? Is this a product of systematic differences between male and female trajectories, an artifact of some implicit bias or discrimination, or is it simply a remnant of a previously male-dominated field still in the process of changing?
  • If we do have specific concerns related to gender distribution, which might have either positive or negative ramifications for either males or females, what actions might we take to address these concerns?

          I believe that these questions are important, and that their answers are within our grasp if we invest time and attention in their exploration. It is possible you either appreciated or disdained the agnostic position I have taken here. In my mind, a non-declarative approach is preferable to premature conclusions when approaching complex issues not amenable to dichotomous understandings. Furthermore, I do not wish to offend anyone and have aimed to maintain a level of sensitivity in my writing. However, as I am sure you might have gathered, I do feel strongly that this, at the very least, is an important issue that is worthy of exploration. We are some of the youngest members of a vital and life-changing field. If we so choose to, we can actively contribute in both the smallest and largest ways, to the development and direction of clinical psychology. This changing gender distribution is just one of a multitude of important issues we will encounter as we develop professionally and actively seek to improve the physical, psychological, and spiritual well-being of our colleagues and clients.

*If you have any thoughts, concerns, or comments regarding my post or the gender distribution in general, feel free to reach out to me at derek.giannone@gmail.com.

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