Feminization of Psychology

An increasing number of women are joining the field of psychology. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of women receiving psychology doctoral degrees increased from approximately 15% in 1950 to 55% in 1988. In 2002, an American Psychological Association (APA) task force found nearly two thirds of all new recipients of master’s degrees and doctorates in clinical or counseling psychology were women. In 1985, 34% of APA membership was female; in 2000 the membership was 49% female, reflecting a 15% increase over 15 years. According to an annual survey conducted by the Council of Counseling Psychology Training Programs (CCPTP), there were on average 29.83 women and 10.75 men enrolled in counseling psychology doctoral programs for the 2004-2005 academic year. The same survey found the ratio of female to male assistant and associate professors in counseling psychology was 53 to 18 and 51 to 27, respectively. For full professors, however, the ratio was 50 females to 58 males. Overall, statistics show that counseling psychology has shifted from a field that was once dominated by males to an academic area consisting mostly of women.

Understanding the Term

Feminization of Counseling Psychology

The term, feminization of psychology, was coined in order to describe the changing demographics of psychology. Within counseling psychology, however, although reference has been made to its gender constitution, little research has been conducted. In general, confusion has existed regarding how the phrase feminization is used. For example, the feminization of psychology has often been employed to describe how the sex ratio of women to men is impacting (both positively and negatively) the field of psychology. However, the word feminization suggests one is referring to the impact of the female gender on the field of psychology, which shifts the meaning from an essentialist understanding of biological sex to a more constructivist interpretation of the cultural implications of being female. Consequently, it is important to locate the term within the context of sex or gender. Throughout this entry, the term feminization of psychology is used to facilitate further understanding of perceived shifts in the field that may result from gender-related change. Finally, the discussion of feminization of counseling psychology largely reflects the Western cultural environment within the field, most particularly within the United States.

Feminization or Gender Prejudice?

How do the perceptions and beliefs of the dominant culture influence the way people conceptualize the increase in the number of women in psychology and, concomitantly, in counseling psychology? It has been demonstrated that, historically, the efforts of women have been less visible than those of men within the field of psychology, despite many contributions of note. It has been evident that women were, for many years, under-represented within psychology across various roles, including those of author, therapist, administrator, and professor. This phenomenon has been attributed to, among other things, a historical cultural White male norm against which gender-related endeavors have been measured and acknowledged. It also likely reflects a societal reality that men often gained access to public roles and professions (including educational opportunities) prior to women. The question of whether a discussion of a masculinization of psychology would have ensued had the male-dominated field persisted has been raised in the literature. Within this larger context surrounding the changing demographics, a “feminized” perspective might be useful were it to contribute new viewpoints and potentially problematic were it to become yet another norm from which to default. Counseling psychology may differ somewhat from other arenas within psychology, as it is a relatively younger branch of psychology and has not carried as lengthy a history of male predominance. It is also noteworthy that counseling psychology, like other fields, is not a fully evolved entity; consequently, the entrance of women into the profession might be correlated with changes not attributable to its feminization (ethnic, socioeconomic, and other kinds of diversity among psychologists have likely also played a role in broadening the traditional perspectives within counseling psychology).

Impact on Status and Prestige

Historically, fields that consist largely of women (e.g., elementary school teachers, nurses) carry lower social status and prestige than those dominated by men. Some worry that as more women become researchers and practitioners, the field of counseling psychology will lose status. Although this concern has been reflected in general trends in some other professions (e.g., bank telling and book editing), research suggests that the increase in numbers of women in psychology has not caused a decrease in prestige. The etiology of this relationship is complicated and likely better accounted for by socialization. Specifically, men have frequently been socialized to pursue prestigious occupations, including those that are more profitable, have better working conditions, and offer greater opportunities for advancement. Women, it has been speculated, often have received the message that they should take up less theoretical space by filling lower status jobs. Finally, the status and prestige of counseling psychology has been impacted by the role of managed care, which limits the type and duration of treatment that practitioners may use.

Impact on Research

Others have linked the increase in numbers of women in the field of counseling psychology to an imbalance in research-practitioner activities. There are more clinical practitioners than there are researchers, and some worry that the scientist-practitioner model (the idea that research dictates practice and practice dictates research) is waning. Specifically, there has been concern that therapists may rely too heavily on clinical judgment rather than empirically supported treatments. Furthermore, within the research community, some psychologists worry that traditional research methods (empirical techniques) may be replaced by inductive qualitative methods. These fears are also grounded, it should be noted, in the belief that qualitative research is subjective, and therefore less accurate than standard positivist measures. Again, a causal link has been drawn between an increasing number of women psychologists and some aspects of the perceived researcher-practitioner gap. There are inevitably many variables that impact a trend of this nature (e.g., an increase in the number of professional psychology programs that often highlight clinical work instead of research and a decrease in federal funding for community and treatment-outcome mental health research programs).

Impact on Psychotherapy

Special consideration for women and gender has been increasingly represented in the counseling literature and through counseling techniques. In her book, The Shoulders of Women: The Feminization of Psychotherapy, Philipson explored how the feminization of psychotherapy affects theory, techniques, and possibly even goals of therapy. If such a phenomenon were to occur, counseling psychology might see a paradigm shift relating to its view of mental health. Thus, the way in which psychotherapy is conducted within counseling psychology might be affected.

With more women entering counseling psychology, there has been a concomitant increase in awareness of gender-related issues. For example, the Division of Counseling Psychology of the APA (Division 17) has a formal group titled Advancement of Women, which is dedicated to “representing the interest of women” in areas ranging from professional support to education and training. With additional research and interest in women and gender, feminist principles seem to have become more prevalent. These principles include contributions that range from an analysis of power and status to a relational view of mental health and therapy to a belief that the personal is political. Feminist tenets have helped to advance both research and practice (e.g., improved egalitarian client-therapist relationships and questioned biased research) by transforming what has been the status quo to a more inclusive approach. These contributions have generally been associated with the feminization of psychology, but as with concerns outlined previously, they are likely the result of several factors.

With an increase in the number of women in the field of psychology, practitioners and researchers have seemed more willing to question their work structure. Flexible hours, parental leave, and improved reentry policies for employees have been cited as significant shifts in work structure within psychology. With further options for employment arrangements, women and men have had the opportunity to build careers with the ability to create space for additional responsibilities such as family. It is important to note that it is not known whether the feminization of psychology caused a more flexible work structure, only that there is a correlation between improved work conditions and the entrance of additional women into the field. On a final note, the feminization of therapy within counseling psychology may reflect the consequences of a more general reality—that of men departing the caring fields, reinforcing the historical association between helper and caregiver and the female role.

Future Directions

The notion of the feminization of psychology seemed to elicit a strong reaction from practitioners and researchers in the early 1990s. However, there appears to have been less focus on this topic more recently. Still, some studies have suggested that the increase in numbers of women psychologists is an international trend. Specifically, recent studies by Olos and Hoff and by Boatswain and colleagues found that there were more women than men entering the field of psychology in a majority of European countries as well as in Canada.

Although many psychologists have associated negative concerns with feminization, the increase in numbers of women entering the field has also been related to several positive trends. Again, it is difficult to know whether these factors are related exclusively to changing demographics or if there have been additional circumstances that facilitated these contributions. It has been speculated that due to societal attitudes, although numerical equality or even predominance may exist, this does not guarantee that women will predominately shape the future of the profession. Given the issue’s complexity, additional research is needed to better understand the feminization of psychology and the implications of changing demographics.


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  2. Goodheart, C. D., & Markham, B. (1992). The feminization of psychology: Implications for psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 29(1), 130-138.
  3. Olos, L., & Hoff, E. H. (2006). Gender ratios in European psychology. European Psychologist, 11(1), 1-11.
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  5. Philipson, I. J. (1993). On the shoulders of women: The feminization of psychotherapy. New York: Guilford Press.
  6. Travis, C. (1998, June 21). A widening gulf splits lab and couch. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/06/21/health/a-widening-gulf-splits-lab-and-couch.html

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