Early career psychologist

The Rise of Women in Psychology?

Despite earning most of the psychology PhDs, women face unique challenges that may hinder their success in academia.

By Adriana Falco, PhD, and Diann Gaalema, PhD

Female early career psychologists (ECPs) face unique challenges during the course of their occupational development. Even though women earn the majority of psychology PhDs, approximately 71 percent as of 2006 (Burrelli, 2008), women are continually underrepresented in academia and face a distinctive set of issues. There is no question that representation of women with psychology PhDs in academia and other occupations have vastly improved, however as of 2006, women still only held 46.2 percent of tenured or tenure-track faculty spots, and 33.4 percent of full professorships (Burrelli, 2008). There is also evidence that these numbers are not likely to improve any time soon. Approximately only 25 percent of women decide to go into academic based careers, down from the 40 percent who state they wish to do so at the beginning of graduate school (Currid-Halkett, 2012). One of the biggest factors in this decision is the desire to start a family.

Women with families have significantly lower odds of gaining tenure, and married women with young children have about a 35 percent less chance of getting tenure than a married man with young children and 33 percent lower odds of becoming tenured than a single woman (Goulden, 2011). Unfortunately, academia may be unknowingly perpetuating a system where talented women leave early in their career because of feeling that career must come before family. Family leave benefits vary widely from university to university; some universities can provide six weeks or more of leave, while others provide leave dependent on the amount of full-time hours an individual has recorded, often leaving graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and beginning faculty with few leave options when having children and coping with parenting responsibilities (Goulden, 2011). No doubt, these early experiences color a woman's expectations of the field and how she will continue to be treated, as well as her expectations for continued success. It is particularly ironic as many women are choosing to have families in graduate school and during postdoctoral training due to heightened flexibility, and biological and social timepoints.

Can these issues be rectified? Often the assumption is held that jobs will increase for minority groups as educational opportunities are increased. But, in this instance, there seems to be a special case where employment opportunities may have grown in theory, but not in practice. It is unclear whether this is due to inherent institutional gender bias, or due to women self-selecting out of the employment pool due to perceived or actual difficulties in allowing for family obligations and choices. Until universities and employees can clearly meet on issues, it may be that seeking and offering mentoring is the best way deal with these issues. Perhaps, some critical mass of female mentors will eventually be reached to allow women ECPs to feel supported so that they will feel encouraged to remain in the field in spite of difficulties balancing work and personal life.