For pyschology majors, gender disparity not necessarily a downside

Psychology is just one academic department at W&L that shows a strong gender skew among declared majors

Maya Lora, News Writer

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Washington and Lee President William Dudley emphasized the importance of fostering greater diversity on campus in his inaugural speech last September. But some undergraduate students seem to benefit from a lack of gender diversity within the psychology department.

“One thing that I’ve noticed is that within the psychology classes, compared to other classes, women are less worried about speaking up, because you are not representing your entire gender,” said Catherine Simpson, ‘18.

The psychology department is dominated by female majors. Following a trend set in past years, the graduating class of 2018 includes 18 students, only three of whom are male, according to data provided by Professor Karla Murdock, the head of the psychology department.

And this phenomenon is not unique to Washington and Lee.

According to a report from the American Psychological Association, more than three-fourths of Americans earning doctorates in psychology are women. Women also comprise nearly three–fourths of early career psychologists and over half of the total psychology workforce across the country.

Murdock said she, like many members of the university, would like to see greater diversity within her department and across campus.

“I think that any intellectual enterprise is stronger when multiple perspectives are brought to it,” Murdock said.

But Murdock does not have a specific agenda that would drive the department to seek more male students. Murdock said it is not even part of the conversation, although the department takes the university’s plan to bring more diversity to campus life “very seriously.”

Megan Fulcher, an associate professor of psychology who focuses on gender development, agrees she would like to see more men within the major.

Fulcher said she specifically tries to bring men into her child gender development lab in order to show the children she works with that men can take on nurturing and teaching roles.

But she said it can be difficult to teach the few male students in her classes, especially when dealing with gender development.

“It’s really hard, because especially in big classes if you have two men, I learn their names right away, and so you have to work hard to not only talk to them or only call them by their names and make it seem special,” Fulcher said. “What we don’t want to do is say, ‘isn’t it wonderful that these two men are in our classes; aren’t they great?’”

Simpson, who also serves as the participant coordinator for Fulcher’s child gender development lab, said she enjoys being surrounded by more women.

“I really appreciate being able to be in classes with other like-minded women that are respectful and forward-thinking,” Simpson said. “You don’t find that in all of your classes.”

And she said she looks forward to that dynamic continuing upon graduation.

“I will never have to have a job where I have to worry about wearing the right makeup or the right outfit or whatever, which that is something that other women are going to have to deal with,” Simpson said. “I’m going to be interviewed by other women, and I will be working with women.”

This gender imbalance is not reflected in the department’s teaching staff, though. There are currently three tenure-tracked female professors and four males.

Catherine Peabody, ‘19, said she likes the current balance of male and female professors.

Peabody said female professors tend to be more nurturing, but it’s helpful to gain a varying perspective from males in the psychology field.

Fulcher said she would like to see women in psychology have more role models and fight against what she described as a pipeline that prevents female psychology majors from seeking advanced degrees.

“I think there are very good, strong role models, but it doesn’t hurt to have more,” Fulcher said.