Psychology of Women and Gender in the 21st Century
Janet Shibley Hyde & Amanda M. Durik
University of Wisconsin
Psychology of women has come a long way from Helene Deutsch's (1944) psychoanalytic writing and the century-long tradition of gender differences research in psychology. Today it has a vibrant foundation of three decades of contemporary research and a promising future built on this foundation, yet with many questions unanswered. Psychology of women today interweaves three strands: (a) psychological research focused specifically on women, their psychological functioning, and women-associated issues such as rape; (b) the psychology of gender, incorporating traditional research on gender differences but expanding beyond that to examine gender as a stimulus variable; and (c) feminist psychology, rooted in feminist theory and an articulated set of values that emphasizes equality of opportunity for women. We incorporate all three of these strands in our review.
Here we will consider four major areas that represent the current status of the psychology of women and, we believe, will chart the future of psychology of women: theories in the psychology of women; the intersection of gender with race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability; research methods in the psychology of women; and applications of research on the psychology of women in the areas of public policy, forensic practice, and the practice of psychotherapy and counseling.
Theories in the Psychology of Women
Few "grand theories" have been proposed in the field of psychology of women; one of the few is gender schema theory (Bem, 1981), reviewed below. This is not to say that the field is atheoretical. Rather than building grand theories, researchers have concentrated on rewriting and redefining the androcentric theories upon which psychology was established and building models to deal with more circumscribed problems. Feminist theory, often borrowing from the humanities, has been a rich source as well. Here we review each of these approaches, with examples.
Gender Schema Theory
Bem's (1981) gender schema theory reflects the cognitive revolution in psychology over the last several decades and applies this approach to understanding the development of gender stereotyping. In cognitive psychology, "schema" generally refers to a cognitive structure, developed from prior learning, that is used when filtering and interpreting new information. For Bem, a gender schema is a person's general knowledge framework about gender, with which information is processed and organized based on gender-linked associations. Children gradually form a gender schema as they learn their culture's network of associations with gender. Moreover, the gender schema becomes linked to self-concept so that children, as part of their motivation to become "good" girls or boys, engage in the gender-appropriate behavior specified by the gender schema.
Many studies support gender schema theory. In testing the theory, Bem categorized participants into gender-schematic persons (masculine males and feminine females, as determined by Bem's test of androgyny ) and gender-aschematic people (androgynous males and androgynous females). She argued that gender-schematic people are more likely to engage in gender-schematic processing of information, whereas gender-aschematic people engage in it less. In a free-recall test of a list of words, gender-schematic people were more likely to cluster the words by gender (e.g., gorilla, bull, trousers), than gender-aschematic people were. Reaction-time data indicated that gender-schematic people, when responding "me" or "not me," processed schema-consistent attributes faster than they processed schema-inconsistent attributes. Martin and Halverson (1983) found that, if five- and six-year-old children were shown pictures of children engaging in stereotype-consistent or stereotype-inconsistent activities, a week later the children made errors in recall of the stereotype-inconsistent pictures, recalling them as stereotype-consistent. That is, if they had seen a picture of two girls boxing, they remembered that they had seen two boys boxing.
Gender schema theory is compelling for a number of reasons, one being that it explains why gender stereotypes are so resistant to change -- our gender schema simply filters out stereotype-inconsistent information. The theory has also been criticized but the reasons are too technical to go into here (e.g., Spence & Helmreich, 1981). From our point of view, the main limitation of the theory is that it is exclusively cognitive.
Emotion is reemerging as a prominent construct within psychology in general, and in the 21st century we look toward theories of gender that integrate cognition (thought) and affect (emotion). For example, the expanding literature on self-concepts and self-strategies (see review by Wood, 1989) is just waiting to be incorporated into research on gender. As we noted, gender schema theory provides a cognitive explanation for why gender stereotypes are so difficult to change. However, another plausible, and very exciting explanation might suggest that some people are motivated to maintain their gender stereotypes. For instance, there may be times when people accentuate or draw attention to their own gender-stereotyped traits, if doing so makes them feel good about themselves. People may feel more positively about themselves and their own gender when they degrade the other gender.
On the other hand, some people do indeed work on reducing their stereotyped attitudes about gender, but what motivates them to work so hard at this? Maybe there are situations in which gender stereotypes become so personally limiting and/or defeating that people want to reject them? How do they do this? Integrating self-concept research into research about gender presents the opportunity to determine motivational factors underlying why gender is such a salient interpersonal characteristic for both women and men, and why its importance is so immutable.
Here we will provide two examples of research building specific theoretical models to deal with specific questions.
Stereotypes and power. Susan Fiske (1993) has proposed a model of the ways in which power and stereotypes influence each other. Two processes are involved: (a) Stereotyping exerts control or power over people, pressuring them to conform; therefore, stereotyping maintains the status quo. (b) Powerful people tend to stereotype less powerful people far more than the reverse. Given that gender is an important status or power variable, you can read "men" for "powerful people" and "women" for "less powerful people." The theory is even broader than that, though, and extends to other categories such as ethnic groups.
Let's consider the first process, in which gender stereotyping exerts control of males and females. Stereotypes can be prescriptive -- that is, they say how people of a certain group should behave. Adolescent boys should excel at athletics. Girls should not be aggressive. If one fails to meet the demands of such stereotypes, the penalties can be severe, such as social rejection by the peer group. Stereotypes, therefore, exert control over people.
Turning to the second process, the powerful group (men) tends to stereotype the less powerful group (women) more than the reverse. Less powerful people generally are motivated to pay attention to the idiosyncrasies of powerful people because those powerful people control outcomes for the less powerful. Servants know a great many details about their employers and their preferences, for example, but the reverse is unlikely. Powerful people pay less attention to others and consequently rely on simple stereotypes. Powerful people pay less attention to the less powerful in part because the less powerful have little control over them.
Fiske (1993) has conducted many clever experiments to test various aspects of her theory. In one study, undergraduates were given the power to evaluate the summer job applications of high school students. Some undergraduates were given more power in the final decision and others were given less power. The students who were given more power actually paid less attention to the applicants, consistent with Fiske's model.
Fiske's model and research were influential in an important Supreme Court case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was denied partnership in the prestigious accounting firm of Price Waterhouse. Compared with her male colleagues who were also being considered for partnership, she worked more billable hours, was well liked by clients, and brought in millions of dollars in accounts. She was denied partnership not because her performance was inadequate (it was in fact superb by objective standards), but rather because she was not considered feminine. Stereotype violation, in short, was used as grounds for the denial of promotion.
Based on Fiske's model, we can understand how stereotypes operated at several levels in this case. Men were in power at Price Waterhouse and women were outnumbered. Therefore, the powerful men were likely to hold stereotyped expectations about the women and to pay less attention to their individual details, such as their qualifications. Hopkins, by being a successful woman in a male-dominated profession was a stereotype violator and received punishment for it.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hopkins, and the brief filed by the American Psychological Association, reporting Susan Fiske's research, was highly influential in the decision.
Men who sexually aggress against women. Some theorists argue that too much rape research has focused on women who have been raped, when the real emphasis should be on the aggressors. Only by gaining a scientific understanding of them will we be able to reduce the occurrence of rape. Neil Malamuth and colleagues (1991) developed a model of the factors that predispose a man to engage in sexual coercion with women and then tested it against data obtained from a large, national sample of male college students. According to their model -- and the data supported it -- four factors predispose a man to engage in sexual coercion: (a) Hostile home environment -- Violence between parents or battering or sexually abusing the child increase the chances that the boy will engage in sexual coercion. (b) Delinquency -- Being involved in delinquency leads a boy to associate with delinquent peers who, for example, encourage hostile attitudes and rationalizations for committing crimes and reward a tough, aggressive image. (c) Sexual promiscuity -- Often in the context of the delinquent group, the young man comes to believe that sexual conquests bring him status within the peer group, and coercion may seem to be a reasonable way to achieve his goals. (d) A hostile masculine personality -- This personality constellation involves deep hostility toward women together with negatively defined, exaggerated masculinity--masculinity characterized as rejecting anything feminine, such as nurturance, and emphasizing power, control, and macho characteristics.
Understanding the factors that make some men rape-prone will be crucial for intervention programs. What other factors might be related to men sexually aggressing against women, and might these and other factors interact or lead to one another in a causal sequence? How could such models be tested?
Research and theory about the psychology of women has been heavily influenced by feminist theory (e.g., Jaggar & Rothenberg, 1993; Tong, 1989), much of which has originated in the humanities. An early example was Bem's (1974) theorizing and research on androgyny, which was preceded by earlier writings in the humanities (Heilbrun, 1973). We have no doubt that this pattern will continue into the 21st century, as developments in feminist theory are made in the humanities, and then translated by psychologists into theory that is testable with empirical data. Here we offer one recent example.
Nita McKinley and Janet Hyde (1996) developed the Objectified Body Conscious (OBC) Scale to measure women's experience of their own bodies. The research began with the writings of feminist theorists, who argue that the female body is constructed as an object of male desire and exists to receive the gaze of the male (Spitzack, 1990). The result is that women experience objectified body consciousness (McKinley, 1995). OBC consists of three components: (a) body surveillance, in which the woman or girl views her own body as if an external onlooker and constantly evaluates it; (b) internalization of cultural standards that specify the ideal female body and the ideal for beauty; because these standards are internalized, conformity seems to be a matter of personal choice rather than external pressure, and shame results when one fails to control one's weight or appearance; and (c) beliefs that one can control one's appearance and weight, which can lead to unhealthy behaviors and eating disorders. Based on this feminist theorizing, McKinley and Hyde (1996) developed the OBC scale to measure these three components. Their data showed that high scores on these scales were associated with disordered eating. Now the scales are available to those doing further research on this important topic.
One of the most exciting aspects of the psychology of women is that it is part of the interdisciplinary field of women's studies. As such, there are rich opportunities to learn from developments in other disciplines and in turn to use psychology to build on those developments.
Gender and Its Intersection with Race/Ethnicity, Disability, and Sexual Orientation
One of the key tenets of feminist theory is that gender does not act alone, but rather acts jointly with race/ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation, in influencing an individual's life experience. Here we provide examples of some of this work that looks at the conjoint influence of gender and these other status characteristics.
Gender and Race/Ethnicity
We can see the intersection of gender with race/ethnicity most directly if we examine variations in gender roles across ethnic groups in the United States. For example, the evidence shows that some North American Indian tribes had a system of egalitarian gender roles, in which separate but equally valued tasks were assigned to women and men and women had a strong role in government (Blackwood, 1984). The very work that is considered acceptable for women or men can be determined by one's ethnic group.
Among Asian Americans, educational attainment is highly valued and both males and females are expected to meet high standards. Asian American women graduate from college at a higher rate than white men do (Hyde, 1996). There is no view that women are less worthy of education. In this case, one's gendered aspirations are defined by one's ethnic group.
As these two examples indicate, we cannot begin to understand the impact of gender roles on girls and women unless we consider ethnicity simultaneously.
Gender and Disability
Few individual characteristics rival gender in their salience or impact in social situations, but disability is one of them. It is surprising that only a small body of research exists on the interaction of gender and disability; we believe that this literature will continue to expand in the next decade. Michelle Fine and Adrienne Asch (1988) have edited an interdisciplinary volume on this topic. They commented on the discrepancy between feminists strivings for independence and disabled womens assumed dependence. This misconception may be one reason why disability and gender have not been extensively researched within the psychology of women.
Despite the scarcity of research, some areas have been explored. For example, an analysis of autobiographies written by blind people revealed that blind women were more likely than blind men to seek jobs within the blind community, teaching and counseling other blind people (Asch & Sacks, 1983). Furthermore, blind women were less likely than blind men to refer to intimate relationships, but more likely to show concern about the visible features of their disabilities.
Another line of research on women and disability has focussed attention on womens experiences of sexuality and mothering. Asrael (1982) articulated the discouragement and difficulty that disabled women face when deciding to have children, and then offered a useful model within which disabled women are described as working with a team of professionals to plan their pregnancies and deliveries. This compelling idea highlights one of this areas complexities. For example, would this approach be appropriate for all women with disabilities? Embedded within this research topic is a challenge to recognize differences and commonalities among peoples experiences who have different disabilities.
Most of what we know in this area is descriptive in nature and is based on interviews with disabled women. Although these studies are rich with detail and are an important place to start, the underlying social and psychological processes related to womens experiences will be identified only when researchers apply psychological theory to this domain.
Disabled women (and men) have been described as members of an }invisible" population. Although this description is true in general, some disabilities are more invisible than others and have escaped the attention of researchers to an even greater extent. Examples of these invisible disabilities are learning disabilities, mental illness, and some physical or sensory disabilities. These individuals who can }pass" as not disabled at first glance may have unique experiences and frustrations that are not socially recognized or validated. Researchers may gain insight into the nature of gender and stigma associated with disability by focussing attention on how these women choose to navigate through life labelled as disabled or not.
Another area that is rich with research possibility concerns public attitudes about women with disabilities. Are women with disabilities evaluated more negatively than disabled men when they need to advocate for themselves? What attributions are made of their emotional behavior? In what ways do physical atypicalities influence interpersonal behaviors among women with disabilities, and how do these women deal with extreme standards of beauty and femininity that may seem contradictory to their disabilities? Approaching the topic from a more positive stance, are women with disabilities more capable of challenging gender stereotypes or expectations because of their often marginalized position? The answers to these questions are unknown, and the questions continue to emerge. Psychology of women has its work cut out for itself in the arena of understanding the complex relationships between gender and disability.
Issues of sexual orientation have personally touched the lives of many within the field of psychology of women and part of the research attention afforded this topic can be traced to this interest. However, perhaps more powerfully, psychology of women has a strong tradition of documenting and validating the diversity in human experience. It is from this stance that psychology of women has tackled the very complex issues related to sexual orientation.
Like no other area of academe, psychology of women has sought to describe and validate the experiences of lesbians (Boston Lesbian Psychologies Collective, 1987; Greene & Herek, 1994; Davis, Cole, & Rothblum, 1996; Weinstock & Rothblum, 1996). Some stereotypes have been shattered, but perhaps more importantly, it has become clear that there is no single lesbian experience. One important part of past research is that psychologists have recognized and documented the challenges facing lesbians who are building and maintaining relationships without the support of family, friends, and/or social institutions.
Research has also focussed on the qualities of lesbian relationships themselves. More specifically, these relationships offer one of the only opportunities to witness the dynamics of intimate relationships without the inherent inequalities introduced by pairing women and men. Although most lesbian relationships are more egalitarian than heterosexual relationships (Peplau, Cochran, Rock, & Padesky, 1978), one finding that was surprising to some was the existence of violence within some lesbian relationships (Brand & Kidd, 1986). This finding is particularly relevant to future research in this area, in that investigators will continue to disentangle the network of status and power that exists between people even in relationships where gender is equalized.
Issues of sexual orientation are not limited to lesbianism. Future research will focus on bisexual women. Bisexuality has often been brushed aside, without having an identity of its own, but gradually it is becoming less marginalized. Bisexuality offers a unique situation in which women have the flexibility to alternate between }heterosexual" and }homosexual" experiences depending on whom theyre currently dating. The psychological and social complexities that accompany this situation, and the nature of a bisexual identity or identities, will be illuminated in future research (Ault, 1996; Weinberg, Williams, & Pryor, 1994).
Finally, research on sexual orientation will continue to address issues related to social policy. For example, one line of research shows that children are not disadvantaged as a result of being raised by lesbian rather than heterosexual couples (Flaks, Ficher, Masterpasqua, & Joseph, 1995; Patterson, 1992). This type of research may be influential in adoption cases where concern is raised regarding whether lesbian couples are fit to be parents. Furthermore, through research, lifestyles that may seem marginal to some people, become more normalized and acceptable. There is great power in showing that women who are lesbian or bisexual are not necessarily different from heterosexual women on variables other than sexual orientation.
Research Methods in the Psychology of Women
Researchers within psychology of women have adopted, adapted, and cultivated a wide variety of research methods. Part of this diversity has grown out of the challenges feminist researchers encounter as they search for methods that will effectively answer their research questions without contradicting their feminist ideals. The selection and application of research methods is a series of tradeoffs because each has its strengths and weaknesses, and none is a methodological panacea. The tradeoffs typically center around two fundamental characteristics of any research endeavor: (a) whether qualitative or quantitative data are collected, and (b) the context in which the data were collected. For clarity, we will discuss these issues separately although they are intertwined.
Quantitative and Qualitative Research
Regarding the first issue, data can be either qualitative or quantitative. Qualitative data come in the form of verbal description and are usually summarized in text, whereas quantitative data are in the form of numbers and are analyzed via statistical procedures. One of the most well-known studies of the qualitative type was conducted on womens moral reasoning by Carol Gilligan (1982). Gilligan conducted a series of elaborate interviews with women who were making the decision of whether or not to have an abortion. She designed her research in response to the androcentric theory of moral reasoning advanced by Kohlberg (1969) in which he pronounced women to be less mature in their moral reasoning than men. In contrast, Gilligan concluded that women were not deficient in their abilities to reason morally, but rather, reasoned from different premises than did men. According to Gilligan, men mainly use considerations of justice in their moral reasoning, whereas women attend more to relationships and the imperative to care for others. It is easy to understand how Gilligan's interview-based methodology is congruent with the feminist goal of documenting and validating the lived experiences of women. This approach can uncover detailed information about individuals' experiences by taking into account the contexts in which they live and the intricacies of their lives.
Qualitative methods such as these can definitely contribute a great deal to the field. However, due to the elaborate processes by which qualitative data are collected and synthesized, these accounts typically represent the experiences of only a small number of people; thus, the virtue of this method is also its vice. Because of the rich detail and concern for individuals unique experiences, it is often difficult to draw general conclusions.
Investigators using quantitative methods, in contrast, frame and seek to answer research questions using statistical techniques. For example, participants may be asked to report their attitudes on a scale from say, 1 to 7, and by doing this they are quantifying their attitudes rather than describing them in their own words. Although there is considerable utility (for example, one can collect data on a large, random sample) in being able to summarize people's attitudes in this manner, this benefit comes at a cost. It is likely, if not inevitable, that part of individuals richness and depth are lost when they are asked to report information in this way. In summarizing the distinction between qualitative and quantitative methods then, we might say that whereas the benefit of qualitative data is depth, the benefit of quantitative data is breadth.
Contextual and Design Factors in Research
Another important methodological distinction is between naturalistic and laboratory studies. Naturalistic investigations are conducted in the environments where people live, work, and play, rather than in laboratories. Because feminists stress the importance of context, many would suggest that it is not optimal to strip these important factors away from the setting in which research is conducted, as in laboratory studies. However, there is also much to be gained from laboratory research. Superfluous contextual factors that may muddle a researchers understanding of a particular phenomenon can be removed from studies in laboratories.
Psychological experiments, more specifically, introduce their own costs and benefits. In an experiment, the researcher seeks to demonstrate the causal effects of one entity (the independent variable) on another (the dependent variable). When this is done in the laboratory, contextual factors except for the causal entity need to be minimized or controlled. Thus, the "all powerful" experimenter attempts to strip away contextual factors that might add "noise" to the data. Then, typically unbeknownst to the participants, the experimental environment is manipulated or altered in some way and then the participants are asked to respond. This manipulation (and sometimes deception) produces a situation in which a hierarchical relationship is constructed between the experimenter and the participants. The experimenter has considerable power over the situation and control over the participants. This power differential has the potential of leading the participants to feel exploited or demoralized, which is the antithesis of the outcome that feminist researchers seek.
Integrating Research Approaches
Although quantitative methods and laboratory experimentation have their flaws from a feminist point of view, we contend that the discipline has nonetheless benefited a great deal from these approaches. Powerful feminist arguments have been substantiated from their use. For example, only by quantitative methods is it possible to document the widespread violence against women on college campuses (e.g., Koss, 1987) and only with experimental methods can one investigate the direct causal effects of gender-biased language (Hyde, 1984). To illustrate, one of us (JH) conducted an experiment to determine whether childrens perceptions of a fictitious occupation (wudgemaking) were influenced by the pronouns used to describe people who did this for a living (Hyde, 1984). She found that participants rated women as only moderately competent at the task when the pronoun was masculine, but their ratings rose when either a gender-fair or feminine pronoun was used. The use of the experimental method allowed the researcher to determine the influence of masculine, feminine, or gender-fair pronouns on childrens perceptions of this fictitious occupation. It is also noteworthy that although the children in this study were in an experiment, they most likely were not led to feel manipulated or controlled.
Issues concerning hierarchy and control can emerge in almost any research setting. For example, personal and professional responsibilities may be blurred in an ongoing interview study, where intimate information is passed from participant to investigator. Thus, even qualitative, non-laboratory researchers face ethical challenges in navigating the path between data collection and interpersonal exploitation or invasion of privacy. Laboratory experimentation, however, has been most highly criticized by feminists. First, to provide a balanced view, it is notable that participants are at minimal risk in most laboratory experimental research. Furthermore, the ethics of research procedures are monitored by a designated board of people who review all proposed research with human participants, so long as the research is conducted within a university context (a practice that also is followed with research that is not experimental). In addition, recognizing the usefulness of laboratory studies, feminists have made strides in improving the situations into which research participants enter. Landrine, Klonoff, and Brown-Collins (1992) have made several suggestions of how feminist psychologists can alter their methods to coincide more with feminist ideals. For example, they suggested that researchers provide monetary compensation for participants service and never coerce participation as part of a course requirement. Moreover, in an ideal world, research would be designed so that the people under investigation actually benefited from participation.
We suggest that the methods just discussed have different strengths and weaknesses and compliment each other well. Used in tandem, these methods may prove to be extremely useful in terms of leading to our greater understanding of gender and its intersection with other social and cultural phenomena. For example, an area of research may at first be investigated qualitatively to determine what topics are important to participants lives. Then, once these more specific aspects are identified, they can be investigated via quantitative methods. Qualitative and quantitative methods might also be used iteratively. That is, the first study on a question might be qualitative, followed by a quantitative study, followed by a qualitative study designed to clarify the findings of the quantitative research, and so on.
Deborah Tolman and Laura Szalacha (in press) provided an excellent example of multiple-method research on adolescent girls experiences of sexual desire. Narrative data from 30 girls were collected, and then the data were summarized both qualitatively and quantitatively. The researchers were able to summarize the data at multiple levels of specificity. They reported overall patterns using statistical analysis and then returned to the original narrative data to capture the richness of individual girls experiences and to explore the nature of the overall patterns. This type of research should inspire researchers within psychology of women to liberate their research questions and paradigms from the constraints of rigid boundaries between methodologies.
As psychology in general continues to progress away from a positivist perspective (Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1988), peoples varied experiences within a given situation will be recognized as important. In this way, the psychological meaning of a situation, as constructed by participants, will become more central and thus press the empirical methods used in psychology to be more diverse and flexible. A challenge to researchers in psychology of women is to lead the way in this use of multiple methods. This approach may be more difficult than it seems at first glance. One area in which attention can be focussed in order to bring this about concerns the training of scholars in these diverse methods. Typically, one is trained to be either a quantitative or qualitative researcher. This boundary needs to be broken and open dialogue should occur between researchers using both approaches. A second area in which gains need to be made is in the evaluative criteria for qualitative methods. There is general consensus in psychology about what methods are acceptable among quantitative approaches (e.g., appropriateness of statistical tests, adequacy of comparison groups), but this is less true of qualitative methods. Guidelines have begun to be defined (e.g., Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Olesen, 1994) and these should continue to be developed so that adopting qualitative methods from other backgrounds will feel more confident in this methodology.
Finally, given that we embark on our research with a clear feminist perspective, it is important for the psychology of women that we make every attempt to communicate to others our message and our research in a way that others will }listen" to and respond to affirmatively. It is imperative for feminist psychologists to conduct careful, well-planned research so that our results will be respected and taken seriously. Only by conveying our research in a way that is compelling to psychology as a whole will we be successful in accomplishing our goals and improving the lives of women.
Applications of Psychology of Women in the Real World
One of the most neglected public policy issues in the United States is parental leave, which refers to the leave from work that a mother or father takes at the time of the birth (or adoption) of a baby (Hyde, Essex, Clark, Klein, & Byrd, 1996). We offer this issue as an example of the ways in which psychological research can have an impact in the policy arena. In 1985, the United States was the only developed nation to have no national policy providing parental leave for new parents. In 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) became law. It provides for a minimum leave of 12 weeks for new mothers or fathers. The leave must be job-guaranteed -- that is, the employee has the right to return to the same job or a comparable one. The minimum requirement is for unpaid leave, but employers may be more generous and provide paid leave. These requirements hold only for persons employed by a company that has 50 or more employees; small businesses are not required to comply. This policy is considerably less generous than policies in European nations.
When Congress was considering whether to pass the FMLA, it called on psychologists to provide expert testimony. The research of experts -- most of whom were developmental psychologists and testified that infants need 4 to 6 months with their mother, father, or other stable caregiver in order to form a secure attachment, which is crucial for later adjustment -- was instrumental in passing the bill.
Our research team, examining the expert testimony, noticed that it focused exclusively on infants and their well-being, and that the well-being of mothers had been ignored. We launched a project, the Wisconsin Maternity Leave and Health Project, to provide data on this crucial issue and, we hoped, to inform future public policy decisions (Hyde et al., 1996; Hyde, Klein, Essex, & Clark, 1995). We found, for example, that a short leave (6 weeks or less) acts as a risk factor, when combined with other risk factors such as a troubled marriage, for elevated levels of depressive symptoms in women. We also found that 66% of the women took a shorter leave than they would have preferred (Hyde et al., 1996). The reason? Finances. Most could not afford to stay away from work any longer, when the leave was unpaid. The results from this project should help to inform decisions about parental leave policy in the future. They build a strong case for strengthening the current legislation to provide for paid leave.
Efficacy of Therapy
One of the hot questions in psychology today is whether various forms of psychotherapy "work" -- an issue variously known as the efficacy of therapy or empirically supported therapies (Chambless & Hollon, 1998; Compas, Haaga, Keefe, Leitenberg, & Williams, 1998). This question has been asked of feminist therapy and of therapies used to treat disorders in which a preponderance of the affected people are women, e.g., eating disorders (e.g., Compas et al., 1998).
Is feminist therapy effective? The bottom line is that we do not have enough good research to be able to answer the question. Ideally, an evaluation study should randomly assign clients to feminist therapy or no therapy (the latter group receives therapy later, after the research is completed), and then evaluates the clients at the end of therapy compared with the no-treatment controls. We know of no study that has used such a design. One of the few relevant studies compared women in feminist therapy with women in traditional therapy (Marecek, Kravetz, & Finn, 1979). Unfortunately, the women had selected the therapy themselves rather than being randomly assigned, so we cannot be certain whether differences between the groups were a result of the different therapies or pre-existing differences.
Evaluating the effectiveness of feminist therapy will surely be an important research topic in the next decade. Two distinct questions can be asked: (a) Is feminist therapy effective compared with no therapy? and (b) Is feminist therapy as effective or more effective than traditional therapies? Beyond that, we can ask more complex questions, such as whether feminist therapy is particularly effective in treating certain problems. The first question is important and feasible to answer. The second question probably will not lend itself easily to research because most feminist therapists incorporate elements of traditional therapies into their treatment, as appropriate to the particular problem (Enns, 1993). It would therefore be difficult to separate out the effect of the particular feminist components.
Forensic Psychology of Women
A substantial number of feminist psychologists -- some of them academic researchers, some of them feminist therapists -- work in the area of forensic psychology. This area may include analysis of psychological harm arising from trauma (e.g., domestic violence, sexual harassment), evaluation of parents in child custody cases, or preparing an attorney to cross-examine an accused rapist (for a review, see Brown, in press). Feminist forensic psychologists develop their expert opinions based on a combination of basic research in the psychology of women and accumulated clinical experience of themselves and others in treating women who have experienced such traumas. In this role, they strongly influence legal outcomes. Examples include judgments about whether a mother loses custody of her children following a divorce, whether a woman can sue an employer for damages on account of psychological trauma she suffered as a result of sexual harassment on the job, and whether an accused rapist is convicted.
As one specific example, feminist forensic psychologists gradually accumulated an argument that was upheld in many legal cases. Specifically, they argued that a battered woman might well be in constant fear for her life, even if a knife was not held to her throat at a particular moment; therefore, if she killed her batterer, it could reasonably be regarded as self-defense (Brown, in press). Feminist forensic psychology is an exciting area that doubtless will expand in the future.
Advice to Aspiring Feminist Researchers
One of the most important goals of feminist psychologists is the improvement of the lives of girls and women and a commitment to that goal will surely extend into the 21st century. If we are to improve the lives of girls and women, so many areas desperately need more research and more talented researchers. We have only begun to glimpse the complex behavioral and cultural mechanisms that will help us unravel the puzzles before us in feminist topics, such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, eating disorders, homophobia, the double whammy of racism and sexism. Without basic research to give us an understanding of these issues, we cannot hope to be effective in treating those affected by these problems, much less in preventing them.
If you want to pursue a graduate degree specializing in feminist psychology, you will need to be especially careful in accepting the appropriate graduate program. For example, not every department is supportive of feminist approaches. Some may actively discourage research related to women and gender. If possible, select a university that is strong in both psychology and womens studies. Ideally, you should take graduate courses in womens studies as well as psychology.
Mentorship is also a significant factor in establishing a successful research program as a feminist psychologist. Interview faculty members in the department who express an interest in feminist psychology. Find out which feminist psychologists have graduate student positions available. Then find out if those individuals would be willing to work with you specifically. Chances are that feminist mentors may be especially supportive in helping you survive the rigors of graduate training.
Many entire textbooks have been written about the psychology of women and gender (e.g., Hyde, 1996). Our coverage here has been necessarily brief and has omitted much. As we think forward to the 21st century, we have a solid foundation of three decades of research and theory on which to build. It is exciting to be part of this effort. Feminist researchers especially welcome new researchers into the fold who can continue to work energetically for causes important to girls and women. We think that it is exciting to be part of this effort.
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Janet Shibley Hyde is Professor of Psychology and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin--Madison. She earned her PhD in 1972 from the University of California, Berkeley. She teaches undergraduate courses on Psychology of Women and Human Sexuality, and is the author of a textbook for the psychology of women course, entitled Half the Human Experience: The Psychology of Women. One line of her research has focused on gender differences in abilities and self-esteem. Another line focuses on women, work, and dual-earner couples.
The author may be reached at email@example.com
Amanda Durik is a graduate student in the Psychology Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She earned her B.S. in Psychology at Centre College, in Danville, Kentucky. In graduate school, she has conducted research in the areas of sexism, gender steretotyping of emotion, and women, family, and employment.
The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org