Advocating for Gender Equity and Acting as a Change Agent: How Counseling Psychologists Can Do Better

Advocating for Gender Equity and Acting as a Change Agent: How Counseling Psychologists Can Do Better

Last November, Monitor on Psychology reported that women continue to outnumber men in psychology but are far behind in terms of leadership roles and pay. Sexism occurs with great frequency and impacts psychological well-being, while adherence to masculine norms in particular has been linked to adverse mental health outcomes. This is especially true in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, where women are progressively more underrepresented at each higher level. As counseling psychologists, we have a unique set of knowledge, skills, and awareness that position us to challenge this gender inequity and to advocate for change.

Take Notice, Speak Up

Before we take action or aim for change, we need to become more aware of the particular issues and how they impact our own environment (at work, at home, in organizations).

  • Who is represented? Perhaps the easiest, we need to consider who is at the proverbial table. In academic settings, this includes faculty, students, and staff. In the clinical setting, we might consider who our colleagues are as well as who the clients are. What speakers do we invite to our conventions or to campus? Not only should we be considering gender identity here, but we must also consider how intersections of identities are often absent from the discussion (for example, even in discussions of gender equity, people who are transgender or women of color have historically been excluded; see this video clip for a discussion of feminism between bell hooks and Laverne Cox).
  • Who is in power? It is not enough to question who is represented at the table, but we need to also question who has the power. Who is in the leadership roles? Who has the power to make changes, to inform decisions, to hire others?
  • What do environmental cues indicate? Environmental microaggressions are implicit messages that signal that one group (e.g., gender minorities) are unwelcome and not valued. Do these messages exist in your workplace? Perhaps there are no gender neutral bathrooms, or maybe all the pictures of department heads reflect a history of men. These subtle cues in the environment can have detrimental effects.
  • What implicit policies exist? Not only should we consider what policies exist and how they might impact gender minorities (for example, are policies in place to allow clients to update their records to reflect their preferred names), but we should also consider whether the seemingly non-gender related policies are applied equally across all genders (for example, are deadlines extended more often for men? Are the interns who are men given more dissertation release time than women?)?

 Employing Counseling Skills

Fortunately, as counseling psychologists we bring a unique social justice lens to view these issues and a myriad of counseling skills that can help impact change.

  • Engage in and teach self-care. First and foremost, we need to care for ourselves. For the many individuals who experience everyday sexism in work or personal lives, we need to stop and care for ourselves. We also have many unique opportunities to teach about and encourage others to engage in self-care. Perhaps this is within individual counseling, through offering gender-specific interpersonal groups, or mentoring academic advisees.
  • Provide, help develop, or encourage mentorship programs. This can be a difficult one, as we know that women and other people with underrepresented identities are often called on to be mentors more often than others. Many organizations offer identity specific mentorship (e.g., women mentors, LGBT mentors, racial minority mentors). Peer mentorship can be just as important, as can feminist support groups. Check out opportunities to get involved with a Division 17 mentorship opportunity at APA this summer!
  • Advocate at different levels. There are many different issues to advocate for in support of gender equity, including pay equality, paid parental leave benefits, and instituting trainings on unconscious bias. Click here for a list of AAUW’s public policy priorities for 2017-2019.

Flip the Narrative

All too often the emphasis of gender equity discussions is on what women can do to feel better or to change their own situation. While women and other gender minorities can make a difference and advocate for their own change, we need to flip this narrative. We need to start emphasizing the need for a cultural shift. Counseling psychologists have many opportunities to do just this.

  • Change what you teach. Encourage mixgender collaboration. Review your syllabi and make sure authors who are women, women of color, and LGBT are represented. Find research that is more inclusive of diverse identities, or when unable to, draw attention to this shortcoming in class discussions. Make sure to teach students that sex differences are a myth.
  • Bring privilege and oppression to the forefront of the conversation. This is one of the most important things that counseling psychologists can do. We have the knowledge and language to be able to talk about sexism as part of something much bigger: a system of privilege and oppression. We need to point out instances of sexism when we see them and call it what it is. As clinicians, we can use a feminist framework to speak to clients about how systems of privilege and oppression impact their life and their own mental health. As educators, this may include teaching not just what microaggressions are, but how to challenge stereotypes or sexism (see Lamb et al., 2009 for an example of how it’s never too young to start teaching this skill). These discussions can occur informally, as part of our work, or as part of a specific social justice intervention like intergroup dialogue.
  • Use your own privilege and serve as a model. Men, or cisgender individuals, can serve best as allies when they are able to discuss systems of privilege and use this privilege to institute change. When we notice that women of color are missing from the leadership roles at our counseling center, we can advocate for more diversity in the workplace. When we notice implicit policies that promote gender inequity, we can point it out and encourage a change. In each case that we are acting as an ally, we are also serving as a model for supervisees, advisees, students, clients, etc. In the past, many of these mentees have only been able to witness individuals promoting white, heteronormative, masculine norms and behaviors, so it is no surprise when they continue to perpetuate sexism. It’s not enough to declare feminism, but we must actually act accordingly.

For more about advocating for women and gender minorities, check out this AAUW “playbook” about promoting gender equality in the workplace; APA’s page about civil rights for women, or APA’s page about civil rights for sexual and gender minorities.

Links provided in this article are for resource purposes only and do not imply endorsement by SCP.

Keri A. Frantell, M.S.
University of Tennessee
Counseling Psychology


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