Writing women into psychology: Summarizing our research on representation and communication of gender in textbooks
Authors: Meghan George and Tal Davidson
The issue of gender inequality has been a mainstay of social psychological research for decades, but it’s presence in mainstream media has fluctuated over time. Given the current political climate, there has been a renewed public interest in how women (as well as racial and sexual minorities) are treated in society. As social psychologists, we may feel passionate about studying, understanding, and representing the experiences of diverse groups of people and disseminating our research for the ‘greater good.’ But with everyone talking about experiences of discrimination, our research team started to ask ourselves whether psychology was truly advocating for equality or whether it was perpetuating the biases we’re fighting against.
To address our concerns, we conducted a study examining a sample of widely used social psychology textbooks. We were interested to see how gender and race were portrayed and subsequently taught to undergraduate students. We focused our research on a single, randomly selected chapter from each textbook and, using independent coders for each chapter, counted the number of times women and men were mentioned both as researchers or originators of theories, and as illustrative examples of a concept. We also coded for the race and gender of individuals depicted in the images within each chapter.
Our findings, while perhaps not surprising, were certainly disheartening. Women and people of color were underrepresented relative to men and White people. In addition, women were named as researchers far less than as examples, while the opposite was true for men. Although this analysis is limited to social psychology textbooks, the findings seem to suggest that textbook authors are placing men and White individuals at the forefront of our discipline while perhaps overlooking the contributions of other groups.
The implications are numerous, but two stand out. For one, the underrepresentation of women and people of color conveys the false sense that individuals from these groups do not make “classic” contributions to psychology, when in fact their more politically charged contributions get coded as classics in marginalized sub-disciplines such as feminist, Black, or postcolonial psychology. Second, to attract and retain individuals that have been excluded from practicing psychology because of a variety of sociohistorical reasons, it is important to integrate explicit messages of inclusivity into our teaching materials. This is especially important because these textbooks are many students’ first point of interaction with the discipline of psychology. Textbook authors need to be aware that the information they choose to present also tacitly represents the values of psychology. Authors should thus strive to curate the information that conveys the key content of their discipline in a way that also conveys its key values.