June 08, 2011

Few Good Men

The New York Times recently published an article about the pervasive lack of male psychologists and psychotherapists. It's unequivocally true that clinical psychology has become a female profession: about 95% of the students in my PhD program are women, and the majority of the psychologists at the research centre where I work are female. This gender disparity is new: at least half of my professors and supervisors are male and most of my female professors and supervisors are relatively young, indicating that a shift occurred in the last generation.

Following the NYT article, a Psychology Today blogger wrote that the evacuation of men from psychologist and psychotherapist positions corresponds to the increased difficulty of earning a good living in these professions. Men seem to be less willing or less able to afford to work in low paying jobs. Moreover, the decreased proportion of men in psychology corresponds to a decrease in the field's status and prestige. The same blogger wrote that, rather than being seen as respected and qualified health care experts, clinical psychologists are viewed as part of a generic mass of mental health workers, indistinguishable from counselors, social workers, and other professionals who do not enjoy the power of psychiatrists to prescribe medication. (NB: psychiatry has not witnessed a gender shift to the same extent.)

Does it matter if your psychologist is male or female? Is one gender better suited than the other to deal with certain issues?  Another Psych Today blogger argues that the overrepresentation of women in the field is problematic because it decreases the appeal of psychotherapy to men. Men are already traditionally reluctant to seek therapy, and the inability to find a male therapist may discourage them from getting the help they need. This is a plausible argument: male would-be clients might feel more comfortable speaking with a male therapist about sexual dysfunction, anger or dominance issues, or the pressures of fatherhood,. That said, men may feel more comfortable opening up to a female therapist about less "manly" problems like sadness, fear, and anxiety. Similarly, female clients may feel less confident in a male therapist's capacity to understand body image issues or motherhood or fertility issues, but more comfortable disclosing to a male therapist about traditionally unfeminine issues like aggression or partner abuse.

But if men need male therapists and women need female therapists to properly understand their experience, do disabled people need disabled therapists, visible minorities need visible minority therapists, and elderly people need elderly therapists? As someone who is pro-therapy, to some degree I believe that anything that encourages someone who needs help to get help is good. That is, if the prospect of having a therapist who looks like you or is of your gender will encourage you to seek therapy, that's positive. However, this type of client-therapist matching introduces the risk of a client (or therapist) assuming that her South Asian therapist (or client) has had the same South Asian experience as her, or that his blind therapist has had the same blind experience as him, creating a significant risk of stereotyping, misunderstanding, and disappointment.

Our training as psychologists is supposed to be broad enough to allow us to be empathetic and helpful to clients of both genders and of a wide variety of experiences and walks of life. I have never had a male psychotherapist: I've had a few good and a few bad female therapists, but I can't say that any of them seemed particularly suited or particularly poor at helping me address my problems because of their gender.

Would you prefer a therapist of your own gender? How come?


  1. As a male my expectation is that a male therapist would identify more readily with the emotions and thoughts I have. You can explain what you're thinking or feeling to someone but regardless of their training or level of experience they may only be able to try to understand. I'd assume that having someone who can identify with your feelings would strengthen the experience and enable you discuss it more deeply. Is this valid?

  2. Sameness can be important if you think a counsellor might otherwise wrongly see the shared aspect as a disorder or a symptom. I liked finding a queer therapist because it saved me a level of screening I've had to do with others. No one ever failed that screening for me, but doing it, and feeling like I needed to, was stressful.