Erin E. Woods, Alexandra Gantt-Howrey, Amber L. Pope
To better understand how women portray obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) on social media, we conducted a critical content analysis of TikTok videos. We examined a sample of 50 TikTok videos tagged with “#OCD” that were created by women, yielding two themes and multiple subthemes: 1) minimizes OCD symptoms and 1a) uses OCD as a synonym for cleanliness and organization; 2) accurately depicts OCD symptoms, 2a) corrects misunderstanding, and 2b) shares obsessive fears. Results revealed that TikToks perpetuating stigma about OCD were prevalent, though women also posted TikToks presenting OCD in more accurate and comprehensive ways. Implications for mental health counselors are explained.
Keywords: obsessive-compulsive disorder, TikTok, women, content analysis, stigma
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often used in the popular vernacular to describe someone who likes things tidy or who is particular about a certain issue. Individuals commonly use phrases like “I’m so OCD” as captions of social media posts (Pavelko & Myrick, 2016), which may perpetuate stigma and misunderstanding about this complicated condition. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), OCD is a serious mental health condition that often results in significant impairment and distress due to the presence of time-consuming obsessions and compulsion (APA, 2022; Fennell & Liberato, 2007). Obsessions are urges, images, or thoughts that are unwanted, distressing, intrusive, and repetitive (APA, 2022) and may adhere to certain themes, such as doubt, contamination, harm, religious ideas, unwanted sexual thoughts, perfectionism, or fear of losing control (Clark & Radomsky, 2014; International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation [IOCDF], n.d.b.). Moreover, due to the distressing nature of obsessions, individuals with OCD often try to ignore, neutralize, or suppress these thoughts through compulsive acts—repeated mental or behavioral actions that individuals feel they must do to reduce the distress associated with obsessions or to prevent an undesirable event from occurring. Compulsions usually adhere to strict rules, are excessive, and are not realistically related to the concern they attempt to prevent or eliminate. Compulsions often are classified into common groupings, such as checking, cleaning, ordering or repeating, and/or mental actions (APA, 2022; Starcevic et al., 2011). According to prevalence data, women are slightly more likely than men to be diagnosed with OCD in adulthood and often experience later symptom onset than men (APA, 2022).
Appropriate diagnosis and effective treatment of OCD often takes an average of 17 years (IOCDF, n.d.a). Individuals with OCD often delay seeking treatment because of concerns of being viewed in a negative manner and the fear of stigma related to being diagnosed with a mental health disorder (Belloch et al., 2009; Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017). Conceptualization of OCD ranges from viewing OCD as a less serious concern compared to other mental health disorders, to deeming OCD a chronic illness, to considering OCD as a positive trait. The medicalization of OCD may help individuals feel less stigmatized by identifying OCD as an illness (Fennell & Liberato, 2007). As Fennell and Liberato noted, “Societal conceptions [of OCD] are constantly relevant to respondents, affecting their self-conception and anticipated stigma” (p. 327). To this effect, accurate portrayal of OCD and factually based education for the public have been noted as important action steps to reduce stigma (Webb et al., 2016).
The stigma associated with OCD impacts the disclosure of symptoms to others, including social supports as well as mental health providers. Some may hide their OCD symptoms or make excuses for their behavior out of shame or embarrassment. Further, some individuals report negative perceptions or reactions after disclosing their OCD diagnosis to friends, family, or employers (Fennell & Liberato, 2007). However, some individuals benefit from disclosing symptoms of OCD to their support systems, and others find it helpful to engage and interact with people who also have an OCD diagnosis. Hence, societal conceptions of OCD can impact how individuals cope with their symptoms, including help-seeking behaviors (Fennell & Boyd, 2014; Ma, 2017; Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017).
OCD Representations on Social Media
Researchers have called for continued examination of the representation of OCD in the media, particularly on social media platforms (Pavelko & Myrick, 2016; Robinson et al., 2019). Although increased social media discussions about OCD may decrease stigma, the often trivial nature of such depictions downplays the seriousness of this disorder (Fennell & Liberato, 2007). For instance, Robinson and colleagues (2019) explored attitudes toward five mental health and five physical health diagnoses on Twitter and found OCD to have the highest rate of trivialization of the 10 disorders, concluding that minimization of OCD symptoms and related suffering is a form of stigma.
How individuals describe OCD in the common vernacular on social media impacts societal conceptualizations of OCD (Fennell & Boyd, 2014; Pavelko & Myrick, 2016). In a quantitative study examining the use of “#OCD” on Twitter, Pavelko and Myrick (2016) identified post after post in which Twitter users employed “#OCD” when referring to non-disordered actions, such as organizing pencils. Tweets labeled “#OCD” were presented to participants, assessing their emotional reactions, stereotypes about OCD, and behavioral intentions to support individuals with OCD after reviewing the hashtagged tweets. Participants indicated increased irritation and decreased sympathy when OCD was framed in trivial language (i.e., language downplaying the seriousness of OCD) versus objective clinical language in the tweets. Further, these correlations varied by gender of the tweeter, with participants reporting increased negative emotional reactivity to women who utilized trivial language rather than to men. Pavelko and Myrick concluded that “Messages regarding trifling, detail-oriented behaviors frequently belittle or downplay the severity of OCD in 140 characters or less” (p. 42).
In a qualitative study, Fennell and Boyd (2014) examined how media portrayals of OCD were interpreted by individuals who have been diagnosed with or believe they have OCD. Similar to Pavelko and Myrick’s (2016) findings, participants reported feeling frustrated by the seemingly casual use of “OCD” in the vernacular and by depictions of OCD that were presented in stereotypical and comedic manners, at times making light of the symptoms (Fennell & Boyd, 2014). Participants noted users exhibited certain symptoms of OCD more frequently than others, namely contamination obsessions, washing and cleaning compulsions, and hoarding behaviors, all of which may portray OCD as a habit rather than a disorder. However, participants expressed appreciation for depictions of OCD in the media, acknowledging that media portrayals helped them identify what they were experiencing as OCD. Hence, media representations of OCD are varied and complex, eliciting mixed emotional reactions and divergent understandings of OCD from individuals who are consuming those messages (Fennell & Boyd, 2014; Pavelko & Myrick, 2016).
Moreover, OCD and associated symptoms are frequently misunderstood, even among mental health professionals who are trained to diagnose the disorder. In a quantitative study of mental health counselors and graduate students, participants exhibited stigma toward OCD symptoms related to sexual thoughts, violent thoughts, and contamination (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017). Further, Glazier et al. (2013) found issues pertaining to the accurate and timely diagnosis of OCD among APA members due to misidentification of OCD symptoms. In this quantitative study, participants were asked to provide a diagnosis for five case vignettes, each depicting various OCD obsessive symptoms. There was a 38.9% misidentification rate of OCD across the vignettes, with variation in rates based on the symptoms presented in each vignette. The vignette describing symptoms related to contamination was misidentified at the lowest rate of 15.8%, although the vignette describing symptoms of obsessions related to “homosexuality” was misdiagnosed at a rate of 77.0% (Glazier et al., 2013). In sum, OCD is an often stigmatized and misunderstood disorder, resulting in challenges for individuals living with OCD and for mental health counselors attempting to accurately diagnose OCD in their clients (Fennell & Boyd, 2014; Fennell & Liberato, 2007; Glazier et al., 2013; Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017).
TikTok: Social Media Phenomenon and Social Change Agent
Although researchers have explored the use of the term OCD in the vernacular and on social media, along with associated impacts on people living with OCD (Fennell & Boyd, 2014), researchers have yet to explore how particular mental health diagnoses such as OCD are portrayed and discussed on TikTok, a popular social media application, or “app,” released globally in 2017 (Iqbal, 2022). TikTok’s content consists of brief videos created by users, which can be viewed and interacted with by other users (Anderson, 2020). TikTok uses an algorithm to show users videos that appeal to their interests. Users interact on the platform through likes, comments, reactions, and direct messages. Hashtags are added to videos to help individuals search for specific types of content. To have full access to TikTok, a user must have an active account; individuals with accounts can create a profile page, which can be used with various privacy settings (Anderson, 2020). The scope of TikTok is vast, reaching an average of 689 million users worldwide every month, with 100 million users in the United States (Iqbal, 2022). According to Iqbal (2022), TikTok reached over 1.4 billion users in 2022. The app is frequented by individuals of various ages, nationalities, genders, and socioeconomic statuses and in 2022, TikTok was downloaded over 3.3 billion times (Iqbal, 2022).
Based on TikTok’s wide reach, it is reasonable to assume that content shared on the app has implications for how society views certain topics, including mental health disorders, as meaning is constructed through interactions with others on the application. Vitikainen et al. (2020) described TikTok as a social change agent, noting that despite the app’s ban on political campaign–related content, users have utilized TikTok for political movements, such as joining together to sabotage a Donald Trump rally in 2020 (Lorenz et al., 2020). Further, TikTok videos and hashtags were used to spread information about wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic (Basch, Fera, et al., 2021). The World Health Organization TikTok videos related to wearing a mask were viewed over 57 million times, and just 100 TikToks with the hashtag “#WearaMask” were viewed over 500 million times (Basch, Fera, et al., 2021).
As the app has such an extensive user base, “TikTok has great potential in conveying important public health messages to various segments of the population” (Basch, Fera, et al., 2021, para. 18). It stands to reason that if TikTok videos can influence social action and aid in the spread of public health information, they also could be a powerful tool in either upholding or dismantling misunderstanding and stigma around mental health disorders such as OCD. However, researchers have highlighted the existence of misinformation on popular social media platforms, including TikTok (Sharevski et al., 2023). For example, in various studies on COVID-19 information conveyed via TikTok, researchers found that much of the information is misinformation (Basch, Meleo-Erwin, et al., 2021; McCashin & Murphy, 2022). Sharevski et al. (2023) found that in viewing TikToks that included debunked abortion misinformation, approximately 30% of participants believed the information to be true. These findings highlight the prevalence of health-related misinformation on TikTok and related implications for professionals and the general public alike. Therefore, to better understand current social discourse around OCD, we conducted a content analysis to answer the following research question: How are women portraying OCD on TikTok?
We conducted a deductive, qualitative content analysis of 50 TikTok videos to examine how OCD is being discussed and portrayed by women on the large-scale social media platform of TikTok, which encompasses the power to disrupt stigma and influence the narratives attributed to OCD. Our decision to utilize content analysis was influenced by the use of this methodology in existing literature exploring OCD and media (Fennell & Boyd, 2014; Robinson et al., 2019), and a content analysis aligned with our intent to interpret women’s portrayal of OCD through social discourse on TikTok. A content analysis is a systematic yet flexible process utilized to derive meaning from a set of data (Schreier, 2014). Qualitative content analysis is aligned with social constructivism and is concerned with exploring the “meaning and interpretation . . . of symbolic material, [and] the importance of context in determining meaning” (Schreier, 2014, p. 173). To describe meaning from our sample of TikTok videos, we followed the steps of a qualitative content analysis (Schreier, 2014): define the research question; select the content to analyze; develop a coding frame; segment and trial code the data; evaluate the coding frame; conduct the main analysis; and interpret and present the findings.
After determining our research question, we selected TikTok videos that met the following criteria: a) the TikTok video included the hashtag OCD (#OCD), and b) the primary person in the video presented as a woman and/or included she/her pronouns in their profile bio. We chose to focus on individuals presenting as women in this study because OCD symptomology varies based on gender in studies comparing cisgender women to cisgender men, with women having slightly higher rates of OCD diagnoses than men. Further, women exhibit cleaning-related symptoms more often than men (APA, 2022), and excessive cleanliness is commonly displayed in media depictions of OCD (Fennell & Boyd, 2014). Women also have unique experiences related to the intersectionality of gender, social discourse, and mental health diagnosis and treatment, or lack thereof (Bondi & Burman, 2001; Robinson et al., 2019). Further, women’s trivialization of OCD on social media may elicit stronger negative emotional reactions from consumers, such as annoyance and decreased sympathy toward individuals with OCD (Pavelko & Myrick, 2016).
We chose the 50 TikTok videos with the most views for our sample (Dworkin, 2012). We were able to determine these videos by searching for “#OCD” within the TikTok app in February 2021. The sample was analyzed in March 2021. Similarly, in another content analysis, Fowler et al. (2021) selected the first 50 TikTok videos using a particular hashtag for their sample. They noted the influence of the TikTok algorithm, as the algorithm determines which videos are shown and in which order. Moreover, we determined the sample size based on other studies that engaged qualitative methods to analyze videos on various social media platforms, some of which utilized a sample size of fewer than 50 (Fowler et al., 2021; Johnson et al., 2019, 2021; Wallis, 2011). Next, we deductively determined codes in a concept-driven way (Schreier, 2014) based on the extant literature surrounding OCD, stigma, and popular understanding of the diagnosis. These initial codes were stigma perpetuated and accurate information about OCD shared. It is important to note that at the time of data analysis, the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was the DSM-5 (APA, 2013). The DSM-5-TR (APA, 2022) was released in 2022; however, there were no updates to the OCD diagnostic criteria in the text revision.
The research team identified more codes during the review of the data, and we altered codes to be more specific to the data, including daily routine, checking OCD, and feeling misunderstood. During the segmentation phase of the coding process, the research team divided the data into individual units, or segments, based on a thematic criterion. More specifically, we divided the larger chunks of data (i.e., the entirety of what was said in a TikTok) into individual units (i.e., sentences) based on the aforementioned codes. Next, we went through a pilot round of coding using the predetermined codes on approximately 50% of the data. We evaluated and made changes to the coding frame as necessary, developing more specific codes to best represent the data. From there, we proceeded to the main analysis phase, in which the research team coded all data according to our final coding framework and determined themes and subthemes based on the coded data. Each team member individually determined themes, and then the team members met to compare, discuss, and alter the themes until we reached consensus on the themes and subthemes that best represented the data. Of the total sample, 48 videos comprise the two final categories.
The research team for the content analysis consisted of the first two authors of this article, Erin E. Woods and Alexandra Gantt-Howrey, who are cisgender heterosexual (cishet) White women and are mental health counselors familiar with OCD. To increase trustworthiness, Woods and Gantt-Howrey practiced weekly reflexive journaling to become more aware of and bracket our biases throughout the data analysis, with the recognition that bias cannot be completely bracketed (Creswell, 2003). As part of the reflexive journaling process, we recognized and considered various sociocultural factors at play in our own lives, including our existence as cishet White women in the United States. Moreover, we identified various biases and expectations we held, including expectations of seeing OCD used as a non-clinical descriptor, previous knowledge related to OCD misdiagnosis and misunderstanding, and the belief that OCD should be used only in reference to the actual disorder. In an attempt to bracket these biases throughout the data analysis process, we engaged in frequent dialogue with one another to consider and evaluate assumptions that arose during the data analysis. Finally, to increase trustworthiness, the third author, Amber L. Pope, a licensed mental health counselor and counselor educator who identifies as a cishet White woman, acted as an auditor and reviewed the final themes and subthemes according to the data (Creswell, 2003). More specifically, Pope reviewed the data as well as the themes and subthemes developed by Woods and Gantt-Howrey. Pope then offered feedback on the results (e.g., use of theme names to accurately represent the data), and Woods and Gantt-Howrey integrated Pope’s feedback into the final results presented below.
This investigation explored how women communicate about OCD on TikTok. Two themes and three subthemes emerged from the data: 1) minimizes OCD symptoms and 1a) uses OCD as a synonym for cleanliness and organization; 2) accurately depicts OCD symptoms, 2a) corrects misunderstanding, and 2b) shares obsessive fears. A clear dichotomy was found: Many TikTok videos depicted women using OCD as an inaccurate descriptor, perpetuating stigma surrounding the diagnosis, while others shared factually based information in alignment with the DSM-5 description of OCD, often representing their own experiences with OCD. Below, our findings are illustrated with rich descriptions from the data.
Minimizes OCD Symptoms
The first category, minimizes OCD symptoms, describes participants’ portrayals of OCD in a way that either minimized or negated symptom severity, and/or described the disorder in a manner that does not align with the DSM-5 definition of OCD. Twenty-eight videos (56%) from the sample are included in this category. Many TikToks in this category used the term “OCD” as a synonym for being very clean or organized, or to portray an unrelated phenomenon, such as collecting items or creating a spreadsheet. One TikTok of a woman describing her father exemplifies this misuse of the term “OCD”: “This is my dad and he has a problem . . . because he has the OCD. And you might have it too if your 800-count DVD collection is in alphabetical order from ‘8 Mile’ to ‘Young Frankenstein.’” This quote is representative of the trivialization of the OCD diagnosis. Moreover, a TikTok about a mother’s feelings of frustration over her daughter’s messy painting further demonstrates the stigma perpetuated by many TikTok videos, as the mother stated:
Do any other moms relate to the extreme anxiety this gives me? I can sit here and watch but I’m dying on the inside. This is very hard for me. But I will sit here . . . and not let my anxiety and OCD get the best of me.
Uses OCD as a Synonym for Cleanliness and Organization
The subcategory uses OCD as a synonym for cleanliness and organization represents TikTok videos in which women used OCD as a descriptor for a clean person, and includes 10 of the 28 videos in this category. Building upon the first category, minimizes OCD symptoms, this subcategory further demonstrates explanations, examples, and use of the term OCD in ways that do not accurately describe the disorder. A popular audio clip was utilized frequently in our sample and was often paired with visual content of individuals organizing or cleaning various objects and spaces. The woman in the audio stated:
When they come into my house and they also think that I am a sociopath, that I take the time to do this once a month. Like, you know what? You say OCD is a disease, I say it’s a blessing.
Through equating OCD to “a blessing” and also trivializing the term “sociopath” to simply describe someone who is well-organized, such TikTok videos minimize the OCD diagnosis and the experiences of individuals with OCD, equating the disorder to something it is not—a proclivity for cleanliness and organization. Furthermore, other TikToks with #OCD were solely about cleaning or organizing. A woman in one TikTok described a “bathroom hack for a deep clean” as she displayed bleach and a bowl of hot water. In another TikTok, these words crossed the screen for the viewer to read: “*My bff being messy*” and, subsequently, “*My OCD kicking in*,” while the video displays an unmade bed.
Accurately Depicts OCD Symptoms
The second category, accurately depicts OCD symptoms, is defined as women portraying information that aligns with the DSM-5 description of OCD symptom constellations and current research on OCD. Twenty videos (40%) comprise this category. Women in the TikToks in this category typically indicated they had an OCD diagnosis, describing their unique experiences with OCD and explaining how their symptoms align with the DSM-5 definition. For example, TikToks in our sample represented the following aspects of the DSM-5 symptoms of OCD (APA, 2013): recurrent intrusive thoughts, performance of a compulsion, and “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (p. 237). For example, one TikTok begins with the words “Live with ______ for a day” across the screen. A woman is then pictured “selecting” OCD from a variety of mental health diagnoses. In other TikToks, users describe their compulsions, such as a woman narrating her need to perform various rituals like choosing a certain color shirt, or another in which a woman flips a light switch repeatedly.
The first subcategory, corrects misunderstanding, encompasses videos in which women with OCD sought to correct misinformation or inaccurate portrayals about OCD. Eight of the 20 videos from the second category are included in this subcategory. The following quote demonstrates a woman debunking popular misconceptions of OCD symptoms: “What people think OCD is *picture of an organized desk.* What it’s like for me: *woman spraying perfume.* My brain: ‘spray it 3 times or your mum will die.’” In another TikTok, a woman lamented the prevalent, stigmatized view of OCD:
OCD is not cute. She doesn’t wear big glasses and chunky sweaters while she neatly lines up her stationary in color order. She’s probably the most misunderstood disorder, to the point where people nonchalantly use her name to describe a neat person.
Importantly, the speaker describes OCD as “misunderstood,” directly contradicting the previously described “version” of OCD as simply a proclivity for neatness or organization.
Shares Obsessive Fears
In this subcategory, shares obsessive fears, women provided more specific information and details in their TikToks to depict OCD in a more holistic, accurate manner. Eleven videos are included in this subcategory. The fears women shared included the deaths of loved ones, losing one’s job, accidentally setting one’s house on fire, losing a relationship, and not locking one’s front door. One woman’s TikTok portrayed the intrusive thoughts and subsequent fears she experienced frequently:
Documenting a side of OCD that people don’t usually see: Did I tell my mom I love her before she went to bed? What if she dies on the way to work tomorrow? Should I wake her up and tell her just in case? No, that will make her mad. Wait, but did I lock the doors? Did my sister make it home safe? She didn’t text me; her location is off. Oh, she’s fine; she just responded. Should I check the locks?
This quote demonstrates the intrusive thoughts that individuals with OCD often experience. More specifically, the intrusive thoughts in this example include fears such as death of a loved one, uncertainty, and potential lack of safety for self and others.
The purpose of this study was to increase understanding of how women are portraying OCD on TikTok to inform counselors on the current social discourse around OCD. Our findings substantiate the extant literature and provide new insight, possibilities, and practice implications given this novel exploration of how women discuss OCD on TikTok. The categories that emerged from our content analysis reveal the variety in the types of TikToks women created and hashtagged with the term “OCD,” with the two main themes being minimizes OCD symptoms, demonstrating the trivialization of OCD by women on TikTok, and accurately depicts OCD symptoms, in which women attempted to correct inaccurate perceptions about OCD by sharing their own experiences and factual information about the diagnosis. Our results also suggested that women with an OCD diagnosis shared more factually based depictions of the disorder than the women who did not indicate a diagnosis in their TikTok videos. Our findings of two dichotomous themes are unsurprising given other findings on health-related misinformation on TikTok (e.g., Basch, Meleo-Erwin, et al., 2021; McCashin & Murphy, 2022), yielding opportunities for professionals to provide accurate information on the platform.
The majority of women whose content fell in the accurately depicts OCD symptoms theme indicated they had an OCD diagnosis. These women corrected misinformation about OCD and also shared their own experiences of living with OCD, depicting the seriousness and pervasiveness of their obsessive thoughts. Our results indicate that women with OCD may desire to see OCD portrayed correctly in the media, in ways that are different from the stereotypical or comedic depictions often prevalent in mainstream media (Fennell & Boyd, 2014). These negative stereotypes may contribute to women’s oppression through the perpetuation of misinformation. Women with OCD also may be motivated by the fear of stigma (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017) and the desire to have their mental health diagnosis taken seriously. Fennell and Liberato (2007) noted the importance of societal conceptions of OCD to those with the diagnosis; therefore, the creators in our sample may be motivated to alter the popular understanding and trivialization of OCD (Pavelko & Myrick, 2016; Robinson et al., 2019) through their TikTok content as a result of living with the disorder themselves and the impact of their OCD symptoms on their functioning. Moreover, motivation to post publicly about one’s experience with OCD may help women connect with others (Fennell & Liberato, 2007) through a large social media platform.
Yet our other main theme of minimizes OCD symptoms supports findings from previous research (e.g., Pavelko & Myrick, 2016; Robinson et al., 2019) that OCD is frequently depicted in the media and popular culture in a manner that minimizes the symptomatology or severity of OCD symptoms. Our results illustrate that the content created by women on TikTok often portrays OCD as synonymous with cleanliness and organization, hence trivializing OCD symptoms. Multiple TikToks (n = 4) utilized a popular audio: “You say OCD is a disease; I say it’s a blessing,” over a video of someone organizing, often some sort of household item, which aligns with previous findings that OCD is typically portrayed in the media by characters with washing and cleaning compulsions (Fennell & Boyd, 2014). Additionally, multiple videos in the uses OCD as a synonym for cleanliness or organization subtheme included language and descriptions that stigmatized cleaning symptoms, such as “*My bff being messy*,” *My OCD kicking in*,” and “I literally saved my toothbrush to like get the corners and clean cuz I’m OCD.” Despite cleanliness being the most visible depiction of OCD (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017) and more often seen in women with OCD than in men (APA, 2022), the way these symptoms are portrayed do not holistically represent OCD or encompass the potential effects of this disorder and instead contribute to the continued trivialization of this disorder.
Our findings yield various implications for counselors and future research. Because of the popularity and breadth of TikTok content, both clients and counselors are likely to use the app and subsequently view TikToks that contain minimizing, trivializing, or stigmatizing information about OCD. Counselors are not immune to holding stigmatizing views about OCD (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017). Exposure to trivializing content may influence how counselors view OCD symptoms and the severity of OCD with their clients, potentially contributing to misdiagnosing OCD. Our results indicate cleanliness and organization were the common depictions of OCD on TikTok, which could result in counselors having a limited understanding of OCD symptomatology and misidentifying other types of OCD symptoms that fall into groupings such as unwanted sexual thoughts or religious obsessions (Glazier et al., 2013). Mental health counselors responded with social rejection and general concerns to case vignettes of clients with contamination obsessions and cleaning compulsions (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017); consumption of social media that equates OCD to cleanliness and organization could perpetuate similar stigmas toward OCD among counselors.
For clients, exposure to content that trivializes and/or stigmatizes OCD may lead to hesitancy to seek treatment (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017) or even a failure to recognize one’s symptoms as indicative of a mental health issue (Fennell & Liberato, 2007). Hence, our results stress the importance of counselors increasing their knowledge of OCD in its various presentations and examining their own beliefs and biases toward OCD symptoms, recognizing that our reactions as counselors may impact how clients choose to present or hide their symptoms of OCD out of fear of stigmatization. During the mental health assessment process, counselors may want to ask clients displaying OCD symptoms questions related to their perceptions of the disorder such as, “How have you seen OCD depicted by characters on TV or in the movies?” or “What do you believe about OCD according to what you have seen/read on social media?” For clients who indicate inaccurate or negative conceptualization of OCD, psychoeducation may be useful to correct misinformation or misconceptions about OCD that clients obtained from the media. Counselors also may want to help clients develop media literacy skills, particularly for clients who consume a lot of social media, so clients can effectively analyze and reflect on the messages they encounter regarding OCD.
To enhance counselors’ knowledge of OCD, counselor educators can use the portrayals of OCD on social media to inform classroom discussion and activities when teaching about mental health diagnosis. For example, counselor educators can ask students to describe what they have seen about OCD in the media and explore how these examples do or do not align with the DSM-5 description of OCD. Counselor educators also can encourage students to explore their own biases and perceptions about OCD, which may help reduce the stigma held by mental health counselors related to OCD symptoms (Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017) and increase accurate diagnosis of OCD (Glazier et al., 2013).
Further, our results demonstrate the importance of public education to decrease stigma related to mental health disorders (Webb et al., 2016), particularly targeted to individuals who do not have an OCD diagnosis, as they may be more likely to share or create trivializing content. As Fennell and Liberato (2007) stated, “the need for more public information on the lived experience of OCD and mental ‘disorders’ cannot be stressed enough” (p. 328). TikTok shows great potential to spread health information (Basch, Fera, et al., 2021), and this social media platform could be utilized to help share more accurate depictions of OCD. For example, counselors, individuals with OCD, and other advocates may consider utilizing the power of a targeted “hashtag” campaign, with the goal of reducing stigma toward OCD through countering the impact of stigmatizing content (Robinson et al., 2019). This type of positive and factual representation of OCD also may help to combat societal inequalities that can be perpetuated through the stigmatization and trivialization of OCD, and hashtag campaigns may be enacted by individuals and larger counseling organizations alike.
TikTok has a unique feature called “stitch” that allows users to combine another user’s video with the one they are creating. Some counselors are already using the “stitch” function as a means of psychoeducation and advocacy to correct misconceptions of mental health in TikTok videos, where counselors can directly connect their educated responses to the original video that contained inaccurate information. To effectively challenge the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses, counselors need to be aware of the current public discourse occurring on social media platforms and use this information to develop advocacy-based interventions. In line with the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics (2014), counselors should consider other means of engaging in advocacy to benefit those diagnosed with OCD, such as providing public education in their local contexts and supporting public policies that could help provide affordable treatment of the disorder. The IOCDF’s Advocate Program (IOCDF, 2022) may prove to be a beneficial resource for such work.
Concerning future research, we suggest utilizing a larger sample of TikTok videos, analyzing social media content on other platforms, and including gender-expansive individuals and cisgender men as part of the sample to gather more perspectives. Additionally, researchers can compare who is creating the social media content and where accurate or inaccurate portrayals of OCD are occurring on social media. Quantitative research may provide more insight into how individuals with an OCD diagnosis create media content compared to those who do not have a diagnosis. Understanding the nuances in how OCD is portrayed across platforms or creators can enhance counselors’ knowledge of how to use social media as appropriate resources or social connections for their clients with OCD. Finally, more information on how OCD is depicted on social media can help counselors better recognize the messages their clients receive about OCD when using social media and improve their ability to correct the unreliable information their clients consume on these platforms.
Various limitations should be taken into consideration. Given the nature of qualitative research, the findings of this study cannot be generalized to larger groups. We did not obtain IRB approval for this study, given that we used publicly available information for our data, and we did not directly contact the video creators to clarify gender identity, OCD diagnosis, or other demographic information that would have enhanced the description of our sample or allowed us to explore how intersectionality impacts depictions of OCD. Because we did not gather demographic information, we determined inclusion based on the individuals’ presentation as a woman and/or use of she/her pronouns in their profile, and our results are based solely on the content the women disclosed in their videos. For example, we cannot conclusively determine that women with a diagnosis share more accurate information about OCD on TikTok as compared to those without a diagnosis. Additionally, we did not contact the creators to gain a more thorough understanding of their intended message when creating the video. Finally, it should be noted that by utilizing the 50 most viewed TikToks with #OCD, videos that were less widely viewed and shared were not included in our sample, perhaps limiting our understanding of more nuanced portrayals of OCD on TikTok. Utilizing the most viewed TikToks as our sample may have contributed to the resulting dichotomous themes, capturing only the predominant trends of minimizing or accurately depicting OCD symptoms.
OCD is a serious and often debilitating mental health disorder (APA, 2022) that is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented in mainstream culture (Pavelko & Myrick, 2016; Steinberg & Wetterneck, 2017). Through a content analysis of TikTok videos created by women with the hashtag “OCD,” our resulting themes and subthemes revealed a mix of perpetuating stereotypes and minimizing OCD symptoms and of sharing accurate information and personal experiences concerning OCD. These findings can assist counselors and counselor educators to better understand the types of social media content clients are viewing and potential harmful messages clients may internalize about OCD through exposure to media. Further, counselors should consider their own consumption of social media and examine their perceptions of and biases toward OCD throughout the treatment process. Likewise, counselor educators should adjust their pedagogy to encourage student exploration of misconceptions and enhance training in how to accurately diagnose and treat OCD in their future work as mental health counselors. Although social media can perpetuate stigma, it can also be used as a tool for powerful positive change, and we encourage all readers to consider the accuracy of the content they post on social media when it comes to depicting mental health disorders.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Erin E. Woods, PhD, LPC, serves as Clinic Director at the College of William & Mary. Alexandra Gantt-Howrey, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at New Mexico State University. Amber L. Pope, PhD, LPC, LMHC, CCTP, is an assistant professor at the College of William & Mary. Correspondence may be addressed to Alexandra Gantt-Howrey, P.O. Box 30001, MSC 3AC, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88003, email@example.com.
Melissa J. Fickling, Matthew Graden, Jodi L. Tangen
The purpose of this phenomenological study was to explore how feminist-identified counselor educators understand and experience power in counselor education. Thirteen feminist women were interviewed. We utilized a loosely structured interview protocol to elicit participant experiences with the phenomenon of power in the context of counselor education. From these data, we identified an essential theme of analysis of power. Within this theme, we identified five categories: (a) definitions and descriptions of power, (b) higher education context and culture, (c) uses and misuses of power, (d) personal development around power, and (e) considerations of potential backlash. These categories and their subcategories are illustrated through narrative synthesis and participant quotations. Findings point to a pressing need for more rigorous self-reflection among counselor educators and counseling leadership, as well as greater accountability for using power ethically.
Keywords: counselor education, power, phenomenological, feminist, women
The American Counseling Association (ACA; 2014) defined counseling, in part, as “a professional relationship that empowers” (p. 20). Empowerment is a process that begins with awareness of power dynamics (McWhirter, 1994). Power is widely recognized in counseling’s professional standards, competencies, and best practices (ACA, 2014; Association for Counselor Education and Supervision [ACES], 2011; Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP], 2015) as something about which counselors, supervisors, counselor educators, and researchers should be aware (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014). However, little is known about how power is perceived by counselor educators who, by necessity, operate in many different professional roles with their students
(e.g., teacher, supervisor, mentor).
In public discourse, power may carry different meaning when associated with men or women. According to a Pew Research Center poll (K. Walker et al., 2018) of 4,573 Americans, people are much more likely to use the word “powerful” in a positive way to describe men (67% positive) than women (8% positive). It is possible that these associations are also present among counselors-in-training, professional counselors, and counselor educators.
Dickens and colleagues (2016) found that doctoral students in counselor education are aware of power dynamics and the role of power in their relationships with faculty. Marginalized counselor educators, too, experienced a lack of power in certain academic contexts and noted the salience of their intersecting identities as relevant to the experience of power (Thacker et al., 2021). Thus, faculty members in counselor education may have a large role to play in socializing new professional counselors in awareness of power and positive uses of power, and thus could benefit from openly exploring uses of power in their academic lives.
Feminist Theory and Power in Counseling and Counselor Education
The concept of power is explored most consistently in feminist literature (Brown, 1994; Miller, 2008). Although power is understood differently in different feminist spaces and disciplinary contexts (Lloyd, 2013), it is prominent, particularly in intersectional feminist work (Davis, 2008). In addition to examining and challenging hegemonic power structures, feminist theory also centers egalitarianism in relationships, attends to privilege and oppression along multiple axes of identity and culture, and promotes engagement in activism for social justice (Evans et al., 2005).
Most research about power in the helping professions to date has been focused on its use in clinical supervision. Green and Dekkers (2010) found discrepancies between supervisors’ and supervisees’ perceptions of power and the degree to which supervisors attend to power in supervision. Similarly, Mangione and colleagues (2011) found another discrepancy in that power was discussed by all the supervisees they interviewed, but it was mentioned by only half of the supervisors. They noted that supervisors tended to minimize the significance of power or express discomfort with the existence of power in supervision.
Whereas most researchers of power and supervision have acknowledged the supervisor’s power, Murphy and Wright (2005) found that both supervisors and supervisees have power in supervision and that when it is used appropriately and positively, power contributed to clinical growth and enhanced the supervisory relationship. Later, in an examination of self-identified feminist multicultural supervisors, Arczynski and Morrow (2017) found that anticipating and managing power was the core organizing category of their participants’ practice. All other emergent categories in their study were different strategies by which supervisors anticipated and managed power, revealing the centrality of power in feminist supervision practice. Given the utility of these findings, it seems important to extend this line of research from clinical supervision to counselor education more broadly because counselor educators can serve as models to students regarding clinical and professional behavior. Thus, understanding the nuances of power could have implications for both pedagogy and clinical practice.
Purpose of the Present Study
Given the gendered nature of perceptions of power (Rudman & Glick, 2021; K. Walker et al., 2018), and the centrality of power in feminist scholarship (Brown, 1994; Lloyd, 2013; Miller, 2008), we decided to utilize a feminist framework in the design and execution of the present study. Because power appears to be a construct that is widely acknowledged in the helping professions but rarely discussed, we hope to shed light on the meaning and experience of power for counselor educators who identify as feminist. We utilized feminist self-identification as an eligibility criterion with the intention of producing a somewhat homogenous sample of counselor educators who were likely to have thought critically about the construct of power because it figures prominently in feminist theories and models of counseling and pedagogy (Brown, 1994; Lloyd, 2013; Miller, 2008).
We used a descriptive phenomenological methodology to help generate an understanding of feminist faculty members’ lived experiences of power in the context of counselor education (Moustakas, 1994; Padilla-Díaz, 2015). Phenomenological analysis examines the individual experiences of participants and derives from them, via phenomenological reduction, the most meaningful shared elements to paint a portrait of the phenomenon for a group of people (Moustakas, 1994; Starks & Trinidad, 2007). Thus, we share our findings by telling a cohesive narrative derived from the data via themes and subthemes identified by the researchers.
After receiving IRB approval, we recruited counselor educators via the CESNET listserv who were full-time faculty members (e.g., visiting, clinical, instructor, tenure-track, tenured) in a graduate-level counseling program. We asked for participants of any gender who self-reported that they integrated a feminist framework into their roles as counselor educators. Thirteen full-time counselor educators who self-identified as feminist agreed to be interviewed on the topic of power. All participants were women. Two feminist-identified men expressed initial interest in participating but did not respond to multiple requests to schedule an interview. The researchers did not systematically collect demographic data, relying instead on voluntary participant self-disclosure of relevant demographics during the interviews. All participants were tenured or tenure-track faculty members. Most were at the assistant professor rank (n = 9), a few were associate professors (n = 3), and one was a full professor who also held various administrative roles during her academic career (e.g., department chair, dean). During the interviews, several participants expressed concern over the high potential for their identification by readers due to their unique identities, locations, and experiences. Thus, participants will be described only in aggregate and only with the demographic identifiers volunteered by them during the interviews. The participants who disclosed their race all shared they were White. Nearly all participants disclosed holding at least one marginalized identity along the axes of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, or geography.
Once participants gave informed consent, phone interviews were scheduled. After consent to record was obtained, interviewers began the interviews, which lasted between 45–75 minutes. We utilized an unstructured interview format to avoid biasing the data collection to specific domains of counselor education while also aiming to generate the most personal and nuanced understandings of power directly from the participants’ lived experiences (Englander, 2012). As experienced interviewers, we were confident in our ability to actively and meaningfully engage in discourse with participants via the following prompt: “We are interested in understanding power in counselor education. Specifically, please speak to your personal and/or professional development regarding how you think about and use power, and how you see power being used in counselor education.” After the interviews, we all shared the task of transcribing the recordings verbatim, each transcribing several interviews. All potentially identifying information (e.g., names, institutional affiliations) was excluded from the interview transcripts.
Data analysis began via horizontalization of two interview transcripts by each author (Moustakas, 1994; Starks & Trinidad, 2007). Next, we began clustering meaning units into potential categories (Moustakas, 1994). This initially revealed 21 potential categories, which we discussed in the first research team meeting. We kept research notes of our meetings, in which we summarized our ongoing data analysis processes (e.g., observations, wonderings, emerging themes). These notes helped us to revisit earlier thinking around thematic clustering and how categories interrelated. The notes did not themselves become raw data from which findings emerged. Through weekly discussions over the course of one year, the primary coders (Melissa Fickling and Matthew Graden) were able to refine the categories through dialoguing until consensus was reached, evidenced by verbal expression of mutual agreement. That is, the primary coders shared power in data analysis and sometimes tabled discussions when consensus was not reached so that each could reflect and rejoin the conversation later. As concepts were refined, early transcripts needed to be re-coded. Our attention was not on the quantification of participants or categories, but on understanding the essence of the experience of power (Englander, 2012; Moustakas, 1994). The themes and subthemes in the findings section below were a fit for all transcripts by the end of data analysis.
Researchers and Trustworthiness
Fickling and Jodi Tangen are White, cis-hetero women, and at the time of data analysis were pre-tenured counselor educators in their thirties who claimed a feminist approach in their work. Graden was a master’s student and research assistant with scholarly interests in student experiences related to gender in counseling and education. We each possess privileged and marginalized identities, which facilitate certain perspectives and blind spots when it comes to recognizing power. Thus, regular meetings before, during, and after data collection and analysis were crucial to the epoche and phenomenological reduction processes (Moustakas, 1994) in which we shared our assumptions and potential biases. Fickling and Graden met weekly throughout data collection, transcription, and analysis. After the initial research design and data collection, Tangen served primarily as auditor to the coding process by comparing raw data to emergent themes at multiple time points, reviewing the research notes written by Fickling and Graden and contributing to consensus-building dialogues when needed.
Besides remaining cognizant of the strengths and limitations of our individual positionalities with the topic and data, we shared questions and concerns with each other as they arose during data analysis. Relevant to the topic of this study, Fickling served as an administrative supervisor to Graden. This required acknowledgement of power dynamics inherent in that relationship. Graden had been a doctoral student in another discipline prior to this study and thus had firsthand context for much of what was learned about power and its presence in academia. Fickling and Graden’s relationship had not extended into the classroom or clinical supervision, providing a sort of boundary around potential complexities related to any dual relationships. To add additional trustworthiness to the findings below, we utilized thick descriptions to describe the phenomenon of interest while staying close to the data via quotations from participants. Finally, we discuss the impact and importance of the findings by highlighting implications for counselor educators.
Through the analysis process, we concluded that the essence (Moustakas, 1994)—or core theme—of the experience of power for the participants in this study is engagement in a near constant analysis of power—that of their colleagues, peers, students, as well as of their own power. Participants analyzed interactions of power within and between various contexts and roles. They shared many examples of uses of power—both observed and personally enacted—which influenced their development, as well as their teaching and supervision styles. Through the interviews, participants shared the following:
(a) definitions and descriptions of power, (b) higher education context and culture, (c) uses and misuses of power, (d) personal development around power, and (e) considerations of potential backlash. These five categories comprised the overarching theme of analysis of power and are described below with corresponding subcategories where applicable, identified in italics.
Definitions and Descriptions of Power
Participants spent much of their time defining and describing just what they meant when they discussed power. For the feminist counselor educators in this study, power is about helping. One participant, when describing power, captured this sentiment well when she said, “I think of the ability to affect change and the ability to have a meaningful impact.” Several participants shared this same idea by talking about power as the ability to have influence. Participants expressed a desire to use power to do good for others rather than to advance their personal aspirations or improve their positions. Use of power for self-promotion was referenced to a far lesser extent than using power to promote justice and equity, and any self-promotional use was generally in response to perceived personal injustice or exploitation. At times, participants described power by what it is not. One participant said, “I don’t see power as a negative. I think it can be used negatively.” Several others shared this sentiment and described power as a responsibility.
In describing power, participants identified feelings of empowerment/disempowerment (Table 1). Disempowerment was described with feeling words that captured a sense of separation and helplessness. Empowerment, on the other hand, was described as feeling energetic and connected. Not only was the language markedly different, but the shifts in vocal expression were also notable (nonverbals were not visible) when participants discussed empowerment versus disempowerment. Disempowerment sounded like defeat (e.g., breathy, monotone, low energy) whereas empowerment sounded like liveliness (e.g., resonant, full intonation, energetic).
Empowered and Disempowered Descriptors
Participants identified various types of power, including personal, positional, and institutional power. Personal power was seen as the source of the aspirational kinds of power these participants desired for themselves and others. It can exist regardless of positional or institutional power. Positional power provides the ability to influence decisions, and it is earned over time. The last type of power, institutional, is explored more through the next theme labeled higher education context and culture.
Higher Education Context and Culture
Because the focus of the study was power within counselor educators’ roles, it was impossible for participants not to discuss the context of their work environments. Thus, higher education context and culture became a salient subtheme in our findings. Higher education culture was described as “the way things are done in institutions of higher learning.” Participants referred to written/spoken and unwritten/silent rules, traditions, expectations, norms, and practices of the academic context as barriers to empowerment, though not insurmountable ones. Power was seen as intimately intertwined with difficult departmental relationships as well as the roles of rank and seniority for nearly all participants. Most also acknowledged the influence of broader sociocultural norms (i.e., local, state, national) on higher education in general, noting that institutions themselves are impacted by power dynamics.
One participant who said that untenured professors have much more power than they realize also said that “power in academia comes with rank.” This contradiction highlights the tension inherent in power, at least among those who wish to use it for the “greater good” (as stated by multiple participants) rather than for personal gain, as these participants expressed.
More than one participant described power as a form of currency in higher education. This shared experience of power as currency, either through having it or not having it, demonstrated that to gain power to do good, as described above, one must be willing or able to be seen as acceptable within the system that assigns power. Boldness was seen by participants as something that can happen once power is gained. Among non-tenured participants, this quote captures the common sentiment: “Now, once I get tenure, that can be a different conversation. I think I would feel more emboldened, more safe, if you will, to confront a colleague in that way.” The discussion of context and boldness led to the emergence of a third theme, which we titled uses and misuses of power.
Uses and Misuses of Power
Participants provided many examples of their perceptions of uses and misuses of power and linked these behaviors to their sense of ethics. Because many of the examples of uses of power were personal, unique, and potentially identifiable, participants asked that they not be shared individually in this manuscript. Ethical uses of power were described as specific ways in which participants remembered power being used for good such as intervention in unfair policies on behalf of students. Ethical uses of power shared the characteristics of being collaborative and aligned with the descriptors of “feeling empowered” (Table 1).
In contrast, misuses of power were described in terms of being unethical. These behaviors existed on a spectrum that ranged from a simple lack of awareness to a full-blown abuse of power on the most harmful end of the continuum. Lack of awareness of power, for these participants, was observed quite frequently among their counselor education colleagues and they noted that people can negatively affect others without realizing it. In some cases, they reported seeing colleagues lack cultural awareness, competence, or an awareness of privilege. Although many colleagues cognitively know about privilege and speak about it, the lack of awareness referred to here is in terms of the behavioral use of privilege to the detriment of those with less privilege. One example would be to call oneself an LGBTQ+ ally without actively demonstrating ally behavior like confronting homophobic or cis-sexist language in class. Moving along the spectrum, misuses of power were described as unfairly advantaging oneself, possibly at the expense or disadvantage of another. Misuses of power may or may not be directly or immediately harmful but still function to concentrate power rather than share it. An example shared was when faculty members insist that students behave in ways that are culturally inconsistent for that student. At the other end of the spectrum, abuses of power are those behaviors that directly cause harm. Even though abuses of power can be unintentional, participants emphasized that intentions matter less than effects. One participant described abuses of power she had observed as “people using power to make others feel small.” For example, a professor or instructor minimizing students’ knowledge or experiences serves to silence students and leads to a decreased likelihood the student shares, causing classmates to lose out on that connection and knowledge.
One participant shared a culture of ongoing misuses of power by a colleague: “And then they’re [students] all coming to me crying, you know, surreptitiously coming to me in my office, like, ‘Can I talk to you?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, shut the door. What’d he do now?’ I’m happy to be a safe person for them, it’s an honor, but this is ridiculous.” The irony of feeling powerless to stop another’s misuses of power was not lost on the participants. One participant expressed that she wished to see more colleagues ask questions about their use of power:
We have to ask the question, “What is the impact? What is happening, what are the patterns?” We have to ask questions about access and participation and equity. . . .
And from my perspective, we have to assume that things are jacked up because we know that any system is a microcosm of the outer world, and the outer world is jacked up. So, we have to ask these questions and understand if there’s an adverse impact. And a lot of time there is on marginalized or minoritized populations. So, what are we going to do about it? It’s all well and good to see it, but what are we doing about it, you know? . . . How are you using your power for good?
Personal Development Around Power
Participants reflected deeply on their own development of their thinking about and use of power. All participants spoke early in the interviews about their training as counselors and counselor educators. Their early training was often where they first fully realized their feminist orientation and recognized a need for greater feminist multicultural dialogue and action in counseling. Participants were all cognizant of their inherent personal power but still not immune to real and perceived attempts to limit their expression of it. In general, participants felt that over time they became more able and willing to use their power in ethical ways. One participant shared the following about her change in understanding power over time:
I’ve never really been a power-focused person, and so I just don’t know that I saw it around me much before that. Which now I realize is a total construct of my privilege—that I’ve never had to see it. Then I started realizing that “Oh, there’s power all around me.” And people obsessed with power all around me. And then once I saw it, I kind of couldn’t un-see it. I think for a long time I went through a process of disillusionment, and I think I still lapse back into that sometimes where I’ll realize like, a lot of the people in positions of power around me are power-hungry or power-obsessed, and they’re using power in all the wrong ways. And maybe they don’t even have an awareness of it. You know, I don’t think everybody who’s obsessed with power knows that about themselves. It almost seems like a compulsion more than anything. And I think that’s super dangerous.
Nearly all participants reflected on their experiences of powerlessness as students and how they now attempt to empower students as a result of their experiences. Working to build a sense of safety in the classroom was a major behavior that they endorsed, often because of their own feelings of a lack of safety in learning contexts at both master’s and doctoral levels. Vulnerability and risk-taking on the part of the counselor educator were seen as evidence that efforts to create safety in the classroom were successful. Speaking about this, one participant said:
I think it’s actually very unethical and irresponsible as a counselor educator to throw students in a situation where you expect them to take all these risks and not have worked to create community and environments that are conducive to that.
Participant feelings toward power varied considerably. One said, “I think overall I feel fairly powerful. But I don’t want a lot of power. I don’t like it.” One participant shared, “I am not shy, I am not afraid to speak and so sometimes maybe I do take up too much space, and there are probably times for whatever reason I don’t take up as much space as I should,” showing both humility and a comfort with her own power. These quotes show the care with which the participants came to think about their own power as they gained it through education, position, and rank. No participants claimed to feel total ease in their relationship with their own power, though most acknowledged that with time, they had become more comfortable with acknowledging and using their power when necessary.
One participant said of her ideal expression of power: “Part of feeling powerful is being able to do what I do reasonably well, not perfect, just reasonably well. But also helping to foster the empowerment of other people is just excellent. That’s where it’s at.” This developmental place with her own power aligns with the aspirational definitions and descriptions of power shared above.
Along with their personal development around power, participants shared how their awareness of privileged and marginalized statuses raised their understanding of power. Gender and age were cited by nearly all participants as being relevant to their personal experiences with power. Namely, participants identified the intersection of their gender and young age as being used as grounds for having their contributions or critiques dismissed by their male colleagues. Older age seemed to afford some participants the confidence and power needed to speak up. One participant said:
We are talking about a profession that is three-quarters women, and we are not socialized to grab power, to take power. And so, I think all of that sometimes is something we need to be mindful of and kind of keep stretching ourselves to address.
Yet when younger participants recalled finding the courage to address power imbalances with their colleagues, the outcome was almost always denial and continued disempowerment. To this point, one participant asked, “How do we get power to matter to people who are already in the positions where they hold power and aren’t interested in doing any self-examination or critical thinking about the subject?”
Finally, power was described as permeating every part of being an educator. To practice her use of power responsibly, one participant said, “I mean every decision I make has to, at some point, consider what my power is with them [the students].” Related to the educator role, in general, participants shared their personal development with gatekeeping, such as:
I think one of the areas that I often feel in my power is around gatekeeping. And I think that is also an area where power can be grossly abused. But I think it’s just such an important part of what we do. And I think one of the ways that I feel in my power around gatekeeping is because it’s something I don’t do alone. I make a point to consult a lot because I don’t want to misuse power, and I think gatekeeping—and, really, like any use of power I think—is stronger when it’s done with others.
Again, this quote reflects the definition of power that emerged in this study as ideally being “done with others.” Gatekeeping is where participants seemed to be most aware of power and to initially have had the most anxiety around power, but also the area in which they held the most conviction about the intentional use of power. The potential cost of not responsibly using their power in gatekeeping was to future clients, so participants pushed through their discomfort to ensure competent and ethical client care. However, in many cases, participants had to seriously weigh the pros and cons of asserting their personal or positional power, as described in the next and final category.
Considerations of Potential Backlash
Participants shared about the energy they spent in weighing the potential backlash to their expressions of power, or their calling out of unethical uses of power. Anticipated backlash often resulted in participants not doing or saying something for fear of “making waves” or being labeled a “troublemaker.” Participants described feeling a need to balance confrontations of perceived misuses of power with their desire not to be seen as combative. Those participants who felt most comfortable confronting problematic behaviors cited an open and respectful workplace and self-efficacy in their ability to influence change effectively. For those who did not describe their workplaces as safe and respectful, fear was a common emotion cited when considering whether to take action to challenge a student or colleague. Many described a lack of support from colleagues when they did speak up. Some described support behind the scenes but an unwillingness of peers to be more vocal and public in their opposition to a perceived wrong. Of this, one participant said, “And so getting those voices . . . to the table seems like an uphill battle. I feel like I’m stuck in middle management, in a way.”
For the participants in this study, analysis of power is a process of productive tension and fluidity. Participants acknowledged that power exists and a power differential in student–teacher and supervisee–supervisor relationships will almost certainly always be present. Power seemed to be described as an organizing principle in nearly all contexts—professionally, institutionally, departmentally, in the classroom, in supervision, and in personal relationships. Participants found power to be ever present but rarely named (Miller, 2008). Engaging with these data from these participants, it seems that noticing and naming power and its effects is key to facilitating personal and professional development in ways that are truly grounded in equity, multiculturalism, and social justice. Participants affirmed what is stated in guiding frameworks of counseling (ACA, 2014) and counselor education (ACES, 2011; CACREP, 2015) and went beyond a surface acknowledgement of power to a deeper and ongoing process of analysis, like Bernard and Goodyear’s (2014) treatment of power in the supervisory context.
Contemplating, reflecting on, and working with power are worthwhile efforts according to the participants in this study, which is supported by scholarly literature on the topic (Bernard & Goodyear, 2014). Participants’ personal and professional growth seemed to be catalyzed by their awareness of gender and power dynamics. Participants expressed a desire for a greater recognition of the role of power and the ways in which it is distributed in our professional contexts. For example, although mentioned by only two participants, dissatisfaction in professional associations—national, regional, and state—was shared. Specifically, there was a desire to see counselor educators with positional power make deliberate and visible efforts to bring greater diversity into professional-level decisions and discussions in permanent, rather than tokenizing, ways.
The ongoing process of self-analysis that counselors and educators purport to practice seemed not to be enough to ensure that faculty will not misuse power. Though gender and age were highly salient aspects of perceptions of power for these women, neither were clear predictors of their colleagues’ ethical or unethical use of power. Women and/or self-identified feminist counselor educators can and do use power in problematic ways at times. In fact, most participants expressed disappointment in women colleagues and leaders who were unwilling to question power or critically examine their role in status quo power relations. This is consistent with research that indicates that as individual power and status are gained, awareness of power can diminish (Keltner, 2016).
These feminist counselor educators described feelings of empowerment as those that enhance connection and collaboration rather than positionality. In fact, participants’ reports of frustration with some uses of power seemed to be linked to people in leadership positions engaging in power-over moves (Miller, 2008). Participants reported spending a significant amount of energy in deciding whether and when to challenge perceived misuses of power. Confronting leaders seemed to be the riskiest possibility, but confronting peers was also a challenge for many participants. The acknowledgement of context emerged in these data, including a recognition that power works within and between multiple socioecological levels (e.g., microsystems, mesosystems, macrosystems; Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The culture of academia and higher education also contributed to unique considerations of power in the present study, which aligns with the findings of Thacker and colleagues (2021), who noted counselor educator experiences of entrenched power norms are resistant to change.
Contextualizing these findings in current literature is difficult given the lack of work on this topic in counselor education. However, our themes are similar to those found in the supervision literature (Arczynski & Morrow, 2017; Bernard & Goodyear, 2014). The participants in our study were acutely aware of power in their relationships; however, they appeared to feel it even more when in a power-down position. This finding is similar to research in the supervision context in which supervisees felt as though power was not being addressed by their supervisors (Green & Dekkers, 2010). Further, just as the supervisors researched in Mangione et al.’s (2011) study attended to power analysis, our participants strived to examine their power with students. The distinction between positive and negative uses of power was consistent with Murphy and Wright (2005). Participants conceptualized power on a continuum, attended to the power inherent in gatekeeping decisions, managed the tension between collaboration and direction, engaged in reflection around use and misuse of power, and sought transparency in discussions around power. More than anything, though, our participants seemed to continually wrestle with the inherent complexity of power, similarly to what Arczynski and Morrow (2017) found, and how to address, manage, and work with it in a respectful, ethical manner. As opposed to these studies, though, our research addresses a gap between the profession’s acknowledgement of power as a phenomenon and actual lived experiences of power by counselor educators who claim a feminist lens in their work.
The implications of our findings are relevant across multiple roles (e.g., faculty, administration, supervision) and levels (e.g., institution, department, program) in counselor education. Power analysis at each level and each role in which counselor educators find themselves could help to uncover issues of power and its uses, both ethical and problematic. The considerable effort that participants described in weighing whether to challenge perceived misuses of power indicates the level of work needed to make power something emotionally and professionally safe to address. Thus, those who find themselves in positions of power or having earned power through tenure and seniority are potentially better situated to invite discussions of power in relatively safe settings such as program meetings or in one-on-one conversations with colleagues. Further, at each hierarchical level, individuals can engage in critical self-reflection while groups can elicit external, independent feedback from people trained to observe and name unjust power structures. Counselor educators should not assume that because they identify as feminist, social justice–oriented, or egalitarian that their professional behavior is always reflective of their aspirations. It is not enough to claim an identity; one must work to let one’s actions and words demonstrate one’s commitment to inclusion through sensitivity to and awareness of power.
Additionally, we encourage counselor educators to ask for feedback from people who will challenge them because self-identification of uses or misuses of power is likely not sufficient to create systemic or even individual change. It is important to acknowledge that power is differentially assigned but can be used well in a culture of collaboration and support. Just as we ask our students to be honest and compassionately critical of their own development, as individuals and as a profession, it seems we could be doing more to foster empowerment through support, collaboration, and honest feedback.
Limitations and Future Directions
Although not all participants disclosed all their demographic identifiers, one limitation to the current study is the relative homogeneity of the sample across racial and gender lines. The predominance of White women in the present study is of concern, and there are a few possible reasons for this. One is that White women are generally overrepresented in the counseling profession. Baggerly and colleagues (2017) found that women comprised 85% of the student body in CACREP-accredited programs but only 60% of the faculty. These numbers indicate both the high representation of women seeking counseling degrees, but also the degree to which men approach, but do not reach, parity with women in holding faculty positions. Further, in Baggerly et al.’s study, about 88% of faculty members in CACREP-accredited programs were White.
Another potential reason for the apparent racial homogeneity in the present sample is that people of color may not identify with a feminist orientation because of the racist history of feminist movements and so would not have volunteered to participate. Thus, findings must be considered in this context. Future researchers should be vocally inclusive of Black feminist thought (Collins, 1990) and Womanism (A. Walker, 1983) in their research design and recruitment processes to communicate to potential participants an awareness of the intersections of race and gender. Further, future research should explicitly invite those underrepresented here—namely, women of color and men faculty members—to share their experiences with and conceptualizations of power. This will be extremely important as counselor educators work to continue to diversify the profession of counseling in ways that are affirming and supportive for all.
Another limitation is that participants may have utilized socially desirable responses when discussing power and their own behavior. Indeed, the participants identified a lack of self-awareness as common among those who misused power. At the same time, however, the participants in this study readily shared their own missteps, lending credibility to their self-assessments. Future research that asks participants to track their interactions with power in real time via journals or repeated quantitative measures could be useful in eliciting more embodied experiences of power as they arise in vivo. Likewise, students’ experiences of power in their interactions with counselor educators would be useful, particularly as they relate to teaching or gatekeeping, because some research already exists examining power in the context of clinical supervision (Arczynski & Morrow, 2017; Green & Dekkers, 2010; Mangione et al., 2011; Murphy & Wright, 2005).
We initially embarked upon this study with a simple inquiry, wondering about others’ invisible experiences around what felt like a formidable topic. More than anything, our discussions with our participants seemed to indicate a critical need for further exploration of power across hierarchical levels and institutions. We are grateful for our participants’ willingness to share their stories, and we hope that this is just the beginning of a greater dialogue.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Melissa J. Fickling, PhD, ACS, BC-TMH, LCPC, is an associate professor at Northern Illinois University. Matthew Graden, MSEd, is a professional school counselor. Jodi L. Tangen is an associate professor at North Dakota State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Melissa J. Fickling, 1425 W. Lincoln Hwy, Gabel 200, DeKalb, IL 60115, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Courtney E. Gasser, Katharine S. Shaffer
Women’s experiences in academia are laden with a fundamental set of issues pertaining to gender inequalities. A model reflecting women’s career development and experiences around their academic pipeline (or career in academia) is presented. This model further conveys a new perspective on the experiences of women academicians before, during and after their faculty appointments and can help in career counseling. Specifically, this model provides career counselors with a framework to conceptualize the concerns of women clients who work in academic environments. Other implications for career counseling as well as limitations and future directions also are discussed.
Keywords: women, academia, career development, pipeline, career counseling
There is a documented trend of women prematurely leaving higher education and academia. In a groundbreaking contribution spearheaded by women academicians, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Special Edition Newsletter reported on the experiences of women faculty, stating that “the pipeline leaks at every stage of career” (MIT, 1999, p. 8). Pipeline refers to careers in academia, which often require many years of education and training prior to entry to the pipeline. More recent work has supported and deepened this assertion with empirical investigation (e.g., Goulden, Mason, & Frasch, 2011; Wang & Degol, 2013). Researchers have approached the question of why this is the case from a myriad of research perspectives, including sociological, psychological and cultural. The existing body of literature investigating women’s experiences as academicians addresses the issue of women’s struggle for equality in the institution, but does not comprehensively address how female faculty develop their career aspirations and expectations, how the essential component of career development influences their experiences within the pipeline, and how counselors and institutions might address women’s career outcomes.
In this article, the authors first discuss the process of scholarly questioning, which guided the authors’ choice to examine certain bodies of literature that seemed relevant to women in academia. Second, a brief literature review identifies different variables that influence how women choose careers as academicians, how they decide whether to stay in those careers and how institutions have been called to respond to women’s experiences. Next, the authors present a model combining issues relevant to women in academia from the perspectives of several bodies of scholarly literature (i.e., sociology, women’s studies, psychology). The authors also make predictions based on the model, and address limitations and implications for counselors.
The idea for this article originated from a limited review of literature that addressed women as a cultural minority in a career field. Upon reviewing articles that centered on women in academia, the present authors observed that the vocational, cultural, social and psychological variables investigated in these studies focused substantially on women’s present experiences in academia—a realm often referred to as the pipeline. The present authors wondered how women’s life experiences before and after their faculty appointments influence their pipeline experiences.
The idea for the proposed model grew out of the literature review process itself. Through examining the available research on the subject of women in academia, it became clear that there were a multitude of perspectives on how and why women’s experiences exist as they do in the academic world. However, it also was apparent that these perspectives were not linked systematically to the overall literature. The primary goal of creating this model was to better understand and organize constructs that explain how women’s experiences before their career in academia, as well as how women experience that career. By organizing and linking these ideas into a model, the authors offer professional counselors a working model to refer to when helping academicians with career issues.
The authors utilized a qualitative research methodology in which they combined largely quantitative data with a qualitative analysis called grounded theory. According to Tesch (1990), grounded theory involves the “identifying and categorizing of elements and explanation of their connections” (p. 63), wherein one sorts the data into categories, compares their content, “defines properties of the categories” and then “relates categories to each other” (p. 64). The present authors modified their grounded theory approach by using published literature comprised mostly of quantitative studies as their data. As stated in the rationale for this paper in the previous section, the authors wanted to understand how women’s experiences leading up to and resulting in a career in academia, as well as how women experience that academic career. As is typical in qualitative research, these general questions served as their guide, and led to a generative process by which they surveyed the relevant literature of career development and gender as well as women’s academic careers. More precisely, the authors conducted the initial explorations of the literature using the key search terms women, academia or academe, faculty or professors, career development, and pipeline in various combinations to yield the largest body of results. The review process consisted of eliminating all articles concerning the academic experiences of women outside the United States, as this paper focuses exclusively on women within U.S. institutions. Throughout this process, the authors met weekly for at least 4 months and, beyond that, met 1–2 times a month for a minimum of 1 year. Also, two graduate student researchers made the initial classifications and the faculty subject matter expert reviewed those classifications, checking for consistency and accuracy.
The authors began by engaging in the strategy of inquiry called grounded theory. When reading through the collected literature, they noticed patterns in which variables (and later, themes) tended to appear again and again. Thus, the first major critical themes emerged through an inductive process, reflecting the grounded theory methods first championed by Glaser (Kelle, 2005). Glaser’s work focused on identifying similar codes whose content is gathered and organized into larger groups or concepts, and these groups or concepts form themes or categories (Kelle, 2005). Utilizing this approach in their exploration, the authors separated the articles into three groups based on their relevance to women across the career life span: early career development (preacademic appointment, which included experiences up to graduate school when some graduate students start participating in faculty and faculty-like roles), the pipeline (graduate school through academic job/career) and postpipeline (e.g., transitioning to a different career, retirement). It seemed important that these ideas present throughout the literature become more connected, and thus the present authors decided to create a model to show how person and environment interact to mold women’s expectations and experiences regarding education and career in academia. From this point forward, they carefully recorded the theoretical constructs and variables investigated by each research article and entered them into a spreadsheet. Once this process was complete, they critically reviewed the list of variables and constructs and collapsed some categories within each section together in order to capture both the broadest and the most succinct picture of the variables within the literature. Through this process, the authors were able to isolate the variables that were addressed by multiple articles (generally four or more), and these variables became the basis for the model.
Finally, the authors found that the variables tended to cluster together logically in each section. Through dialogue, critical thinking and specific knowledge within the field of vocational psychology, the authors categorized the variables into groups based on their similarity to and difference from one another, and created themes for the groups of variables within each section. These labels served to organize the variables into manageable concepts and tie the model together. In addition, these themes separated the larger social, psychological and systemic processes in ways that reflect how these concepts function for women in the world.
This literature review of over 120 articles revealed that, to the authors’ knowledge, no existing model binds career development and outcomes to the concepts of women’s career development and the leaky pipeline. Given the magnitude of such a project, the authors felt that it was best to create the model based on the research and resources that already exist in each area of scholarly inquiry. The variables and themes that exist in their model reflect their interpretation of the literature as well as their conceptualization of how these constructs interact with one another.
Variables Underlying Women Academicians’ Career Processes
Previous researchers have identified many variables related to women academicians’ career processes before, during and after their decision to pursue an academic job. The current authors reviewed and organized these variables by superordinate labels into the following three categories: career development, pipeline influences and pipeline outcomes.
Part I: Career Development
Excellent reviews of the literature on women’s general career development have been published (e.g., Betz, 2005; Fitzgerald, Fassinger, & Betz, 1995; Phillips & Imhoff, 1997). The current authors described variables important to women’s career development while they avoided recreating what others have already explored. Continuing with their modified grounded theory approach detailed above, for organizational purposes, the authors created five categories of variables and gave each category a superordinate label. The categories are cognitive, coping, environmental, personality and relational.
Cognitive theme. These variables were considered to be cognitive in nature: career aspirations, career choice, career expectations, intellectual abilities and liberal gender role attitudes.
Career aspirations. Career aspirations, or one’s dreams for one’s career, are important in career development and choice (Astin, 1984; Farmer, 1985; Gottfredson, 1981). Women’s career aspirations are affected by verbal ability, support from teachers, race, age and social class (Farmer, 1985); a desire for work–family balance and an intrinsic valuing of occupations (Frome, Alfeld, Eccles, & Barber, 2006); and parental influence (Li & Kerpelman, 2007).
Career choice. Fitzgerald et al. (1995) addressed career choice by considering how it can be limited as a result of being female, pointing out how stereotyping of occupations and women’s compromised career aspirations work to limit women’s career choices.
Career expectations. Brooks and Betz (1990) demonstrated that college student expectations for success in pursuing a job path, obtaining a job and advancing in that work, as well as preferences for a given type of work, explained 12%–41% of the variance in choosing a job. Men tended to have higher levels of expectations for more traditionally male occupations, whereas women tended to exhibit higher levels for more traditionally female occupations.
Intellectual abilities. Women’s career development can be promoted with higher verbal and math abilities (Fassinger, 1990; O’Brien & Fassinger, 1993). Ceci, Williams, and Barnett (2009) found that women with high math abilities were more likely than men to also have high verbal abilities, resulting in a greater range of career choices.
Liberal gender role attitudes. Fassinger (1990) and O’Brien and Fassinger (1993) found that having more liberal attitudes toward one’s gender role regarding one’s roles in the family and in the workforce was related to and predictive of career choice. Flores and O’Brien (2002) found that liberal gender role attitudes were predictive of Mexican American adolescent women’s self-efficacy for nontraditional careers. Liberal gender role attitudes can increase women’s perceived career options, leading them to consider both traditional and nontraditional gender career choices.
Coping theme. The following variables involve coping: career decision-making coping, career maturity and adaptability, career self-efficacy, and self-esteem.
Career decision-making coping. Career decision-making coping can be defined as one’s perceived confidence (self-efficacy) and/or coping skills when making career decisions. O’Hare and Beutell (1987) examined gender differences in career decision-making coping with undergraduate college students. Men had significantly higher scores than women on career decision-making self-efficacy behavior, or “a constructive, positive sense of control over the decision” (O’Hare & Beutell, 1987, p. 177). However, women scored significantly higher on reactive behavior, wanting “to be superorganized and do all that is expected,” as well as support-seeking behavior (p. 177). Men tended to be more confident, likely because they are socialized to appear strong and confident to others. On the other hand, women tended to place importance on maintaining a relational style and reacting to situations as opposed to being proactive. Also, Betz, Hammond, and Multon (2005) found that career decision-making self-efficacy was negatively related to career indecision and positively related to career identity.
Career maturity and adaptability. Career maturity means making good career decisions during adolescence (Super, 1977). King (1989) showed that career maturity determinants can differ by gender: for girls, family cohesion, locus of control, age and cultural participation were most important; however, for boys, age, locus of control, family cohesion and parental aspirations mattered more. Career adaptability is a postadolescence extension of career maturity, and has been linked with career self-efficacy, career interests and problem-solving ability (Rottinghaus, Day, & Borgen, 2005).
Career self-efficacy. Believing in one’s ability to perform career behaviors has been found to predict the number of career options considered (Betz & Hackett, 1981; Hackett, 1985), and is related to (r = .59) and predictive of career interests (Rottinghaus, Larson, & Borgen, 2003). Lower career self-efficacy beliefs predict women’s more traditional career choices (Hackett & Betz, 1981), while higher career self-efficacy beliefs predict career achievement (Betz, 2005).
Self-esteem. Self-esteem affects career development and achievement, and “increases occupational prestige . . . and income” (Kammeyer-Mueller, Judge, & Piccolo, 2008, p. 204). Self-esteem aids in persistence when one is confronted with career barriers (Richie et al., 1997).
Environmental theme. This group impacts one’s environment and includes the following: availability of resources and opportunities, low status of traditionally female jobs, previous work experience, social class and socioeconomic status, and socialization influences.
Availability of resources and opportunities. Astin’s (1984) career choice model describes major concepts affecting women’s careers: work motivation, with the driving needs of survival, pleasure and contribution; gender role socialization; and structure of opportunity, which includes elements such as job availability, barriers to work opportunities and economic considerations. Astin suggested that differences in gender socialization produce different work expectations, ultimately limiting women’s career opportunities by what is seen as appropriate women’s work. However, some opportunities provide women with a greater range of work–family alternatives (e.g., reproductive technologies).
Low status of traditionally female jobs. So-called women’s work has been devalued in terms of status and equitable pay. In paid work, there is a well-documented gap between women’s and men’s wages (e.g., Bielby & Bielby, 1992; Corbett & Hill, 2012). A number of authors have formed postulations about the low status of traditionally female jobs and career processes (e.g., England, 2010; Fassinger, 1990; O’Brien & Fassinger, 1993). For example, in order for women to advance socioculturally (e.g., economically), they must consider work in male-dominated fields, such as academia; higher status jobs in U.S. culture are jobs traditionally held by men (England, 2010).
Previous work experience. Previous work experience during adolescence is predictive of career aspirations and career choice (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987).
Social class and socioeconomic status. Social class can shape career aspirations (Farmer, 1985). For example, social class privilege for European American adolescent women served to increase their perceptions of having many career options, as well as narrow the range of options they considered (Lapour & Heppner, 2009).
Socialization influences. Exposure to environmental learning, or socialization, can shape an individual’s career processes. For instance, Gottfredson’s (1981) model of circumscription and compromise in career development describes how one’s environment and heredity impact his or her career. Leung, Ivey, and Suzuki (1994) found Asian American women more likely than European American women to consider nontraditional gender role careers in order to pursue higher prestige occupations—that is, prestige was most important to these women, as opposed to compromising based on gender role fit or perceived gender typing of certain jobs. For example, an Asian American woman might choose a career in engineering over a career in teaching, as the engineering career would have greater prestige but would be a less traditional career for women than teaching.
Personality theme. Personality variables include achievement motivation, career interests, instrumentality and other personality variables, and valuing graduate education.
Achievement motivation. Achievement motivation refers to the impetus toward seeking career attainments and accomplishments. Two major models of women’s career development address achievement. In explaining gender differences in achievement by focusing on women’s decision making, Eccles (1987) proposed that the decisions women make regarding the work–family balance may be based on the subjective valuing of tasks as per socialization and stereotypes. Eccles suggested that some women may choose to focus more on family than work because other work is less satisfying to them than nurturing a family. In a different, empirically supported model, Farmer (1985) considered achievement motivation in career development to be influenced by cultural, personality and environmental factors. Achievement motivation culminates in the creation of career aspirations, motivation to pursue mastery experiences, and commitment to a career (Farmer, 1985).
Career interests. Women are more likely to have higher career interest scores for artistic and social domains and lower scores for realistic and investigative domains, when compared with men (Betz, 2005; Fitzgerald et al., 1995). Additionally, Evans and Diekman (2009) investigated how the presence of gendered beliefs about careers predicted differences in career goals and career interests along traditional gender lines. Women and men who thought about careers in a gender-stereotypical manner were less likely to endorse career interests in gender-atypical fields (Evans & Diekman, 2009).
Instrumentality and other personality variables. Instrumentality, which is defined as the ability to make decisions with confidence, was examined by O’Brien and Fassinger (1993) in their test of the Fassinger (1990) career model. The authors concluded that “young women who possess liberal gender role attitudes, are instrumental and efficacious with regard to math and careers, and exhibit moderate degrees of attachment and independence from their mothers tend to value their career pursuits” (O’Brien & Fassinger, 1993, p. 466).
Valuing graduate education. Battle and Wigfield (2002) found that college women with a strong career orientation had more positive views of graduate education, evidencing that the perceived usefulness of attending graduate school, a sense of attainment, and intrinsic motivation to pursue graduate studies were major reasons behind women’s graduate school plans.
Relational theme. The following variables have a central relationship component: dual roles of marital and parental status, perceived encouragement, psychosocial needs, relationships with parents and presence of role models, and rewards and costs of career and parenthood.
Dual roles of marital and parental status. As Fassinger (1990) pointed out, past research has supported a negative relationship between being both a wife and mother and developing one’s career. However, having liberal gender role attitudes helps women engage more fully in their own career development as opposed to more traditional attitudes (Betz & Fitzgerald, 1987; Fassinger, 1990; Flores & O’Brien, 2002). Morrison, Rudd, and Nerad (2011) found that parenting young children was a barrier at all levels of the pipeline for women, and that married men advanced faster through the tenure process than married women.
Perceived encouragement. Parents, role models, teachers and supportive others may offer women perceived encouragement regarding their career options (e.g., Fassinger, 1990; Leslie, 1986), ultimately facilitating women’s choice and attainment of both traditional and nontraditional careers (e.g., Hackett, Esposito, & O’Halloran, 1989). Perceived encouragement is especially important for the educational expectations and work identity of African American and Mexican American college students (Fisher & Padmawidjaja, 1999).
Psychosocial needs. Although psychosocial needs may be individually defined, women share needs for survival, satisfaction and pleasure (see Eccles, 1987; Farmer, 1985). Work can provide important sources of satisfaction and pleasure as well as meet survival needs, and underutilization of abilities has been associated with lower levels of mental health (Betz, 2005).
Relationships with parents and presence of role models. For college women, the positive influence of female teachers and high performance self-esteem (i.e., agency, or a feeling of being able to be autonomous) was most predictive of career salience (i.e., the importance of one’s career relative to one’s other roles) and educational aspirations (i.e., aspirations to pursue different levels of education). Also, having the positive influences of fathers and male teachers, as well as high performance self-esteem, predicted women wanting to pursue less traditional careers (Hackett et al., 1989).
Rewards and costs of career and parenthood. Leslie (1986) found that the daughters of homemakers had more positive feelings toward employment when mothers were not satisfied with homemaking and the children helped more with housework. Daughters of employed mothers viewed employment more positively when they perceived their mothers as happy and busy with their work. Daughters of homemakers indicated most concern with the costs of work and the costs of having children in the future, whereas the daughters of employed mothers also were concerned with the rewards of work. Also, Campione (2008) found that depression stemmed from family issues (e.g., caring for a disabled family member) and work issues (e.g., working irregular hours at a job), and working shifts during odd hours was associated with marital stress and family difficulties.
Conclusion of Part I: Career Development. In Part I, the current authors reviewed evidence on variables pertinent to a woman developing her career as an academician, or having access to developing a job or career as an academician. The next section focuses on the pipeline.
Part II: Pipeline Influences
The present authors conceptualize the pipeline, or the route to an academic career and the academic career itself, as beginning in graduate school and extending through all stages of a career in academia. The career development literature focuses heavily on undergraduates, whose experiences the present authors consider to be separate from graduate student experiences, which are conceptually more proximal to and overlap with the concerns of academic careers. Thus, for the authors’ purposes, once a woman decides to pursue a graduate-level degree, her experiences are characterized as part of the pipeline. Again, the authors have grouped variables using superordinate labels. The themes include academic duties, academic environment, individually centered, resources and social variables.
Academic duties theme. In this section the authors describe variables associated with women’s status within the academic institution, including administrative-level representation, institutional housekeeping and service-oriented activities, teaching and research productivity, and tenure-track versus nontenure-track status.
Administrative-level representation. Quite simply, women are not represented at the administrative level of academic institutions as frequently as men (Kimball, Watson, Canning, & Brady, 2001). Women’s underrepresentation can be associated with the amount of effort they have invested in teaching, mentoring and service, along with an inability to decline projects, which may compromise women’s career trajectory toward higher levels of authority within the institution. Kimball et al. (2001) suggested that women may not understand how to effectively negotiate the male-dominated and hierarchical structure of academia in order to fulfill broader career advancement desires.
Institutional housekeeping and service-oriented activities. Bird, Litt, and Wang (2004) defined institutional housekeeping as “the invisible and supportive labor of women to improve women’s situation within the institution” (p. 195), based on Valian’s (1998) work. Valian (2005) described these activities as “low-visibility, low-power, low-reward, and labor-intensive” (p. 205). Women may often be called upon to participate on committees or in groups that bolster the department or institution with regard to advising and teaching, or even issues pertinent to women in the academy. Providing service work may detract from time performing research, which is often the most heavily weighted criterion for tenure decisions (Misra, Lundquist, Holmes, & Agiomavritis, 2011). On the other hand, service activities are recently gaining more recognition as an important component of tenure decisions (Sampson, Driscoll, Foulk, & Carroll, 2010).
Teaching and research productivity. Data gathered for the MIT (1999) report on women faculty members revealed “inequitable distributions” regarding “teaching assignments” (p. 8). Women, by cultural standard, bear the weight of the more relational processes involved in academia (e.g., teaching, advising, mentoring), so research and administration are areas still disproportionately male dominated. A more recent study of university deans focused on what was considered important in achieving tenure, and supported the salience of research productivity above other faculty contributions such as service and, to some extent, teaching (Balogun, Sloan, & Germain, 2007). Furthermore, “heavy teaching workloads may be detrimental to the chances of obtaining tenure” (Balogun, Sloan, & Germain, 2006, p. 532).
Tenure track versus nontenure track. Harper, Baldwin, Gansneder, and Chronister (2001) found stark differences between men and women faculty members in both the tenure-track and nontenure-track categories. Generally, they found that men spent the fewest number of hours teaching, with more time spent on administrative, research and other activities, while women in all categories spent a slightly larger percentage of their time teaching. Differences also were found between the tenure-track categories and the relative amounts of time spent teaching undergraduate courses, with nontenure-track faculty spending a majority of their time teaching undergraduate courses versus tenure-track faculty who are teaching graduate courses more (Harper et al., 2001). Generally speaking, women make up a much larger percentage of nontenure-track faculty (e.g., August & Waltman, 2004; Equal Rights Advocates [ERA], 2003). Often the issue of tenure is complicated for women due to role conflict related to childcare and its incompatibility with the demands of the tenure process (Comer & Stites-Doe, 2006; O’Laughlin & Bischoff, 2005; Stinchfield & Trepal, 2010). In addition, there are other complex processes that influence women’s ability to gain tenure, an overview of which is outside the scope of this article (see American Association of University Women [AAUW], 2004; Marchant, Bhattacharya, & Carnes, 2007; Park, 2007; Rudd, Morrison, Sadrozinski, Nerad, & Cerny, 2008).
Academic environment theme. This theme focuses on variables that pertain to the college or university environment, and the literature is reviewed regarding departmental climate, isolation and invisibility, and transparency of departmental decision making (including tenure).
Departmental climate. Various authors have described departmental climates within institutions as “hostile” (ERA, 2003, p. 3), “challenging and chilly” (August & Waltman, 2004, p. 179), and “toxic” (Hill, Leinbaugh, Bradley, & Hazler, 2005, p. 377). These authors also pointed out how the lack of a supportive departmental climate contributes to other issues women face as academicians, such as having less access to resources or feeling isolated.
Isolation and invisibility. Winkler (2000) asserted that women faculty themselves define the limits of their productivity (which tends to be the largest factor in salary increase and tenure decisions) based on “feelings of exclusion, disconnectedness, marginalization, intellectual and social isolation, and limited access to resources” (p. 740). She also argued that women more than men tend to have more rigid and higher standards for quality over quantity in research, and that women may be more perfectionistic in research activities, which leads to a lower overall rate of publication.
Transparency of departmental decision making (including tenure). August and Waltman (2004) investigated job satisfaction of faculty members and found that women at different levels of the tenure process were influenced by different job satisfaction criteria. All faculty women surveyed reported being impacted by the following: having a supportive relationship with the head or chair of the department, having a perceived ability to influence decisions made within their department and receiving an equitable salary as compared to others within the department. Tenured women rated the equitable salary and departmental influence variables as more significant. For nontenured women, level of influence was also significant.
Individually centered theme. These psychosociocultural variables pertain to women as individuals, and include academic self-concept, age, and race and ethnicity, as well as gender schemas and feminism, and personal power and self-promoting behavior.
Academic self-concept. Guidelines for mentorship posed by Williams-Nickelson (2009) include specific action components aimed at bolstering a woman graduate student’s academic self-concept, or an individual’s conception of herself as a student. Mentors should “facilitate independent thinking” and encourage mentees to “develop self-assurance,” “be mentored” and “be receptive to autonomy and divergence” (Williams-Nickelson, 2009, p. 289). Ülkü-Steiner, Kurtz-Costes, and Kinlaw (2000) found that women’s academic self-concept and mentor support (regardless of the mentor’s gender) in graduate programs best predicted women graduate students’ career commitment. In addition, women and men who were attending graduate school in a male-dominated department reported lower levels of academic self-concept than those in more gender-balanced programs (Ülkü-Steiner et al., 2000).
Age. For women entering the academy 20 or more years ago, being an older student (after having children or supporting a partner through his or her career) could be a barrier to entrance into graduate school; some women, however, reported positive effects of being leaders and mentors as older graduate students (Bronstein, 2001). In addition, women reported feeling marginalized, being overlooked, being seen as a mom, and being overtly discriminated against in academia (Bronstein, 2001). Junior and senior women faculty also may experience rifts with one another based on different feelings about discrimination and inclusion (MIT, 1999). Furthermore, Jacobs and Winslow (2004) compiled data on faculty ages, tenure track, tenure status and job satisfaction, and found that the high-end child-bearing years for women (late 30s through early 40s) are spent working toward tenure, which complicates the work–family balance.
Race and Ethnicity. There has been “no growth in the percentage of minority students receiving doctoral degrees since 1999” (Maton, Kohout, Wicherski, Leary, & Vinokurov, 2006, p. 126). Women of color are at a disadvantage before the pipeline even begins, a problem that persists through the academic career level, where they may experience marginalization, discrimination and microaggressions (Marbley, Wong, Santos-Hatchett, Pratt, & Jaddo, 2011). Thomas, Mack, Williams, and Perkins (1999) studied the effects of personal fulfillment (or an individual’s sense of meaning and/or satisfaction in life) on the research agendas of academicians who are women of color. Often, women of color who assume an outsider within stance (a professional orientation toward using one’s personal experiences and interests to fuel one’s research) may be disadvantaged for scholarly recognition and promotion, though researching topics of personal multicultural concern can increase one’s level of personal fulfillment (Thomas et al., 1999).
Gender schemas and feminism. Gender schemas exist that work against women in male-dominated professional environments (Valian, 2005). Lynch (2008) touched on clashing life roles for women in the early pipeline. One recurring theme for the participants was women graduate students’ feeling that they had traded off their feminist ideals and independence by getting married and/or having children, and by being financially dependent on their husbands during their time in graduate school. Krefting (2003) discussed ambivalent sexism, which essentially contrasts the concepts of having “perceived competence” (i.e., masculine) and being “likeable” (i.e., feminine; p. 269). The intersection of these two concepts for women in competitive academic environments can be a conundrum: How does a woman garner respect for her competence when likability is the trait with which students and colleagues are most concerned?
Personal power and self-promoting behavior. Kimball et al. (2001) posited that previous research has shown that women place more emphasis on “external attributions” than men (p. 136). That is, although men and women both believe that internal attributes such as intelligence and ambition contribute to one’s career success in academia, women place much greater weight on their social capital—for instance, the people they know and the prestige of their educating institution. These authors also discussed the fact that many women feel uncomfortable with the self-promoting behavior that may facilitate advancement in academia.
Resources theme. This theme includes variables related to resources within institutions that impact women’s career paths as academicians, including access to resources; financial issues; and salary, rewards, and recognition.
Access to resources. Krefting (2003) conceptualized women’s access to resources as an uphill climb. Whereas men are included in the network of those expected to succeed within academia, women are fighting for both inclusion and the resources to make them worthy of inclusion. Winkler (2000) also echoed Krefting’s (2003) notion that resources (and subsequently, productivity) flow from being included in “the networks in which ideas are generated and evaluated, in which human and material resources circulate, and in which advantages are exchanged” (2000, p. 740). MIT’s (1999) seminal report on women’s experiences as academics in its own School of Science uncovered “inequitable distributions . . . involving space, amount of 9-month salary paid from individual research grants, teaching assignments, awards and distinctions, inclusion on important committees and assignments within the department” (p. 7).
Financial issues. Students in psychology doctoral programs tend to graduate with student loan amounts that exceed $75,000 (Williams-Nickelson, 2009). Springer, Parker, & Leviten-Reid (2009) discussed a multitude of stressors for graduate student parents, including lack of financial support, a struggle to afford childcare and FMLA leave issues. Lynch (2008) reported that the most common complaint of women graduate student mothers is a lack of financial support from their academic departments.
Salary, rewards and recognition. August and Waltman’s (2004) survey uncovered that tenured women faculty’s career satisfaction was heavily influenced by their “salary comparable to similar peers” (p. 188). Harper et al. (2001) conducted a cross-discipline analysis of men’s and women’s experiences in academia and reported that “overall, men’s salaries appear to be more related to their disciplines and responsibilities while women’s salaries are more related to their tenure status and the degree they hold” (p. 248). In addition, Harper et al. (2001) noted that women tend to earn less because they are often employed in academic positions that pay less (e.g., nontenure track, assistant professor).
Social theme. This theme subsumes the influence of family, work and peer relationship variables, including peer and mentor relationships; presence of women in the field and the decision to pursue a doctorate; and work and family issues such as parenthood, marriage and the division of responsibility.
Peer and mentor relationships. Several articles review or note the positive impact of supportive peer relationships on female graduate student success (Lynch, 2008; Ülkü-Steiner et al., 2000; Williams-Nickelson, 2009). Also, mentoring and advising relationships provide essential resources to women graduate students, including elements such as emotional support and professional guidance (Williams-Nickelson, 2009). Hill et al. (2005) outlined the importance of supportive peers and social/teaching environments as a factor of satisfaction in their study of women faculty members in counselor education. Also, Pruitt, Johnson, Catlin, and Knox (2010) found that women counseling psychology associate professors who were seeking promotion to full professor indicated that having the support of a current mentor was helpful. Compared to men, women typically place a higher value on a supportive work environment and may often find these types of relationships through service-oriented work in the institution (Bird et al., 2004; Kimball et al., 2001).
Presence of women in the field and the decision to pursue a doctorate. Women are more likely to leak from the educational pipeline before doctoral completion, and they still earn less than men in the world of work (Ülkü-Steiner et al., 2000; Winkler, 2000). Ülkü-Steiner et al. (2000) found that the mere presence of women faculty in any academic department bolstered career commitment and academic self-concept for men and women doctoral students. Similarly, Winkler (2000) reported that women academicians benefit from relationships with female students and that female students tend to graduate more quickly when female faculty are present within the department. However, because women tend to be underrepresented as faculty members in general, there is an overall shortage of role models for women wishing to pursue doctoral education and become academicians themselves (August & Waltman, 2004; Harper et al., 2001).
Work and family issues: Parenthood, marriage and division of responsibility. Springer et al. (2009) and Lynch (2008) discussed the unique role conflicts that occur early in the pipeline for women graduate students who also are mothers. These women often find themselves caught between their desire to excel in graduate school and to be a mother, and also experience challenges with respect to finding peer support from their non-mother peers.
Wolfinger, Mason, and Goulden (2008) conceptualized family and marriage as having a direct effect on the leaky pipeline when women are trying to earn tenure. Generally speaking, when family issues and domestic responsibilities are at stake, women academics receive less support from their male partners than men academics do from their female partners (Bird et al., 2004). However, evidence for the effect that children and marriage have on scholarly productivity paints a different picture. Winkler (2000) reviewed the literature and found that though women on the whole publish less than men, single women are less productive in publication than married women. Krefting (2003) reported that “neither marriage nor parenthood seems to affect women’s productivity (or men’s, Valian, 1998)” (p. 264).
Conclusion of Part II: Pipeline Influences. This section discussed the themes and variables that are relevant to women’s experiences in the pipeline as graduate students and as academicians. The final section addresses key outcomes.
Part III: Pipeline Outcomes
The following section examines academic women’s career outcomes and satisfaction as well as institutional responses to women’s issues. The literature search for this section included the search terms women’s career satisfaction, women in academia, and university (or college) response.
Women’s career outcomes and satisfaction. As discussed previously, fewer women are granted tenure than their male counterparts. As one travels through the pipeline, chances of leaking out are greater for women at all stages of their career than for men (Mason & Goulden, 2004; Winkler, 2000; Wolfinger et al., 2008). In August and Waltman’s (2004) study, women’s career satisfaction was predicted by “departmental climate; the quality of student relationships and such related activities as mentoring and advising students . . . ; a supportive relationship with the unit chairperson; and the level of influence within the department or unit” (p. 187). In addition, for tenured women faculty, “comparable salary and the importance of departmental influence” rose to the forefront (p. 187). Harper et al. (2001) found that both tenured and tenure-track women were “least satisfied with their authority to make other job decisions . . . and the time they have available to advise students. . . . Non-tenure-track women as a group were the least satisfied with their authority to decide which courses they teach” (p. 251).
Institutional response. The call for institutional change to address the needs of women academicians is a direct result of research conducted on this topic in the past several decades. Although a full review of institutional initiatives on behalf of changing women’s experiences in academia is beyond the scope of this article, the current authors have highlighted some recommendations for change that exist in the literature.
Many authors have called for higher education institutions to implement initiatives to address the issues that women academics face (e.g., AAUW, 2004; ERA, 2003; MIT, 1999; Stinchfield & Trepal, 2010). Generally speaking, these initiatives include, but are not limited to the following: (a) changing hiring practices to seek out women and people of color for all faculty positions, especially tenure-track positions; (b) encouraging mentorship programs for faculty; (c) instituting policies in which the tenure clock may be stopped and restarted; (d) adjusting views on career commitment to accommodate academicians’ family and other responsibilities; (e) promoting women to higher-level administrative positions; (f) eliminating gender discrimination regarding salary and access to resources; (g) revising the tenure review process to include merits for service-oriented work; (h) making evaluation standards for tenure clear and transparent; (i) expanding understanding of the psychosociocultural variables that influence academicians differently; (j) conducting research on institutional policy and its effects on faculty members; (k) being active beyond hiring practices by encouraging women and people of color to pursue careers as academicians; and (l) being vigilant of and punitive toward gender discrimination taking place within the institution (Bird et al., 2004; Bronstein, 2001; ERA, 2003; Harper et al., 2001; Jacobs & Winslow, 2004; MIT, 1999; Thomas et al., 1999; Valian, 2005; Winkler, 2000).
Conclusion of Part III: Pipeline Outcomes. This section provided an overview of career outcomes and satisfaction among women academicians and how institutions have been called to respond to these issues. The following section reviews the authors’ model for women’s career processes in academia.
A Model for the Career Process of Women in Academia
Women’s career development is related to a variety of psychological, social and cultural influences. Researchers have studied many of these influences with girls and women, demonstrating the powerful effects shaping women’s career aspirations, choices and development. In the present authors’ model, career development influences, pipeline influences (factors affecting entry into academia), and pipeline outcomes (outcomes of a career in academia) are addressed. Here, the authors explain the structure of and rationales behind each section of the model (see Figure 1 and Table 1).
Overview of the Model
To promote parsimony of the literature and model coherence, the authors organized women’s career development influences into five major groups of variables: cognitive, coping, environmental, personality and relational. Each of these major themes is present within the top portion of Figure 1. These five domains of career development lead up to a decision to pursue a graduate degree, labeled “pursue terminal degree” in the model. The authors used the phrase “terminal degree” for the sake of simplicity, even though some employers and fields do not require a doctorate (e.g., school psychology).
While previous collegiate accomplishments certainly facilitate matriculation into a graduate program, the authors consider the pipeline as beginning in graduate school and continuing with women taking academic positions. The numerous variables affecting women’s experiences in academia are grouped into the following categories: academic duties, academic environments, individually centered, resources and social.
The pipeline is considered to be one piece, since the literature seemed to indicate this understanding and it resulted in the most parsimonious interpretation. However, future evidence may lead to consideration of the pipeline in two pieces, in which there is an early pipeline that focuses on graduate students and a midpipeline that pertains to women in academic positions. For example, some variables may not be relevant to graduate students (e.g., tenure-track versus nontenure-track), which lends support to the idea of breaking the pipeline into two groups. However, many variables have been found to be a consideration for both graduate students and academicians (e.g., age, work, family issues). Also, some variables that are currently considered part of one group may actually show evidence of salience with the other group (e.g., academic self-concept, financial issues). For now, since the themes seem interwoven with the experiences of both graduate students and academicians, the current authors have considered them together as one group.
Once a woman decides to pursue a graduate degree, a host of psychosociocultural factors begin to influence both her educational experiences and her experiences in academia. As the model shows, women may leak out of the pipeline at different points of their academic careers (i.e., early, mid- or late career), with early leaking meaning that one might never enter academe. The final section of the model indicates two major outcomes of women’s career development and the academic pipeline. First, women may report different levels of career satisfaction. Second, institutional responses to women’s issues within the academy may vary.
Figure 1. The Leaky Pipeline: Career Development of Women in Academia Before, During, and After Careers in Academia
Themes and Variables Comprising the Career Development and Leaky Pipeline Experiences of Women in Academia
Based on the literature review and the resulting model, the authors can make several predictions to describe the processes involved in women entering, traversing and exiting the pipeline.
Entry into the Pipeline. As women begin their careers as faculty members they bring their career development history with them, which in turn influences their education and career. The interaction of these factors creates a unique experience for women in faculty positions. Specifically, the career development variables are relevant to entry into the pipeline. First, the authors predict that the cognitive theme affects career trajectory in that women must have career aspirations, career choices and career expectations that are compatible with an academic career, as well as sufficient intellectual abilities and liberal gender role attitudes to endure and succeed in graduate school and beyond. Second, the coping theme also facilitates pipeline entrance, as women must have career decision-making coping, career maturity and adaptability, career self-efficacy, and self-esteem to transition effectively from graduate school into academic careers. Third, the authors predict that lower social class and socioeconomic status diminish the likelihood that a woman will enter an academic career (environmental theme), because lower social class and socioeconomic status tend to be associated with less access to opportunity structures such as those afforded by the educational attainment required for many academic careers. Fourth, the authors predict that having high achievement motivation, possessing career interests that complement an academic path, exhibiting high instrumentality and valuing graduate education facilitate an academic career (personality theme). Fifth, the authors hypothesize that the presence of perceived encouragement and supportive relationships with parents and role models facilitate these career paths (relational theme).
In addition, pipeline variables like feminism, personal power and self-promoting behavior have been evidenced as beneficial to women, and the present authors predict that these trends will likely remain consistent. For instance, academic self-concept can be a facilitative variable for women’s futures as academicians when that self-concept is consistent with an academic career and when women attend graduate programs that are more gender balanced than male dominated.
Traversing and Exiting the Pipeline. Once a woman enters graduate school, she is officially in the pipeline, and must maintain a level of teaching and research productivity commensurate with the expectations of the institution. Women academicians may leak out of the pipeline if they are denied tenure due to a lack of research productivity as a result of spending a disproportionate amount of time performing unrecognized service-oriented activities, particularly in research-intensive institutions (Misra et al., 2011). However, there is some evidence that institutions are recognizing service activities more frequently (Sampson et al., 2010). The current authors predict that experiencing a hostile departmental climate, feeling isolated and invisible, and encountering little or no transparency in departmental decision making facilitate conditions that increase the likelihood of a woman leaking from the pipeline before, during and after tenure decisions are made.
In addition, the authors predict that women leave their academic careers behind due to feeling stuck in positions with little hope for meaningful promotion, having restricted access to resources, dealing with financial issues or feeling dissatisfied with their salaries, rewards or level of recognition. Posttenure, the authors predict that a lack of administrative-level representation leads some women to leave academia because they are not able to realize administrative-level career goals, or because they may have less support (e.g., lack of available mentors) and more career challenges (e.g., greater isolation and invisibility) within institutions that lack women in these positions.
As the authors have shown through the model and its explanation, women academicians experience a unique set of personal and career challenges. Socialization and educational and career development processes stack the deck early, especially against women entering traditionally male-dominated fields. When one adds these processes to the existing structure of the academic system, it becomes clear that there are inherent systemic disadvantages for women in academic fields, which contribute to the leaks during each stage of the academic pipeline. The influences that women experience as children and young adults, and the discrepancies between women in different positions within academia, point to the necessity of a more holistic understanding of how women choose and navigate the complex path that leads them to and through academia.
It is the authors’ contention that each section of the model builds the groundwork for the next stage of the model in such a way that women in later stages of their careers have a multiplicity of additive strains that inhibit their career and personal satisfaction. To be sure, there are women who feel happy and fulfilled in their academic careers. At the same time, the present authors believe that this picture of satisfaction or dissatisfaction is supported by achievements and growth that occurs in different ways and for different reasons than it does for men. The authors hope to understand these influences and encourage responses at individual, societal and systemic levels. There exist numerous implications of this model, and here the authors highlight a few key points.
Barriers for women. Women receive opportunities in the work world in ways that constrain their choices from a young age (e.g., Gottfredson, 1981; Gottfredson & Lapan, 1997; Mello, 2008; Riegle-Crumb, Moore, & Ramos-Wada, 2011). Factors such as low self-efficacy, little perceived encouragement and few role models can create barriers for career choice. However, some women do pursue academic careers, succeeding in their efforts and finding the work enjoyable and satisfying. Identifying a combination of protective factors that help women to succeed in academia could help offset some of these barriers. Also, career and mental health counselors can help women to develop these strategies and traits for themselves.
Women seem to struggle throughout the lifespan with perfectionism that inhibits their ability to feel fulfilled by their endeavors as well as their ability to produce academic work at the same rates as their male peers. It may be that women decide to leave the pressure of the academic environment because they experience burnout, working tirelessly and too meticulously toward a goal that men may reach more easily since they may be less influenced by perfectionistic tendencies. It is the authors’ hope that graduate training programs, mentors, counselors and academic institutions will continue to work together to provide women with guidance, support and psychoeducation in order to cultivate new perspectives on achievement in academia.
Gender role socialization. How women glean messages from the dominant U.S. culture regarding what types of jobs are suitable for women and gendered expectations for behavior influence and constrain young women’s career interests, self-efficacy, view of parenthood and achievement motivation. Should a woman find herself with the resources necessary to enter graduate school with aspirations of an academic career, these socialization processes could potentially continue to restrain her because she may find herself with fewer female than male mentors and professors. If she has children, she also may find that the role strain between graduate student and mother is exhausting. If she is successful and becomes an academic, she may find herself balancing feelings of marginalization, isolation and frustration regarding her work and collegial relationships with the expectation that she be more “likeable” than “competent” (Krefting, 2003, p. 269). Often she may be called upon to perform activities in service of the institution that reinforce the gendered nature of “housework” for the institution (Valian, 2005, p. 205). Depending on the institution, performing service-oriented activities for the institution may help (Sampson et al., 2010) or hurt (Misra et al., 2011) her progress toward promotion and tenure. Hence, women may leak from the pipeline. For those women who do not leak, there are lingering discriminatory practices and beliefs that may flavor each day they spend pursuing their career goals and navigating the male-dominated terrain of the U.S. academic institution. The authors hope that this model will inspire others to consider the tangible reality of gender discrimination and combat its very specific effects on women academicians.
Role models and mentors. Women’s experiences with role models in early life affect how these women aspire to and place importance upon career success (Hackett et al., 1989). In addition, girls’ decisions about work and family are influenced in part by their perception of their mothers’ work behavior, both inside and outside the home; by their emerging gender role attitudes; and by sociocultural messages regarding the gendered nature of careers and opportunities that exist. The work–family issue does not dissipate as women age, but is consistently present throughout women’s lives in the pipeline. It seems logical to conclude that some women with doctoral degrees and families decide to leave the pipeline due to the strain that academic jobs place on them. Providing more modern and family-friendly practices within institutions, such as daycare services and paternity leave, might well encourage women to enter or remain in academia.
One limitation to the model presented here pertains to its broad overview of some of the variables relevant to women’s career development in academia and job satisfaction. The variables in this model are by no means the only contributing variables, and thus the authors welcome feedback, extensions and rearrangement of this model based on other scholarly bodies of knowledge and research findings.
Also, an important consideration for future researchers and scholars is the question of how best to represent the model itself, specifically regarding the academic pipeline. Two major issues that arose for the authors involved (a) the troublesome nature of conceptualizing women’s academic career paths as linear in the form of this pipeline, and (b) whether to conceptualize women graduate students and women academicians as representing different phases of pipeline processes. With more study, conceptualization of these variables and how they fit together may lead to shifts in the current model. Finally, the authors’ review has been limited in that a comprehensive survey of this voluminous literature was not possible given the realities of publication space limitations.
Implications for Counselors and Other Future Directions
The model has many potential applications for counselors. First, counselors can utilize the model to conceptualize women academicians’ career development issues, using Figure 1 and Table 1 as quick reference tools. Also, counselors can assist women with career decision making and coping with their academic careers, which may help alleviate leaks in the pipeline. For example, expanding this model may help to guide the development of career counseling interventions for girls and young women during their career development and college or graduate school years. In addition, women academicians can benefit from interventions designed to explicate their experiences in a male-dominated career field, help them find support and challenge institutions for policy changes. In addition, the model can guide further research and interventions. Expanding, reframing or finding supportive or contradictory evidence for the model and its variables can be informative for academicians who conduct research in vocational psychology, women’s issues or other areas, as this information can guide future research, theory, and clinical practice. Finally, career counselors can act as advocates working in partnership with academic institution administrators, who may benefit from this model by looking critically at their own practices and policies and working with departments and faculty members to address critical issues that influence women’s decisions to pursue, remain in or leave academic careers.
The authors have merged and organized several bodies of literature regarding women in academia before, during and after their faculty appointments. Women’s unique career development and socialization experiences are the foundation for understanding how women navigate careers in academia. Barriers do exist for women that constrain career development, yet resources such as counseling and mentoring can counteract these barriers. In addition to highlighting the obstacles within the leaky pipeline, the authors hope to encourage the adjustment and repair of the pipeline itself.
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Courtney E. Gasser, NCC, is an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore. Katharine S. Shaffer is a doctoral candidate at the University at Albany, State University of New York. Correspondence can be addressed to Courtney E. Gasser, Division of Applied Behavioral Sciences, University of Baltimore, 1420 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, email@example.com.
The authors wish to acknowledge Dr. Deborah Kohl, Division of Applied Behavioral Sciences, University of Baltimore, for her feedback on this manuscript; Sean D. Lough, Morgan State University, for preparing and revising their model graphic; and Angela Brant, Krissa M. Jackson, Alexandra Mattern-Roggelin and Christina Pimble, University of Baltimore, for their research assistance.