OR Why do only girls study Psychology?
By Prashansa Taneja
When I started studying psychology as a student of class 11 at a public school in Delhi, little did I know that a year later I would find myself in a cosy group of female students looking at the achievements of great, deceased men (Freud, Jung, Carl Rogers and Victor Frankl, to name but a handful) in a class where there were few – and sometimes no – male students.
At the outset we were a mixed group of girls and boys from the sciences and the humanities. While there were a dozen or so boys from the humanities, they were not interested in studying psychology (Anay, for one, could never get his head round the difference between ‘avoidance-oriented’ and ‘emotion-oriented’ strategies) and thought the subject had been imposed on them. Earlier, students could study geography instead of psychology, but my school scrapped the subject when the geography teacher retired (whether they were too lazy to hire a new teacher, or dared not offend the old teacher by appointing a new one in his place, I don’t know.) So, the boys would often remain absent from the class.
Girls outdid boys in the examinations. We were keener and more hardworking, our practical files neater and prettier, our case studies better researched, and our experiments carried out with more precision than those of the boys. It was generally thought that girls were supposed to outperform boys—a notion reinstated by the excellent performance of female students in the CBSE examination year after year—but the boys in our class barely scraped by in the subject. Even though our psychology teacher did everything in her power to make them pay attention in the class, nothing could control their wandering minds during the lecture – all of them failed the pre-board examination. I was taken aback when on the day of the final exam, the boy sitting next to me folded his hands and said, “Sister, please show me your answer sheet during the exam.” We had never spoken in the two years we spent in the same class, and suddenly I was his “sister”.
I didn’t know that psychology was thought of as an all-female subject until I read the profile of a student in HT City a few years ago. Despite having scored a perfect hundred in his class 12 psychology exam, the meritorious student (I have forgotten over the years his name and the name of the school he went to) couldn’t study the subject in Delhi University because none of the coeducational colleges in the University has a psychology department – barring Zakir Hussain Delhi College, whose academic reputation has gone downhill since the ‘70s. That a student is denied the opportunity to study the subject he has a flair for in one of the country’s best universities, should be a matter of concern.
In a frantic but vain attempt to get in touch with the ‘perfect hundred’ student while writing this article, I came across another male student who had scored 100 in psychology in the 2009 class 12 examination. Udit Bhatia, a former student of Delhi Public School, RK Puram, who is currently pursuing his undergraduate studies in philosophy at St Stephen’s College, was often told by a teacher that psychology was a feminine subject. “I found the ‘some-subjects-are-good-for-boys-and-others-for-girls’ mindset everywhere,” he says, “My school is thought of as an excellent institution for studying the humanities. But one of my teachers would often pontificate about what subjects a boy should or shouldn’t pursue. She would often say, ‘Psychology is not suitable for men.’ Fortunately, my psychology teacher was very supportive, and encouraged me to study the subject. I would have definitely studied psychology in university, but given the very few options I had, I couldn’t.” In Udit’s psychology class, the ratio of females to males was a skewed 85:15.
It seemed paradoxical to me that a “feminine mystique” should surround the study of psychology. Apart from a short paragraph on Karen Horney, the famous neo-Freudian and author of Feminine Psychology who challenged Freud’s theory of sexuality, there was no mention of a female psychologist—let alone one of Indian origin—in my textbooks. Unless the layperson thinks of psychology only in terms of “empathic listening” and discernment of emotion – both considered traditional feminine qualities that are socially punished in males in our society. Perhaps when people think of a patient lying down on the famous Freudian couch, verbalizing his thoughts through free association, laying bare his dreams and fantasies before the analyst, it brings forth in their minds the image of one distressed woman pouring out her heart to another.
Dr. Aruna Broota, clinical psychologist and retired professor of psychology at Delhi University, thinks socio-cultural pressure could be deterring more men from pursuing the discipline. “The profession of software engineer or architect is not only more flamboyant and ‘masculine’ than that of therapist or counsellor, but also more lucrative. It has a lot to do with gender roles and stereotypes in our society. Men who understand emotions and engage in caring (read: feminine) professions will inevitably be deemed effeminate. Since many schoolteachers come from conservative middle-class families, they hold such views and openly support them.” In a society where a true man is not supposed to feel pain (“mard ko dard nahin hota”) and psychological disorders can still bring grave social stigma, the conundrum of making more boys interested in the study of psychology remains unanswered.
A subtle form of sex-role and gender expectations could be at play here, too. More female students working toward a masters’ degree at Delhi University specialise in Counselling, Educational Psychology and Therapeutic Psychology; whereas male students tend to specialise in Organisational Behaviour. Having studied organisational behaviour, which has its roots in industrial psychology, these students aim for well-paying jobs in HR departments. A majority of female students, on the contrary, are satisfied with “decent” jobs as counsellors and teachers in schools.
One day during my last month in school the authorities sent out a circular. The teacher said that only girls should read it and strictly forbade the boys from even seeing it. I thought it must be a women’s health literature on cervical cancer vaccines or some such, but I was astounded to find it was a sign-up sheet for a “teaching workshop”. Many girls had written yes and signed, others had written no, but I wrote ‘I refuse to answer’. It made my blood boil to see my own school conforming to such gender stereotypes and that they thought only women made good teachers, even though we had male teachers in the school. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that “teaching in a school is the best job for a woman”, apparently because a teaching job allows her to come home at the same time as her children, and leaves her with plenty of time to cook for the family and do the chores.
You would think that the only way the university system can get out of this mess would be by setting up psychology departments in coeducational colleges. However, this is easier said than done, considering that Delhi University’s academic policies are often shrouded in controversy and entangled in red tape. Dr. Broota and her husband Prof. K. D. Broota, former head of department of Psychology at Delhi University, held a meeting with the authorities of St Stephen’s and Hindu Colleges a few years ago, and advised them to open new psychology departments. “They refused when we told them that they would require a lab for the department,” Dr. Broota says. “They told us very categorically that they already had chemistry, physics and biology labs, and that there was no space in the college campus for a psychology lab!”
India is not the only country where psychology is female-dominated. In the psychology A-level examination held in June 2011 in the UK, only 25 per cent of students who took the examination were male. While it is true that a few more girls than boys sit for A-levels, the figures for subjects like political science aren’t as lopsided as those for psychology.
However, the girls in my class took up psychology not out of a deep interest in the way the human mind works or because they thought themselves better than boys at understanding emotions, but because they were ace memorisers and could easily score in the subject, as the syllabi for class 11 and 12 depend heavily on theory and rote-learning.
Existing perceptions toward psychology are often uninformed, and associate the discipline with hackneyed terms like “mystery of the soul”, therapy, and treatment of the disordered. Recently, when I told someone on Twitter that I was studying psychology in school, he said, “Really? But I always thought people who studied psychology were doing it to treat themselves.” (I know, right? I am nuts.) As soon as my juniors in school came to know that I was studying psychology, they would ask me to read their faces, minds, palms, and what not. In the modern world, statistical analysis and use of computers are just as important in psychology as sensitivity to emotion and understanding of the human mind, but their importance is hardly ever stressed in the classroom.
So how can more boys be encouraged to take up psychology? If the coeducational colleges of Delhi University continue to be reluctant to make “lab space”, some of its women’s colleges with working psychology departments might open their gates to male students. These colleges were established—like Girton and Newnham Colleges of Cambridge University—to promote higher education among women at a time when other colleges took no notice of female students. However, Girton College became coeducational in 1976. “Until recently, women’s colleges did not recruit male faculty members. But now that they’ve started this practice, we can hope that some of them will become coeducational in the years to come.” says Dr. Broota.
The gender imbalance in the study of psychology in schools could be corrected by introducing the subject at secondary level. Catching students when quite young will ensure that they form their own opinion about the subject before they can fall prey to social stereotypes and that by the time they reach class 12, they are given a brief introduction to statistical methods in psychology, so that more students with a mathematical and analytical bent of mind take interest in the subject.
The ‘psychology practical’ for school students focuses entirely on educational and developmental psychology, and requires students to conduct obsolete personality tests on their classmates, contributing to the vicious circle. There is a need to introduce newer and intellectually stimulating psychological testing methods in the syllabus.
It turns out that the political science textbook isn’t the only one NCERT might want to revamp. Psychology textbooks are very text-heavy and their language often childlike. Have a look at the opening paragraph of the chapter “Variations in Psychological Attributes” in the class 12 textbook: Variations add colour add beauty to nature. For a moment, think of a world around you where each and every object is made of same colour, say red or blue or green. How would the world appear to you? Certainly not a beautiful one! Would you prefer to live in such a world? In all likelihood, your answer will be ‘no’. Do you think THAT is how a psychology textbook for 17- and 18-year-olds should be written?
Prashansa Taneja is an intern with the Sunday Guardian and lives in a small room overflowing with books in New Delhi. She recently took her class 12 examination. You can follow her on Twitter: @PrashansaT.