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Women in Forensic Psychology

Thu, 11/29/2012 - 8:40am | by Allison Gamble

As a popular song reminds us, this is a man's world. Unfortunately, this continues to be particularly apparent in the sciences. However, although women continue to lag behind in hard science courses, in the so-called soft sciences the advancement of women has been slow but sure.

According to the American Psychological Association, women made up only 20 percent of doctoral candidates in psychology in 1970. That number has grown today, with women making up the majority (72 percent) of doctoral graduates entering the field. For women interested in forensic psychology, this is certainly good news, but there are a number of factors that female students interested in the field should consider before embarking on this particular path of study.

Forensic Psychology: A Primer

According to educational psychologist Kendra Cherry, those who wish to pursue careers as forensic psychologists should generally complete a course of doctoral study that emphasizes clinical psychology or counseling, though some universities offer doctorate programs in forensic psychology specifically.

Forensic psychologists will typically begin their professional careers in positions that pay $35,000 to $40,000 annually. This is a fairly low salary given that forensic psychologists will have spent five to seven years in graduate school. The average clinical psychologist, by contrast, typically earns around $70,000 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The job responsibilities of forensic psychologists are myriad and vary greatly between specific positions and specializations, but many work in the criminal justice system. The particular nature of duties depends on whether they work in family, civil, or criminal courts, but generally all will assist lawyers and judges in understanding the psychological aspects of cases, serve as expert witnesses, and provide therapy.

Women and the Field

Because forensic psychology is a criminal justice, it's important to acknowledge that despite increasing numbers women remain a minority in this particular area of psychology. The reason is simple. The Bureau of Justice Statistics' most recent report about the role of women in law enforcement found that despite increasing female presence in many careers, little change has occurred over the past decade in criminal justice. Women still only represent under 20 percent of criminal justice professionals.

In their Introduction to Forensic Psychology Bruce A. Arrigo and Stacey L. Shipley discuss how a masculinized workplace presents difficulties for female forensic psychologists. They suggest correctional officers frequently misunderstand forensic psychologists' role in evaluating and treating offenders as efforts to excuse their behavior. Add to this the fact that women in this field already face a work environment in which male cohorts consider them difficult to work with and asocial because of their job choice. Often women's professional success only increases these beliefs, and can lead to an increasingly hostile environment.

Additionally, the book points out that these covert perceptions can inform overt, obstructive action on the part of correctional officers against female forensic psychologists working in the penal system. They may face patronization because they aren't regarded as capable of working with dangerous offenders, and supervisors may even actively try to limit access to inmates. Interestingly, the bias against female forensic psychologists appears to be significantly lesser in family and civil courts. In these contexts forensic psychologists often serve as counselors for victims. Society readily accepts women in these sorts of roles.

Regardless of these issues, women shouldn't be discouraged by the minimal female presence in the field. Indeed, following a genuine interest in the discipline can be a unique opportunity to make an important professional mark. One forensic psychologist who's done just that is Dr. Katherine Ramsland. A professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University, she holds master's degrees in forensic and clinical psychology as well as a doctorate in philosophy. In addition to her stellar educational qualifications, she is a contributor to TruTV, A&E, The Learning Channel, and the Discovery Channel, where she's worked to explain complex psychological aspects of criminal cases to the public.

Most importantly, however, she has published extensively and has worked on books and conducted research with former FBI profilers, including the chief of the FBI's behavioral science unit. Ramsland brings unique perspectives to the cases she studies as much because of her varied educational background as because of her gender, and she has distinguished herself as one of the few women willing to tackle such an intense and disturbing subject as the workings of serial killers' minds.

Women are gradually making their way into the forensic psychology discipline, and the door is open for more to follow. Bay Path College in Massachusetts, one of the few women's colleges in the United States, and one of the even smaller number of schools to offer a specific forensic psychology major, boasts a program designed to encourage women to enter and excel in this male-dominated field. Although challenges remain for women interested in pursuing this profession, with the right mindset they can be overcome and women can finally say that forensic psychology is no longer a man's world.



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