Why are there so few women in programming or in politics? In the mid-twentieth century, writes professor of psychology Alexandra Rutherford, people asked the same question about experimental psychology.
Rutherford focuses on one powerful leader in the field, Edwin Boring, a professional known not for scientific breakthroughs but as an administrator, editor, and academic gatekeeper. When he died in 1968, he was, by one account, “probably the most famous psychologist in the academic world.”
Boring entered his career in the 1910s, just as experimental psychology was getting off the ground in the United States. He was deeply committed to the idea of scientific objectivity and to the superiority of experimental basic research over clinical application. And, from the start, he equated this with masculinity. In 1926, Boring described teaching experimental psychology to “the girls” at Radcliffe, beginning by explaining that while they hoped to “improve the world socially by the use of the psychological tool,” what he was actually offering them was “straight elementary science.” He added that “men really care about law and abstract principles while women care mostly about personal relations.”
Soon, Boring became part of a committee in charge of an invitation-only club known as the Experimentalists, which met once a year to discuss work in progress. In 1927, the committee agreed to admit the club’s first two women. One, June Etta Downey, never actually took part in the meetings, and Boring later wrote that “she accepted the inferiority of the female sex pretty well. They don’t make experimentalists.” The other, Margaret Floy Washburn, did attend several meetings. In one case, she made the mistake of entering a men-only dining space at the Harvard Faculty Club, where Boring had arranged for the group to eat. She later wrote him an apologetic letter in which she insisted that she had “never done the slightest thing to advance the cause of feminism.” Boring accepted her apology, but, years later he recalled her as an aggressive feminist who “just made a nuisance of things.”
In the 1940s, some female psychologists began to discuss the discipline’s “woman problem”—that women received less recognition than men. Boring wrote a series of articles on the issue with Columbia University psychologist Alice Bryan, a leader of the newly formed National Council of Women Psychologists. Elsewhere, Bryan clearly explained that she saw the minimization of women in professional jobs as a matter of straightforward discrimination. But the coauthored papers suggested other reasons. For example, they argued that, whether “due to nature or nurture,” few women sought work in the hard sciences. Yet surveys of male and female psychologists that Bryan and Boring conducted actually found near-identical percentages expressed interest in research.
Rutherford writes that, through the rest of his career, Boring continued finding reasons other than discrimination that kept women from high-placed positions in experimental science—from a preference for work-life balance to a disinterest in writing about big ideas. Many of them continue to echo in conversations today.