Are the behavioral health professions in the midst of a diversity problem? Almost 70% of psychology practitioners are women despite being just 51% of the general population in the United States. Is this a problem? In light of diversity initiatives in other industries, should the behavioral health professions be concerned about under representation?

Online software code collaboration company Github was recently in the tech news when it released it’s first-ever diversity and inclusion report. According to the technology blog TechCrunch, the numbers revealed that Github is no different than most Silicon Valley companies in terms of workforce diversity. (Just for disclosure, iCouch is a customer of Github. We use their tools to manage our software code for the iCouch therapy practice management application as well as for the iCouch CBT iOS application CBT iOS application.) What do Github’s numbers reveal and how is that relevant for the psychology industry?

Worldwide, Github is 64% male and within the US, it is 64% white. TechCrunch interestingly had this to say:

“The company has improved since the end of 2014, when it was 79% male and 21% female worldwide.”

I find that statement interesting. It isn’t because of the numbers, but the assertion that becoming less male was an “improvement.” Let me not be misunderstood! I am in no way implying that more women in a technology company is a bad thing, not at all. However I would also say that less men isn’t necessarily a good thing. It just is what it is. The idea that increasing sex diversity is an improvement seems to mesh well with popular ideas of equality, but should pure equality be an end in itself? Should a company’s success be measured with workforce diversity being included as a parameter?

Github is ultimately a software company. They solve technical problems for software engineers. However, this company actually has a “social impact team,” which has the sole mission of incresing diversity and inclusion. Is diversity and inclusion important for solving technical problems for software engineers? Should a company expend resources that don’t support their product towards correcting a sex imbalance? I am not arguing that point either way, but it does bring up an interesting issue in the context of behavioral health counseling.

Diversity at iCouch and in the mental health professions

At iCouch, 76% of our existing practitioners are women. Of the men practitioners we have 11% are non-white. Of the women practitioners, 25% are non-white. In the United States overall, we have 51% women. 63.7% of the United States is “non-Hispanic white,” leaving roughly 36% who are non-white.

The composition of the US psychology workforce is as follows:

  • 83.6% non-Hispanic white
  • 16.4% non-white
  • 68.3% women
  • 31.7% men

Interestingly, that diversity is far worse than in Silicon Valley. However, since the diversity is majority women, it seems that the mainstream media doesn’t seem to make such a big deal about behavioral health diversity.

Does diversity really matter in tech?

There could be some arguments made that diversity in writing software code isn’t important. A computer recognizes ones and zeros without much regard for the person that wrote them. While there are certainly good arguments to be made about a diverse workforce and the benefits to a company, on a practical level, diversity in technology doesn’t generally affect the ability of a software program to accomplish the task for which it was designed.

However, that being said, there are certainly cultural components to the user interfaces of software design and certainly a more diverse design team is a big benefit to a company’s product. Paying attention to the different ways different cultures interact with what’s on their screens can lead to interfaces that are more universally understood. For a highly simplified example, a green button in some cultures might mean “go” a blue button in other cultures might mean “go.” By having a diverse design team, the product can be more aware of cultural “quirks” that could make a piece of software or a website more confusing for some users. There is certainly value to diverse backgrounds when it comes to designing the parts of software that are visible to the end user.

It could also be argued that a more diverse software engineering team has some advantages when it comes to program logic as well. Having different perspectives on a problem can often lead to some novel and innovative solutions. Diversity is certainly a win for technology, however, I would say that diversity in tech is far less important than diversity in the mental health professions.

Does diversity really matter in mental health?

Diversity in the mental health professions is absolutely critical. At an accounting firm, creativity and “thinking different” aren’t critical skills. Accounting (at least legitimate accounting,) follows very specific rules. There isn’t too much gray area involved. 500 – 200 always equals 300. There are certainly cases where some gray area exists, such whether or not a certain expense is deductible or not. However, these gray areas aren’t generally culturally based — they’re legally based. So should diversity be a “goal” of an accounting firm? Probably not, at least from a business standpoint. From a social standpoint, certainly there is value in diversity, but in terms of the actual job output, a black accountant is no different than a white accountant.

In mental health, on the other hand, almost everything about the work output has some cultural and gender context. No matter how unbiased and professional practitioners aspire to be, a women and a man often see the same things differently. Biology, whether we like it or not has an influence on thoughts. Hormone levels are different between men and women. Societal conditioning is different between men and women. Women have babies. Men don’t. Regardless of our normative desires, men and women are different. Ethnicities are also different. Not better, not worse, but different. A black woman typically has a different experience than an Asian man. A recent immigrant has a different experience than a Mayflower descendant. So the mental health counseling profession, more than most other professions, has a work-output-related need for greater diversity.

This certainly does not mean that a black woman therapist can’t be effective for a white male client. Of course not! Often differences can reveal different perspectives of a particular problem.

Diversity is a great asset to the mental health profession precisely because we need a broad range of cultures, backgrounds and experiences to better serve those from a broad range of cultures, backgrounds and experiences.

So we have a psychology workforce that is 84% white and 68% women. There is definitely something wrong with that picture. Those numbers do not mirror the populations the mental health community has a mission to serve. The New York Times published a great article about the lack of men in the counseling professions, be sure to check it out!

David Moultrup, a psychotherapist in Belmont, Mass said, “The male viewpoint has been so devalued in the course of empowering little girls for the past 40 or 50 years that it is now all but lost in talk therapy. Society needs to have the choice, and the choice is being taking away.”

What is the solution to diversity in the mental health professions?

I actually don’t know! There are plenty of far smarter people thinking about it, but it’s similar to the issues faced in technology diversity. Getting women and minorities to embrace STEM academics and enter the tech field has always been challenging. It would seem that we have a similar parallel with attracting men and other minorities to the mental health professions. I wish I had the answer, but unfortunately there isn’t a clear one.

What are your thoughts? Please leave a comment below!

Published by Brian Dear

Brian is the cofounder and CEO of iCouch, Inc. He has an extensive background in software engineering, inbound marketing and mental health practice management.

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