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Diversity in Higher Education: Lesbian & Bisexual Psychology Undergraduate’s Experiences of Studying Psychology. Carol Pearson & Sue Smith University of Westminster June 2006. BACKGROUND 1:.

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Diversity in Higher Education:

Lesbian & Bisexual Psychology Undergraduate’s Experiences of Studying Psychology

Carol Pearson & Sue Smith

University of Westminster

June 2006



Rich (1980): first drew attention to what she termed society's and psychology's "unexamined heterocentricity“ i.e. the assumption that the 'natural' form of womankind is heterosexual and how this can block meaningful analyses of the diversity of female identity

Kitzinger (1990): the marginalisation and problematisation of lesbian and gay issues within psychology undergraduate curricula and in textbooks. She highlighted the oppressive nature of university psychology departments for both staff and students in terms of homophobic and discriminatory attitudes.



Pilkington & Cantor (1996): found heterosexual bias & discrimination in areas such as textbooks & course material, and interactions with programme administrators & other faculty and teaching staff

Skelton (1999): argued that texts such as the Dearing Report on higher education focus on inclusive access but neglect inclusive experience, which requires both structural and cultural changes.

Simoni (2000): psychology still lacks an appreciation of and sensitivity to sexualities that are different to ‘the norm’. Treatment of these issues is either cursory or as a segregated topic.



Evens & Broido (2003): suggest both lesbian and bisexual female

students experience some levels of non-supportive actions and

indirect harassment from both students and staff

Smith & Pearson (2005): found lesbian students reported levels of

dissatisfaction with their experiences of studying psychology in terms

of their:

  • expectations of psychology
  • experience of ‘fitting in’ with both staff & students
  • therelevance, scope and nature of the content of psychology


Informed by the authors previous research (Smith & Pearson 2005), this study re-examined three main issues relating to the experiences of both lesbian and bisexual female students who were either currently studying or who had previously studied psychology: This project is funded by the HEA.

  • Expectations of psychology before commencing the degree course
  • Subjective experiences of being a lesbian or bisexual female

psychology undergraduate

  • How the content of psychology relates to lesbian or bisexual female




Design: The study utilised a qualitative approach informed by grounded theory principles (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Confidentiality was guaranteed & maintained throughout the study for all participants, and non of the 15 universities at which they had studies were identified.

Participants: A total of 30 women were interviewed, their ages ranged from 20 to early 50 years of age. All were ‘out’ - self-identifying as lesbian or as a bisexual female.

Procedure: The interview protocol was based upon previous research. A semi-structured framework was adopted for questioning



Commonalities: During the course of the interviews all the women

freely moved between 3 distinct positionings, as a woman, as a

lesbian/bisexual, as an undergraduate. All appeared to be politically

aware, particularly when speaking from a woman’s perspective

Expectations of Psychology: In line with the authors previous

research three main themes emerged:

  • The expectation of gaining career advancement and/or personal

achievement was consistently reported - Virtually all the

interviewees reported that their expectations of psychology had been met in this regard



Expectations of Psychology cont: The two remaining expectations


  • The expectation to gain an understanding of others
  • The expectation to gain and understanding of the self

On the whole our interviewees felt that these expectations had not

been met by psychology with the one caveat that they had had no

expectations in terms of understanding themselves in terms of their

sexual orientation

The interviewees consistently suggested that the entrenched

empirical nature of psychology contributed to this fact



Subjective experiences: In line with the aurthors previous findings

the experience of ‘fitting in’, in terms of both the social and personal

environment, was a theme that consistently emerged from the data:

The main issue raised was that of Inclusivity - this included:

  • Feelings of isolation
  • Lack of role models
  • Feelings of ‘second class normativity’
  • Expressions of homophobic attitudes (particularly from male students), language and incidents


Subjective experiences cont: For some of our interviewees these

factors led to feelings of oppression within their social and personal

environment at University

However, on a more positive note although inclusivity was seen as

very important by all:

  • Some interviewees found certain staff and students were very supportive

2. University life was seen as secondary to their life outside – the

focus at University being solely for academic purposes



Curriculum content: Previous research suggested that there was

dissatisfaction with the relevance, scope and nature of the content

of psychology (Smith & Pearson, 2005)

The main theme to emerge from this study concerned feelings of

Marginalisation - this included:

  • Feelings of separation from the content
  • Lack of visibility in both research and course content
  • Sexist content
  • Androcentric viewpoint
  • Entrenched ‘Western Culture’ normativity


  • Levels of dissatisfaction were expressed by our interviewees in terms of their experiences of studying psychology
  • Despite this all interviewees expressed a level of loyalty to psychology particularly in terms of what it had offered in terms of career and personal development
  • Despite several of the interviewees experiencing the duality of being either bisexual or from an ethnic background overall there were no distinct differences in their reported experiences

Conclusions cont:

  • Nevertheless it is felt that psychology as a discipline both at the international, national and local level should fully embrace issues surrounding diversity - psychology must question itself re. how it can encompass the sexual diversity of its student population into its social, teaching and learning practices and identify strategies to do so


Rich 1980

Kitzinger 1990

Pilkington & Cantor (1996)

Skelton (1999)

Simoni (2000)

Evens & Broido (2003):

Smith & Pearson (2005)