A Consideration Of Gender Roles In The Field Of Art Therapy

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Gender issues have been prominent in the media over this past year. Social media campaigns and movements such as #MeToo and #Timesup and high profile pay gap legal cases have opened a discussion about gender disparity. This sparked an interest in me to understand how gender roles are addressed in the field of art therapy. In my initial research, I found very limited work relating to this topic and felt some disappointment with the existing literature in this regard. Due to the limited research in art therapy in the UK, the parameter was expanded further to include literature from Canada and US as well.

For the purposes of this literature review I will focus on four key studies. All the studies includes a survey of gender issues in the field of art therapy. The studies relate to the profession in three different countries, yet there is an overlap in their findings. This research will focus on the gender assigned to us by birth. The texts also include a discussion of the sexual orientation of the therapist or client. Whilst that is a relevant area of research it is beyond the scope and limitations of this essay.

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UK Literature

There is scarce material available in the UK literature to research how art therapists understand gender roles in their field. Gender Issues in art therapy (Hogan, 2003) compiles a diverse range of essays to describe issues of homophobia, gay and lesbian issues, gender stereotypes and the emergence of feminist art therapy. Over the years, some art therapists sharing her feminist stance have also published articles (Eastwood, 2012 and Dudley, 2013).

Hogan’s article ‘Unpacking gender in art therapy: The elephant at the art therapy easel’ comes closest to the subject matter in hand. The article provides the findings of a national survey conducted in 2012 to gain data of how gender is considered at the onset of the therapeutic alliance and during the course of therapy. It provides an inner look at an art therapist’s perception of gender roles and its impact on the therapeutic relationship. The survey was created in a mixed method approach and the response and quotes shared by art therapists helped to understand difference in male and female views and add more meaning to the research findings.

The aim of the article was to compile data from the survey to inform more research into this particular area. Hogan shares her disappointment at the small sample size as only 12% of registered art therapists responded to the survey. There is also a concern for not having proper representation (of various segments) of the complete population due to the small sample size. The survey and research are limited in their findings. The author provides further steps to be taken. The importance of further research and to initiate the conversation about gender is stressed by the end of the article.

Hogan also published an article in the special issue on gender in creative arts therapies in ‘ Arts in Psychotherapies’. Here she describes the pressure of gender norms on the mental health, specially in young girls, for body image issues. In this article, Hogan raises a number of issues regarding women and the ‘medical gaze’ and attempts to reclaim the body by bringing a ‘culturally aware practice’ through an informed art therapist.

Although few papers discuss feminist art therapy and discussion have been available. These articles discuss the impact of gender with the clients but fail to understand how gender roles are impacting the field in which we practice.

US and Canada Literature

The earliest piece of literature found is of Wadeson’s ‘In a different image: Are “male” pressures shaping the “female” arts therapy professions?’

There has also been a Special issue on Gender in Arts in psychotherapy and a Special issue on Men in Art Therapy in Art Therapy. Even though no documentation was found, there is also a focus group for men that meet annually at the national conference of AATA. (Tavani, 2007). I will briefly discuss Gussak’s article ‘Interactionist perspective’ and Tavani ‘Survey mail male’ as they are more in tune with the subject of this particular review.

Gussak’s article ‘Interactionist perspective’ evaluates interview data of art therapists to explore how gender identity is perceived within the field. He explains the theory of social interactionism in context of identity formation and further discusses the issues of gender (as part of our identity) in relation to our ‘social’ self. The hierarchy of masculine over female (role) in our society also has an effect on the perception of the field of art therapy. Art therapists are attributed with qualities of being nurturing, creative and more empathetic which are mostly considered feminine traits. The research done till now focusses on staying true to these feminine traits and to not find the need to prove their value or come out of the ‘masculine constraints’. Gussak however is pointing out the rigidity of how gender roles are. It is more disturbing to note that the responses included the article are not very concerned about gender within this sample. Gussak used examples from the interview data to show the contrasting views from the literature about the value of research. The article explains the terminology and concepts well however there is a lot of information that needs to be researched further. As the author mentions himself, even though this article has a different take on the art therapy literature, this is just the surface. It requires a lot more more depth.

He has researched well and used proper evidence/references to validate his ideas and to show where they are coming from. Our society and culture has defined gender with feminine as nurturing and masculine as tough attributes. These gender stereotypes impact the field of art therapy as art therapy is considered a feminine field. As art therapy needs attributes of nurture and care- strongly seen as woman’s traits. There are less men and if it is creating a gap in the field, there is a need to address these issues

Sarah Greenall published a short and concise study ‘Gender and Career Choice in Art Therapy: A Survey’ in 2015 to discuss the findings of two surveys conducted in Canada. The first survey was for the members of the various (national and provincial) art therapy associations in Canada to understand the expectations of different gender roles and how it may affect people entering the field of art therapy. The second one was a public opinion survey to see the influence of society towards a career choice to be art therapists. The findings of the public survey revealed that most people considered it to be female oriented profession. According to the professional survey, art therapists are required to be ‘nurturing’ and it is assumed to be a more feminine trait. This is perceived to be one of the reasons for more women to be in the field of art therapy. The article gave some interesting insights about how art therapy is viewed from inside as well as outside the field. It also showed the impact of gender stereotypes and how they may affect men when they enter this field.

Even though Helene Burt’s article ‘Beyond Practice: A Postmodern Feminist Perspective on Art Therapy Research’ was published in 1996, there are still some relevant aspects to it. Since this article was published, there has been more research to include feminist theory to art therapy literature however there is still not enough written about it yet. The article challenges the assumption for the need of quantitative research which comes from the need to do more scientific research and to be taken seriously by other ‘hard’ science. In my experience, the focus is on both qualitative as well as quantitative research at the moment. However, the article provides insights about research methods which may be gender bias and the need to discuss research methods suitable for art therapy. The article also stresses the importance for the awareness of the intersection of power and gender within the research methodology.

Part of the special issue of men in art therapy, Tavani’s article Mail male survey (2007) brings a male perspective to a female dominated field of art therapy. The article provides data of a survey of how men perceive the field of art therapy. It is an attempt to understand the low ratio of male to female in this field and why men are attracted to art therapy in general. In the article’s literature review, Tavani also discusses the limited research in the gender issues/disparity in the field.


The reflections presented in the above articles have merely scratched the surface to understand the sociopolitical impact of gender roles in the field of art therapy. Even though all the surveys had different aims, overlapping themes emerged from them.

Art Therapy is considered female dominated field. This is mainly as art therapists are considered to have ‘nurturing components’ which is more feminine traits. This also affects the men in the field.

The men in Canada survey (page 6) – knew about the ratio of less men however men in US did not know about this when entering the field

In my working experience, I have felt a shift from my work in India to my placement in UK, I have noted that gender roles are discussed at the training levels and given consideration about in placement. However, it is still not being written enough about. There is still limited research done. And in the current research, the major problem is the low response rate seen in all the surveys. the researchers suggested that a larger size sample will give a better understanding of the findings. There needs to be some promotion to be part of the research (Hogan). surveys also included space for responses to get more in depth information. The respondents were given the opportunity to add responses- to initiate the dialogue further

Further Research

How do we navigate the field to further development with these gender roles defined by the society and how do we move forward?

With reference to Burt’s article, we have clearly come some way but a long way to go.

The aim of the surveys is to initiate a dialogue and to have a ‘culturally aware practice’ through an informed art therapist (Hogan)


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