Sexism in Family Therapy: Does Training in Gender Make a Difference?

Article excerpt

The purpose of this study was to investigate the clinical decision making of marriage and family therapists who had no training in gender compared to those who had such training, either through a separate course or by having gender issues integrated throughout the curriculum. Specifically, levels of feminism and sexism in the clinical assumptions and interventions of therapists were evaluated using clinical vignettes. Participants for this study included 150 beginning or entry-level therapists from marriage and family therapy training programs in academic settings. Of the 102 participants with some training in gender issues, 64% reported having received gender training from a feminist perspective, Contrary to expectations, a multivariate analysis of variance revealed that training in gender issues alone did not significantly influence levels of feminism and sexism in clinical decision making. However, the levels of sexism in clinical interventions were significantly lower if therapists had received gender coursework from a feminist perspective, whether in a separate course or integrated throughout the curriculum. These findings raise a question as to the utility of teaching gender issues if what is taught and how it is taught are not also considered.

No observer of the field of family therapy in the last decade could escape the widespread call by feminists to rethink and revise our assumptions and models for working with families. Specifically, the call has been to recognize gender as a central organizing feature of family life and to challenge traditional ways of working which ignore, and therefore reinforce, gender-based power imbalances (Luepnitz, 1988. Along with the call to revise how gender is addressed in the way we work has come the call to incorporate gender as a critical substantive area in the training of family therapists (Avis, 1989; Weiner & Boss, 1985).

Studies of the content of family therapy training programs in the 1980s confirmed not only that it was rare for gender issues to be addressed systematically (Avis, 1989), but also that training directors arid supervisors did not see it as a particularly important content area to include in clinical training (Winkle, Piercy, & Hovestadt, 1981). In light of data such as these, the calls of feminists to address gender, and the recognition that all other major professional disciplines had established training and practice guidelines to ensure nonsexist practice (e.g., APA in 1975, Council of Social Work Education in 1982), the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education and Training revised its Accreditation Manual in 1988 to require all AAMFT approved programs to offer coursework in gender issues relative to the practice of marriage and family therapy.

Although the incorporation of gender training in family therapy curricula was a major shift, the guidelines presented in the Manual on Accreditation (1991) do not actually spell out what the shift is to. It is noteworthy that only three content areas, sexuality, sexual functioning, and sexual identity, are specified as required material to be addressed in gender training. Given the extensive literature documenting how gender organizes all aspects of life for women and men, from communication patterns to division of labor to use of leisure time to physical safety, it is striking that sexuality would be so prominently emphasized as a major focus of gender training. Such guidelines do little to assist faculty in developing courses which convey a rich appreciation of the influence of gender in peoples' lives.

In addition, the objective or goal of such a significant change in curriculum requirements was not clearly articulated. The accreditation guidelines state that "content in this area

gender issues

should emphasize sexism and gender role stereotyping" (Manual on Accreditation, 1991, p.15), implying that training in gender is intended to reduce sexism in clinical practice. …