ResearchEmployment, Mental Health, Education & Skills

Where Are the Men? Male Representation in Social Work and Psychology 

Jan 24, 2024
Will Secker, Alanna Williams


Mental health needs are pervasive among men, yet the share of men meeting those needs in mental health professions is low and declining. In this brief we analyze the trends in male employment shares in psychology and social work. Men account for the minority share of workers in mental health sectors, especially in subfields such as school psychology. Based on recent trends in professional education, the share of men looks set to decline still further. This runs counter to the goal of providing equitable mental health services. We also briefly discuss existing and potential interventions, including more male-friendly recruitment messaging and greater support for men seeking to move into a mental health field later in their career.

Key Takeaways


  • Men account for only 18% of social workers and 20% of psychologists. The shortage of men is particularly severe in subfields like child and school psychology.  
  • The representation of men in these mental health professions has halved in recent decades, down from a male share of 38% in social work and 68% in psychology in 1968. 
  • This downward trend looks set to continue: the male share of recipients of master’s degrees and above is 20% in psychology and 12% in social work, and men in psychology are on average older than women. 
  • Men are less likely to seek mental health support: in 2022, 27% of women spoke to a mental health professional or took medication for anxiety or depression compared to only 16% of men.

Men tend not to access mental health services

The escalating mental health crisis demands urgent policy attention. While many challenges are not specific to either gender, there are some that disproportionately impact women or men. For example: women are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety or depression, whereas men are likely to have substance abuse disorders and are four times more likely to die from suicide. As Jonathan Haidt documents in a commentary for AIBM, adolescent girls are much more likely to report depressive episodes, while adolescent boys are more likely to be pessimistic about their future. This data paints a concerning picture of the mental health of both women and men, one that demands a more gender-sensitive approach to mental health practice and policy.

Boys and men are currently much less likely to receive treatment for mental health conditions. As shown in Figure 1, in 2022 27% of women reported receiving mental health treatment in the previous 12 months compared to only 16% of men.


Figure 1


It is possible that this care gap reflects differences in the relative risk of underlying mental health problems; in other words, that men have better mental health than women. But there are reasons to be skeptical of this claim, including men’s high rates of suicide, lower rates of health insurance, and low rates of screening for mental health problems among boys and men. Moreover, there is strong evidence that socialization and norms contribute to men’s reluctance to seek out the care they may need. The policy challenge is clear: we must lower the barriers for boys and men accessing mental health care. A key related goal is to ensure that boys and men see therapy or other mental health care as being just as appropriate for themselves as for the girls and women in their lives.

Declining share of men working in mental health

At a time when suicide among men is at an all-time high, the share of men working in mental health-related professions has recently reached all-time lows. Figure 2 shows the male share of the psychology and social work professions from 1968 to 2023. In 1968, men made up approximately 38% of the social work workforce, compared to 18% in 2023. The psychology workforce has seen a particularly large drop in the share of men, falling from 68% in 1968 to 20% today.


For the purposes of our analysis, we analyze workers who were coded in the given professions, active in the labor force, and possessed a master’s degree or above using Current Population Survey Data. We restrict the sample to these demographics to maintain consistency and observe the workers most likely to be licensed and practicing in mental health contexts. The American Psychological Association restricts the definition of “professional psychologist” to those possessing a doctoral or professional degree. We include those coded as psychologists with master’s degrees in order to account for variations in state licensing and to include those who work in mental health contexts without doctoral degrees. To ensure reliability, we also look at the same trends using American Community Survey data as well as samples without the education requirement for social workers, as many social workers do not possess a master’s degree or above. The results are similar and indicate that our analysis is robust.


Figure 2


As the chart shows, the male share of the social work profession has more than halved over the last half-century, while the male share of psychologists has fallen even more precipitously, by more than two thirds. The decline has been relatively consistent, beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and persisting through the turn of the century and the last two decades.

This trend appears set to continue. In 2023, the mean age of male psychologists was 60, compared to a mean age of 47 for female psychologists. If the downward trend in male representation were to continue at the same average rate as since 1968, the psychology profession would have no men at all by 2046, and the social work profession would be male free by 2070. Obviously, these are simple extrapolations rather than predictions, but serve to illustrate the sharpness of the decline.

The entrance of women into the labor force is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the declining male share of these professions, but is far from the whole story. In December 1968, the labor force participation rate for women was 42%. It was 57% in December 2023. Women’s participation in these fields has grown faster than their participation in the overall labor market. As seen in Figure 3, as these professions have rapidly grown, the total number of men working in them has stalled. Meanwhile, the overall male labor force population has also grown, indicating that female entry into the workplace is only part of the picture. If the demographics of the profession continue to change as they have over the last half-century, male providers will become even harder to find.


Figure 3


In the 1990s, the number of active male psychologists and social workers stopped growing. After reaching a peak in 1998, the total number of men in both professions has fallen. So, as the entry of women into the labor market contributed to the change in the professions’ demographics, so has the slow decline in the number of men practicing in the fields.

But the decline is not receiving much policy attention, especially by comparison to the justified focus on the share of women in STEM and other historically male-dominated occupations.

“Over the past half-century, women have entered professions traditionally occupied by men to a much greater degree than men have entered those traditionally occupied by women. Unfortunately, people express less concern with men’s underrepresentation in HEED [health care, early education, and domestic work] than with women’s underrepresentation in STEM.” – Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and co-authors in a 2022 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Fewest men in school and family subfields 

While women make up the majority of social workers and psychologists across the board, some specialist fields have even lower rates of male representation than others. Notably, subfields that focus on children and families tend to have a greater share of women.

There are some spaces where men are more represented. In a 2020 report utilizing survey data from recent social work graduates, men working as social workers were more likely to serve populations with mental health or substance abuse disorders than their female counterparts, even if women still made up the majority of the subfield. And there are some discrete cases where the share of men is much higher. For example, in California, men receive approximately 45% of substance use disorder counselor certificates and associate degrees, aligning more closely with the predominantly male client population they serve. 

In psychology, gender representation also varies by subfield. Only 10% of master’s degree recipients who specialized in developmental and child psychology in 2021 were male, as shown in Figure 4. In counseling psychology, the largest subfield for master’s recipients, the male share is 18%. 


Figure 4


Given the mental health needs of adolescents, male and female, the low share of male students in the school psychology field is especially troubling, coupled with the fact that, according to a survey by the American School Counselor Association, only 11% of counselors in schools are men.  

Fewer men in the educational pipeline

The share of men studying in these mental health fields is as low or lower than the share working in them. Figure 5 shows the male share of upper-level degrees awarded in psychology and social work in 1991 and 2021. The share of advanced degrees going to men has dropped from 32% to 20% for psychology and from 17% to 12% in social work. 


Figure 5


Some of the decline in the male share is due to the shifting gender composition of higher education in general. But the general trend in education does not explain the degree of gender segregation in these specific fields – which is much more severe than the gap in higher education in general (where women are 61% of master’s and doctor’s recipients). Similar to the dynamics of the labor market, the overall number of advanced degrees awarded in psychology, for example, has grown, but the number of men receiving degrees has variably declined or flattened since the 1970s. The decline in the male share in these professions looks set to continue in the absence of any corrective policy action.

Why it matters

There is limited research on the importance of gender representation in mental health care, and a lack of strong causal evidence for an unequivocal connection between men in mental health professions and improved male mental healthcare – or indeed the other way round (this is clearly an area where more research would be useful). Nonetheless there are some strong reasons why greater male representation could be important, including:

  • Meeting individual needs and preferences. Many people do not have a preference when it comes to the gender of their mental health care provider. But some do, and there is at least some evidence that meeting client preferences may improve outcomes. In a mixed methods study of counseling educators, 1/3 of them thought that the lack of men significantly influences client options. Male and female practitioners may also have distinct approaches and techniques that may appeal differently to clients. One review of the evidence found no systematic impact either way of therapist gender or matching client-therapist genders, but having men in the profession presents options that may be helpful and encourage men to seek help.

    “Guys sometimes need to talk to a guy. They don’t want to talk to a woman about their pornography use. There are some areas that are really uncomfortable and shame triggering – like the fact that guys objectify women is not something that women like to hear about, and men know that.” – Daniel Ellenberg, former APA President Division 51 President, in The Guardian.

  • Building a representative field informed by varied perspectives. Outside of direct service, men in the profession may shape the direction of the field and norms. One professor of counseling noted the importance of gender diversity as, “males and females, either through nature or nurture, often view the world differently. Each perspective is valuable, particularly in this profession where we are attempting to better understand the human condition.” And social work scholars have documented ways in which proper consideration of the field’s treatment of male issues is necessary for advancing levels of care and overall well-being of social work clients and communities.   
  • Filling shortages to improve mental health care overall. Demand for mental health professionals greatly outpaces supply, and the need is only projected to grow. The psychology and social work professions are expected to grow by 6% and 7%, respectively, over the next decade, compared to 3% for all occupations. Solving key labor shortages with only half the workforce is not a viable path forward. Men represent a critical supply of labor that can help improve access to care for men and women alike. 

Time for action

While the mental health crisis is in the headlines, the increasingly lopsided gender representation is not being directly addressed by policymakers or professional organizations. A partial exception is some attention to the need for more men of color in these professions. Early in 2023 the White House hosted a roundtable discussion on the mental health crisis among Black men. Arthur Evans, CEO of the American Psychological Association, highlighted the need to diversify the psychology profession, to ensure that it better represents society as a whole, especially in terms of race. The APA has also supported various workforce pipeline support initiatives, including a mentorship program focused on Black men. Linda Burton, the dean of UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare expressed similar concern over the lack of men of color in social work programs. With men of color overrepresented as social work clients, she wrote: “Black men need to be at the table to inform social policy and social programs.” She pointed to the new Social Welfare, Sports and Society Initiative at Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare that, among other objectives, aims to bring more men, especially men of color, into the social work profession.

There are some efforts overseas from professional and academic institutions to bring more men into the mental health workspace. In the U.K., the University of Leeds School of Psychology has started taking steps to address, or at least to acknowledge, the gender imbalance within the psychology profession. 

And 28% of faculty in counseling programs reported efforts by their programs to recruit men, according to a mixed methods study of male recruitment in counseling. However, these efforts are not seen as effective – only 19% believe they are – and do not match perceived need. More than three-quarters of the educators thought additional steps were needed to recruit and retain more male students, and, hopefully, a similar share expressed interest in helping.

One notable field study experimentally assessed if male interest in social work jobs would change if the messaging candidates received included photos of men in the profession or a statement that large shares of social workers got excellent feedback. The working paper finds that “perceived gender shares do not affect men’s applications. Increasing expected returns to ability encourages men to apply and improves the average quality of the applicants.” These results suggest that emphasizing returns to ability, affirmation, and chances of success or reward might be an effective strategy in attracting male candidates.

In the absence of a robust set of tested interventions on male recruitment in these fields, we can look at existing data, surveys, and research from similar spaces to suggest some potential policy or programmatic pathways:

  • Support for later starts in the profession. In addition to the higher average age for male psychologists, a survey of new social workers indicated that men are more likely to hold a non-social work degree prior to pursuing the career. Men thus seem to move laterally into the profession more frequently, which might indicate the need to support later entries. 
  • Recommendations from those directly in the field. In the mixed methods study on counseling program recruitment, faculty rated potential interventions for recruiting males on a scale of 1-4 from least to most important. At the top of the list were “letting men know there is a role for them and jobs available”, “educating undergraduate advisees about jobs in counseling”, “encouraging facility commitment to recruit and retain male students”, and “changing the perception of male counselors.” 
  • Learning from fields that have successfully recruited more men, like nursing. A study of the 4-fold increase of the share of men in nursing, between 1980 and 2013, identified labor demand, urbanization, rising educational attainment including greater two year college access, and a liberalization of attitudes around gender as major contributors to the growth, noting “there may also be options for moving men into other high growth, middle-skill careers.”
  • Lessons from efforts to increase women and minorities in STEM. “We encourage girls to enter STEM fields. We must apply the same efforts toward boys to consider healthcare and education careers,” writes psychologist Jett Stone in Psychology Today. And indeed, there may be several practical lessons from STEM efforts. One comprehensive review detailed interventions ranging from role-modeling to curriculum changes to changes in educational context that succeeded in changing some dimension of attitudes or aspirations of women towards STEM fields.   

The truth is that very little is known about what might work to attract more men into these fields, but very little has been tried, let alone evaluated with a view to replication. Indeed the extent of the decline in the male share of mental health professionals is not widely understood. There are occasional encouraging stories of men bucking the trend, as reported recently in The Guardian. But the clear need here is to explore more systemic ways to attract and retain more men as providers of mental health care.

Thank you to Simran Kalkat for research assistance. 



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