Celebrating Women Scientists in Behavior Analysis

Celebrating Women Scientists in Behavior Analysis – Dr. Ian Tyndall, University of Chichester, UK


I have been struck over the past year or so, and in particular with the testimonies from the recent International Day of Women and Girls in Science, how hard women have had to fight for their voice in science  to be heard and for their scientific achievements to be recognised for the innovative contributions they have made to our understanding of both ourselves as a species and the world around us. In some sense, as a male psychologist I was somewhat oblivious to it in that, asides from the undeniably imbalanced and probable professionally unfair consequences of having children and impact of maternity leave and typically primary carer roles on potential career progression and peer recognition, I have always seen behavioral science as heavily influenced and guided by the thinking of brilliant female psychologists and scholars. Ruth Anne Rehfleldt published a a very interesting and timely piece last year on the challenges for female academics and scientists in trying to break through the glass ceiling in science and academia. It is particularly noteworthy as Ruth Anne is one of the sharpest minds in our field. I think it is too easy for male academics to dismiss it or diminish the impact of an imagined glass ceiling for women scientists, in a similar way that white people just simply cannot say that they know or understand what black people historically have gone through and may still be subjected to in certain contexts or places. It reminds me of the powerful lyrics of the wonderful singer, Skunk Anansie, “He tried to intellectualize my blackness, To make it easier for his whiteness”. Can we empathise? Yes. Truly understand? No. In saying that, there is real observable progress in many domains. For example, I teach at a university in England where my Head of Department of Psychology is female, the pro-vice chancellor (2nd in command of university effectively) is female, and the overall Vice-Chancellor (i.e., Head of the University) is female. Moreover, within behavioral science, it is refreshing to see that a number of our key journals currently have female editors: Amy Odum (Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior); Emily Sandoz (Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science);  while Ruth Anne Rehfeldt herself was editor of The Psychological Record up until recently. For this blog, I will briefly point to a short selection of some of the women behavioral scientists whose work I admire and have been influenced by in my own thinking and research. This is by no means exhaustive, rather it is just a taster, as it is not possible to give true breadth of female contribution to behavior analysis in one blog post.


Linda J Hayes.

Linda is a professor of behavioral psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has won numerous teaching awards as well as many awards for her contributions to the field of behavior analysis. To put it mildly, Linda is super smart and her papers are always worth reading. Indeed, I find that I often have to go back to some of her papers on a second or third occasion just to ensure that I am reasonably confident that I have grasped the essence of the article or book chapter. This is not to imply that they are too dense or poorly written; far from it, rather that there are real nuggets of wisdom in them that takes a little time for the penny to drop. She has made significant contributions to our understanding of a huge range of issues and concepts (along with collaborators such as Mark Dixon, Mitchell Fryling, and Ruth Anne Rehfeldt), for example, rule-governed behavior (i.e., how our internal rules govern our everyday behavior from the simple to the complex), how we learn from observing others,  caveats (i.e., warnings) of when we fall into traps of confusing our descriptions of behavior and events with having identified the cause of the behavior, how we can conceive of the role that private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, emotions) play in our actions and behavior, distinguishing psychological events and theoretical constructs, how relational learning develops in children, dreaming, emotions as motivating operations, memoryperspective taking, mysticism, and how to conceptualize the psychological present.


Maria Ruiz

Maria passed away in August 2017. She was a professor of behavior analysis at Rollins College in Florida. She truly was a lovely force of nature and always reminded us to keep focusing on the processes of stimulus control and behavioral change. I found her to serve two particularly important functions in the development of our work during our discussions at Association for Behavior Analysis conferences : (i) keep grounded in behavioral principles and not to stretch too far beyond the data, and (ii) encouraged us to see the potential in our research on stimulus equivalence and that our findings on how stimulus functions influence stimulus class formation could form the basis of a behavioral test of implicit cognition or attitudes. This direction helped lead to the development of the Function Acquisition Speed Test (FAST). The FAST is rooted firmly in behaviour analysis and Relational Frame Theory principles in that stimuli acquire functions over time. These stimulus functions may help identify a person’s individual learning history. By empirically examining differences in rates of stimulus function acquisition in what might be termed ‘consistent’ or ‘inconsistent’ contexts with a person’s developmental history, we can potentially highlight stimulus relations that are firmly established and might be difficult to alter in say a therapeutic intervention such as talk therapy. Maria was also passionate about what the role of values in behavioral research really meant and how they should guide us as scientists. Like Linda, Maria recognised the importance of philosophy in behavioral science. 


Jennifer Holloway

Autism research is something that is personal to me so I keep abreast of the literature as best I can. There are many great female scholars and scientists working in the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). One particular behavioral scientist whose work I follow and learn a lot from is Jennifer Holloway at National University of Ireland, Galway. Jennifer’s work with her colleagues (e.g., Sinead Lydon, Ciara Gunning, Olive Healy, Teresa Mulhern) includes research on development of relational responding in children with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC), reviews of social skills training,  peer-mediated intervention, and development of fears and phobias for children with ASC, teaching maths skills, phonics, and early identification of ASC.


Ruth Anne Rehfeldt

Ruth Anne is Professor of Behavior Analysis at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, USA. Ruth Anne has served the field of behavior analysis in many different capacities. She has published many studies on stimulus equivalence and relational learning, along with her work in autism. The range of her work includes tests of whether stimulus equivalence classes remain stable over time or merely are interesting but temporary effects in a laboratory, to effects of a points scoring system on graduates submission of coursework, and to perspective taking in children’s stories, 



Louise McHugh

Louise is an assistant professor of psychology at University College Dublin, Ireland. She has conducted much innovative work in relational frame theory and acceptance and commitment therapy. The scope of Louise’s work is impressive and includes: behavioral depictions of false beliefs, understanding deception, possible techniques to overcome learned helplessness, factors in depression and hopelessness, coping with negative thoughts, and behavioral approaches to understanding the self and perspective taking.



Amy Odum

Amy is professor of psychology at Utah State University. As noted above, Amy is editor of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Similarly to Ruth Anne, Amy has also reflected on the glass ceiling for women in behavioral science. She has done excellent work in behavioral pharmacology, impulsivity and smoking, delay discounting in relation to food, smoking, and money, likelihood of forgetting and link to size or magnitude of reinforcement for behavior, effects of exposure to natural environment on impulsivity, and theoretical accounts of attention and memory in relational tasks.


As noted above, this blog is just a brief taster of those who smashed glass ceilings, and there are many, many other female behavioral scientists whose work should be taken note of including, for example, Gina Green, Carmen Luciano, Carol PilgrimEmily Sandoz, Karola Dillenburger, Lisa Coyne, and  Maria Karekla.