Gender and power in psychology: Our letter to the BPS

Eighty per cent of psychology undergraduate students are female and at Russel Group institutions, the proportion is even higher, standing at around 85%. The result is that psychology professions are pervasively female-dominated: 80% of Clinical Psychologists and Educational Psychologists are women. This gender imbalance has negative ramifications for all concerned; members of the public who are more comfortable seeing a male psychologist may find it challenging to find one and for those of us within a psychology profession, research suggests that gender-balanced teams operate more effectively within the workplace. The gender imbalance also fails to offer women any career-long benefits, with ‘a leaky pipeline’ effect meaning that only 63% of university psychology lecturers and 33% of psychology professors are female.



At the University of Leeds, School of Psychology, we have been investigating this issue as part of our Athena SWAN Silver Award Action Plan and have made changes which we hope will increase the number of applications we receive to study psychology from prospective male students.  However, we are one psychology department trying to tackle a much wider problem. Not only is the gender imbalance seen in psychology a national problem; it stretches right across the higher education sector, with 57% of all undergraduate students identifying as female.  Alternatively, when viewed from an international lens, it is quickly apparent that other countries are struggling with the same challenge of a psychology gender imbalance. As such, we believe that for any local initiatives like our own to be truly effective, a national strategy is needed to address this issue.

While it is clear to us that a national strategy is needed, knowing what this strategy should look like is less clear and there are few positive examples to draw on, as previous initiatives to try and improve gender balance in other areas of education have had only limited success. We recently conducted focus groups with our male students to understand this problem better and found our male students perceive psychology as a degree primarily relating to health and education professions; careers which they perceived as being “women’s work” and which do not strongly appeal to them. This led us to be aware of two key issues: the first is the need to highlight the important role of male psychologists in all professions; ensuring that male psychology role models are available and visible to both the school students who we engage with as part of our community and schools work and to prospective applicants who attend our open days. The second is the need to showcase and promote the wide range of careers that a degree in psychology can lead on to for both our prospective applicants and our existing student body. At the School of Psychology, University of Leeds we already have a strong emphasis on supporting student employability: we offer a work placement (industrial) year option to enable students to gain valuable work experience before graduating and our Careers Director (Dr Gina Z. Koutsopoulou) oversees a range of ongoing student career development opportunities. However, our findings have led us to now identify and advertise a range of remunerated industrial placement year opportunities in sectors such as public services (e.g., civil service, local government, statistical services), industry and business (e.g., management consultancy, banking, human resources, accountancy, marketing, advertising), on a weekly basis and provided workshops to support students with their applications.

We will now monitor the effectiveness of these changes and continue to engage in initiatives to improve gender balance within our own department. However, we continue to believe that for our efforts to be effective, a wider and broader national strategy is needed. Furthermore, given the limited success of gender-balancing strategies in other educational areas, we think that research to better understand this issue and how it can be addressed will also be crucial.


This letter was published in the September 2020 issue of the British Psychological Society (BPS) Magazine. It is co-authored by my colleagues Professor Anna Madill, Dr Gina Z Koutsopoulou, Dr Charity Brown and Dr Richard Harris. The online version of the letter is here. For more on the issue of sexism in psychology, please see by previous post.

How to land your first Assistant Psychologist post: Ten top tips

Assistant Psychologists provide clinical support under the guidance and supervision of a qualified Clinical Psychologist. The role can vary significantly depending on the service that the Assistant Psychologist is working in and the population they are working with: while some may be largely involved in delivering direct interventions and group work in inpatient ward settings, others may spend more of their time supporting audits or research. Assistant Psychologist roles are pitted at Band 4 or Band 5 on the NHS Agenda for Change pay scales and a general requirement for most posts is that applicants hold an undergraduate psychology degree which is recognised by the British Psychological Society.

While other jobs can also help aspiring Clinical Psychologists to gain the experience they need, Assistant Psychologist roles are often regarded as a first major step on the route to becoming a Clinical Psychologist and competition can be fierce. Dr Karen Hardwick, a Principal Clinical Psychologist I spoke to, told me that their most recent Assistant Psychologist post was open for just a week, in which time they received a total of 64 applications. Similarly, Dr Christopher Taylor*, a Clinical Lead and Principal Clinical Psychologist I spoke to, said they received 87 applications in 2 days for their most recently advertised Assistant Psychologist role. Despite the fierce competition, both Dr Hardwick and Dr Taylor told me that many of the applicants made some simple mistakes that could have easily been addressed. They also suggested there were some clear things that marked out the stronger applicants from those who were unlikely to be shortlisted. Here I summarise some of these tips to help you bag that first coveted Assistant Psychologist (AP) post:

  1. Gain experience of working in a research or mental health setting. “All seven applicants who we shortlisted had experience of working either in research (in a Research Assistant post) or in a mental health setting”, Dr Hardwick told me. You can gain this experience through taking support worker roles in the NHS or applying for Research Assistant roles in either a university or research institute setting. Sign up for job alerts with NHS jobs and You can also sign up with agencies for temporary work in support worker roles, such as Pulse or approach individual NHS trusts to register for bank shifts.Untitled design (1)
  2. Read the job description and show an interest in that specific job. You may find that you are applying for a large number of Assistant Psychologist posts and truthfully, you may not mind which specific service you get your first job in. However, to have a successful application, you will need to show an interest in that specific job. As Dr Hardwick said, “Successful candidates had clearly written the job description and were applying their previous experience and learning to the particular role we were advertising”. Read the job description in order to understand 1) the type of work the service undertakes, 2) the nature of the population you will be working with and 3) the specific tasks you will be expected to undertake. Then, tailor your application to these factors. This will convey an interest and enthusiasm in the role and will help convince your prospective employers that you have accurate expectations of the work you will be undertaking. It will also help ensure that you don’t waste your time applying for a job that you wouldn’t enjoy. Similarly, before you attend your interview, find information about the wider organisation that the service is a part of and consider questions you may have about how the service relates to this wider organisation. For example, where does it receive its referrals from? Are there any relevant national policies or initiatives which may impact the service or how it works? It may also be helpful to search for information about the people who will be interviewing you to understand their role within the organisation and their interests. Dr Taylor said “If you have been shortlisted for interview, a further way to demonstrate your interest in the post is to contact the appointing manager via email and arrange a time for an informal conversation about the post. It gives you a chance to get sense of the context of the post and other factors which might not be in the advert or job description. It is also a chance ‘sell’ your existing experience in advance of coming for interview”.
  3. Show the relevance of your previous experience. When writing your application, read the job specification and aim to meet all the criteria in your responses. You will need to show that you meet all the essential criteria to be shortlist-able; showing that you meet as many ‘desirable’ criteria as possible will give you the best shot at standing out. As Dr Hardwick said, “Write your application in such a way that the person reading it doesn’t need to read between the lines to work out the skills you have. If there is something specific in the job advert which isn’t generic – such as conducting cognitive assessments – be transparent about your ability to undertake these. If you haven’t done the specific thing before, explain how you can draw on your previous experience in order to be able to manage this”. Dr Taylor said, “A significant number of NHS trusts now use the ‘trac’ jobs software. When undertaking shortlisting, the online system insists we score each application against each person specification criteria advertised as part of the post, so it is important that applicants make the relevance of their experience very clear”. In the interview, when answering questions, consider your relevant previous experience, refer to it and show how you would draw on this to tackle the challenge at hand.Untitled design (2)
  4. Communicate a sense of your personality. It is likely that the people who shortlist the applications for interview and who then subsequently conduct the interviews will be the same people who will be supervising you and working with you. They will be keen to hire someone that they think would be good to work with. As Dr Hardwick highlighted, “It’s important to convey yourself as someone who can fit into a team”. So in both the application and the interview show that you have good interpersonal skills. In the application, highlight work experiences that have enabled you to develop skills in communication, team-working and problem-solving and in the interview, show that you are personable, polite, friendly and able to respond to questions in a balanced way. For their most recent Assistant Psychologist post, Dr Hardwick said “The successful candidate managed to convey a sense of their personality by talking about how their experiences in other areas – hospitality and children’s work – had helped develop their communication skills and their ability to relate to a range of groups and populations”.
  5. Consider the structure and flow of your application. As an Assistant Psychologist, you will undertake a significant amount of written work – whether this is typing emails, completing letters, contributing to assessments or drafting sections of reports. For this reason, your prospective employers will be keen to see that you are able to complete written work to a high standard, and your first opportunity to show this will be in your application. As Dr Hardwick recommended, “Avoid repeating yourself or rewording the same thing. Structure your application and be clear in your writing style”. Dr Taylor suggested, “Subheadings in the main supporting statement can help break up longer, more dense text.”
  6. Proof-read your application. A common mistake highlighted by both Dr Hardwick and Dr Taylor related to typos and mistakes in applications. Your application is your first opportunity to make a good impression and basic errors can indicate a lack of attention to detail. Prospective employers may be concerned that you may carry this approach into the written work you complete in your job. A simple way to address this is to proof-read your application before you hit ‘submit’ or to ask someone else to do this for you. Dr Taylor said “NHS Jobs will let you print a full copy of your application before you submit, so this is a good chance to see what the shortlister will be working from when you have hit submit and to catch any formatting, spelling issues or typos”.
  7. Take a positive approach towards probing questions in the interview. During your interview you may find that you are asked follow-up questions once you have provided your initial response to the main question. If this happens, view it as a positive opportunity to provide more information. Remember that many NHS interviews use a scoring system: each answer is provided a certain number of points from 1 (Poor), 2 (Competency Development Need), 3 (Good) 4 (Excellent). Each question you are asked tackles a specific competency (e.g. personal development). Most likely, the panel is offering you the opportunity to boost your score on that particular question. As Dr Hardwick said, “Be open to interviewer’s curiosity – if they ask a follow-up question then they may suspect you have the information you want, but haven’t revealed it yet.”Untitled design (3)
  8. If the panel isn’t friendly, don’t panic: you don’t have to take the job. When looking for your first Assistant Psychologist post, you may feel under pressure to take the first thing which is offered to you, and in truth, this is generally a positive expectation to have: it may take a few shots before you are able to land an AP role and being fussy won’t speed things up. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that once you finally bag a job, you will actually have to do it. If you find in the interview that the panel seem rude, unpleasant or you suspect there are some negative workplace dynamics at play, don’t panic: you don’t have to take the job. Remember that your own wellbeing is more important than the speed of your career progression. As Dr Taylor said “I turned down the offer of an Assistant Psychologist job once, when the lead interviewer was openly rude to me at the interview. I later learned that he had a reputation for such behaviour. I was glad to have trusted my instincts, even though it took a further three months to secure another AP post, in a much friendlier and more supportive department.”
  9. Keep your composure if it doesn’t work out. If you make it to interview but realise the job is not for you or if you are called and told that you have not been successful, don’t be rude. Clinical Psychology is a fairly small world: there are only around 12,000 in the whole of the UK. There is a good chance you may meet your prospective employers again in another setting or may even find the same people are on an another interview panel you are called to. As such, take the long view and remember that there will be other opportunities in the future. Aim to maintain a positive professional relationship as it could well pay off in the future. Furthermore, if you are called to interview but learn you have not been successful, you can use this as a learning opportunity. As Dr Taylor said: “If you are able to get some feedback on your performance, ask if you were ‘appointable’ – this is whether you performed well enough at interview to be offered the post, but another applicant gave stronger answers on the day. Where you had answers which weren’t appointable (i.e., scored 1/Poor), these would be the areas to focus on for improvement next time.”
  10. Consider other ways of boosting your CV. If you find that you are applying for numerous posts and following the tips above, but having little success, it may be worth reviewing your CV and seeing if there are ways that you could boost your overall experience. If you have completed an undergraduate degree but do not have a Master’s degree, this may be one thing worth considering. As Dr Hardwick said “All seven of our shortlisted applicants and also those on the reserve list had a Master’s degree”. Alternatively, it may be worth considering completing some voluntary work to increase your experiences in areas you have yet to explore, such as with different populations (e.g., with children or young adults, with individuals with learning disabilities, or with older adults) or in research, if your previous work has mainly been more clinically-focused. As Dr Taylor said “A nursing assistant or support worker post can be very valuable initial experience. The roles themselves can be very rewarding, I did one for 12 months after graduating and it helped me secure my first assistant post. Working in a non-psychology healthcare role, gives you a clear sense of how psychology is viewed by multi-disciplinary team colleagues, and this lens becomes more and more useful as you progress in your career.”

*I happen to be married to Christopher Taylor. It improved my chances of a lockdown interview!

Please note that unfortunately I am unable to offer personalised career advice.

Five ways to beat the January blues

I hate January. It’s dark, it’s cold and Christmas is over. I’ve gained Christmas weight and am distinctly poorer than I was in December. I sorely miss the Christmas decorations and feel robbed of the fairy lights which, only days ago, adorned windows everywhere. The next bank holiday is months away. It’s fair to say that I’m familiar with the January blues, a widely experienced phenomenon thought to peak on ‘Blue Monday’, the third Monday in January which is considered to be the most depressing day of the year. Since January is here again and will be happening every day until February, I thought it was a good time to write some evidence-based tips on how to beat the January blues.

1. Look for the silver lining 

Being able to look for the positives in situations, the ‘silver lining’, is a key feature of optimism. This is not about putting a positive spin on negative events or denying their dismal reality. Instead, it’s about being able to find even one positive element in an otherwise grey situation. Studies have suggested that taking a silver-linings approach to life helps boost creativity and could be useful for coping with disaster situations.

The truth is, alongside February, January is the most unpopular month of the year, for obvious reasons. However, it still comes with some silver linings. For example, January is lighter than December, with nearly 30 minutes more daylight each day on average. In that sense, the worst of winter has already passed. The sun still rises relatively late though – around 8am all month. So, if you’ve ever wanted to watch the sun rise from some beautiful location, now is a great time to do it. Leave it until June and you’ll have to get there before 4am for the same event.

January is also a good time for buying certain types of seasonal fruits and vegetables, including apples, pears and beetroot – they are usually cheaper in January than later in the year. In fact, the general lull of January also means that it’s a good time to buy – well – almost anything. It’s one of the cheapest times to travel, to buy a tv or to take out a new gym membership. In the next few months, the price of most things climbs. And, despite its general quietness, there are a handful of great events during January, including Chinese New Year, Glasgow’s Celtic Connections Festival and Burns’ Night. Overall, it’s fair to conclude that January pretty much sucks, but it has some silver linings.

how to beat the January blues

2. Build plus points into your day

If you’re still struggling to think of any silver linings to help beat the January blues, create some by building small positive events into your day. Cognitive Behaviour Therapists call this ‘positive event scheduling’ and it has been shown to effectively reduce the risk of depressed mood. These events should be small things which lift your mood and give you something to look forward to. Write them down and schedule when you’ll do them. For example, it could be as simple as promising yourself an 11am latte and making the time to fetch it. You might then plan in some time to read a magazine or take a brief walk at lunch time. In the evening, you might plan to catch up on a tv show you like, take a bath or spend some time on a hobby. The basic idea is: think of things you like doing and schedule them in. This way, you’re more likely to do them, and you might even look forward to them. Despite a general cultural push to spend January living austerely (think, New Year’s resolutions, dry January, Veganuary), it’s important to allow some small indulgences when you have the January blues. 

3. Focus your attention outside yourself

Feeling blue often comes with an excess of self-focused attention. In other words, being stuck in your own head. This can be in the form of rumination – going over and over past events, wondering ‘Did I do the right thing? Why did that happen?’ It can also be in the form of worrying – thinking about all the things that could go wrong in the future, and how you might cope with them. One way to combat this is to purposely focus your attention on other things that interest you. Depending on your personality, this might involve joining a new class or community group to learn a new skill or help a good cause. It might include going to the book shop and picking up some books about an issue or topic that interests you. One of my favourite ways to ‘get out of my head’ is to listen to podcasts, as I can listen to these when I’m commuting, cleaning up or doing almost any menial chore. Click here to see a round up of some of my favourite podcasts from 2019. The bottom line is – taking an interest in something new that captures your attention, even if only for brief periods, can help beat the January blues.

4. Exercise

Exercise has been touted by some as the ‘magic bullet’ for mental health. While this is definitely an overstatement, there is now strong evidence that it has a consistent, beneficial effect on lifting low mood. One study suggests that this may be because exercise reduces blood serotonin levels, similar to the effects of pharmaceutical antidepressants. If the thought of vigorous exercise makes you want to pull the curtains and switch on the TV though, it’s important to note that even gentle exercise like walking has benefits too. 

How to beat the January blues exercise

5. Get a good night’s sleep

In the winter months it is harder to sleep. This seems paradoxical to me: I would have assumed that long, dark nights mean ample time for undisturbed rest, but the opposite seems to be true. Studies show that in the northern hemisphere, winter increases the risk of delayed bed times, trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and general poor sleep quality. It is thought that this is caused by the way that light effects our hormones – with the earlier morning light of spring ‘setting’ our biological clock earlier (and more effectively). Poor sleep is a risk factor for a wide range of mental health problems including depression and anxiety. To improve sleep quality there are a range of steps you can take, including taking time to relax in the evening and getting as much light exposure during the day as possible. See this article by for a great list of suggestions.

Top healthcare and psychology podcasts from 2019

2019 was the year I discovered podcasts. I’m not alone – it’s estimated that there are currently 800 000 podcasts, an increase of 250 000 since the middle on 2018. Here, I share some of my favourites. While most of these aren’t targeted specifically at health or psychology audiences, they all tackle events or issues likely to appeal to people working or studying in these areas, including everything from healthcare scandals to recorded counselling sessions.


Dr Death

dr death podcast
This was the most shocking podcast I listened to in 2019. It charts the story of
Christopher Duntsch, a US neurosurgeon who claimed to be the best in Dallas. He has since been convicted of maiming one of his patients and sentenced to life imprisonment. Altogether, he is thought to have caused the death and maiming of 33 patients. The show has been criticised for sensationalising the story for entertainment and is certainly not told in the style of a documentary. However, for anyone interested in healthcare safety, it’s a horrifying, absorbing cautionary tale on what can happen when adequate safeguards are not in place to ensure professional standards. From Wondery, Dr Death is hosted by Laura Beil and is available to download from Apple podcasts and Spotify.  



PsychCrunch podcast

If you’ve ever wondered how you can improve your commitment to exercise, eat less chocolate, persuade others of your viewpoint or make yourself more attractive to others, PsychCrunch is for you. From the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, each episode is around 15-20 minutes long and features interviews with experts on different topics. The podcast is published quarterly and is presented by Dr Christian Jarrett, Ginny Smith and Ella Rhodes. It’s snappy, informative and evidence-based – an easy and engaging way to keep up with developments across psychology. Psychcrunch is available to download on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and Spotify.


The Drop Out 

From ABC Audio, The Drop Out explores the story of Elizabeth Homes and her company, Theranos. Holmes’ goal was to create the first blood test which could provide multiple test results using only a drop of blood – the amount that would result from a pin-prick. This technology would make testing cheaper and more convenient and was widely described as ‘revolutionary’. Her idea drew enormous investment and made her the youngest self-made female billionaire. The only problem was that it was never more than an idea: Holmes’ company Theranos did not even manage to produce blood testing devices which were as accurate as machines already on the market, using the standard amount of blood required. For anyone working in healthcare, the story is an insight into the world of healthcare technology innovation: how it can happen, and where it can go wrong. From a psychological perspective, it considers the mind and motivations of someone dedicated to a goal, regardless of the situation and the cost. The Drop Out is available to download from Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts and Spotify. 


Where Should We Begin? With Esther Perel

Esther Perel is a Belgian-born couples therapist whose podcast episodes are unscripted, one-time counselling sessions. The names of the couples have been changed to help provide anonymity, but the voices and conversation are real. Perel now has a huge library of previous sessions, covering relationship challenges ranging from impotence too infidelity. Perel initially trained in psychodynamic therapy before training in family systems therapy. Her website states that she offers training in ‘psychodynamic, attachment, and systemic theories, as well as sex therapy, psychodrama, and body-oriented approaches’. In truth, as a UK-based, CBT-trained Clinical Psychologist, I’m not sure exactly what her approach is or how it is supposed to work, but it certainly makes for a good podcast. I’d recommend this show for anyone interested in relationships, the concept of one-time counselling sessions or the use of therapeutic models for couples therapy. From Audible, Where Should We Begin? can be downloaded from Spotify, Stitcher and Apple podcasts. 


I Hear Voices 

From BBC Radio 1, this podcast covers 27-year-old Alice’s experience of hearing voices. Alice has multiple voices, each of which has a different personality and may be more likely to occur in relation to different events that happen. For example, there is one set of voices that she only hears when she is cooking and another that occurs after she has self-harmed. Each episode is brief, lasting less than 10 minutes, and explains one of these voice-hearing personalities. The series is told entirely from Alice’s perspective and provides a window into what life is like when you hear voices which can be hard to ignore. Alice’s insight and perception into her own experiences are utterly illuminating for anyone working in mental health or psychology – highly recommended. I Hear Voices is available to download from BBC Sounds and Apple podcasts.


Bad Batch 

In the US, stem cells are big business. Touted as the cure-all for everything from joint aches to Parkinson’s, they can now be purchased in the form of non-controversial birth stem cells (taken from the umbilical cord blood of live born babies) and injected by medical professionals for just $5000 a pop. Bad Batch focuses on this industry, highlighting the lack of evidence to support the lofty claims made by stem cell distributors. It also highlights the risks, focusing on one company, Liveyon, which distributed stem cell vials which led to a group of treated patients falling gravely ill. They also happened to contain almost no active stem cells. Laura Beil, host and reporter, delivers some compelling insights into the factors which have enabled such an industry – and such a patient safety debacle – to occur. First, she highlights inadequate regulation of stem cells, as they are not treated as drugs by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Second, she highlights the nature of the profit-based US healthcare system, where treatments are marketed directly to patients using flashy advertising. For anyone interested in healthcare systems, it’s an engrossing insight into the problems that come when healthcare becomes a marketable commodity. From Wondery, Bad Batch is available to download from Spotify, Stitcher, Podtail and Apple podcasts.


The Last Days of August

Jon Ronson’s podcast, The Last Days of August investigates the death by suicide of porn star August Ames. Ames was aged just 23 at the time, and her death immediately followed a social media ‘pile on’ regarding a comment she made on Twitter. Ronson has long been interested in the effects of public shaming, and his investigation begins there. However, before long he moves away from viewing the Twitter storm as the main reason for Ames’ death. His investigation leads him to explore her childhood, adolescence, marriage to 43-year old porn producer, Kevin Moore and a recent traumatic film shoot she was involved in. As a Clinical Psychologist with a PhD in suicide research, I was a little frustrated that Ronson didn’t include any interviews with experts in suicide, which could have informed his investigation and provided a framework to put the puzzle pieces together. Despite this, it’s a deeply engaging podcast. Sensitively handled by Ronson and his producer Lina Misitzis, it had me gripped to the end. This podcast is likely to be of interest to anyone with a background in mental health or  suicide research. It suitably comes with a warning at the start of every episode though – listeners should be warned that it contains bad language and frequent sexual references, in addition to covering an extremely sensitive topic. From Audible, The Last Days of August is available to download from Stitcher, Apple podcasts, PlayerFM and Podbay.


The Shrink Next Door

From Bloomberg and Wondery, The Shrink Next Door tells the story of the relationship between Marty Markowitz and his therapist, Dr. Isaac Herschkopf. The story is told by long-time journalist Joe Nocera. Nocera had a house in the Hamptons and believed for years that the neighbouring house was owned by Herschkopf. He was invited to house parties by Herschkopf, who also happened to have his name on the mail box. Herschkopf was affluent enough to employ a handyman, whom Nocera regularly saw taking care of the pool and back garden when the Herschkopfs were not staying there. The first twist, of course, is that the house was never owned by Herschkopf: it was owned by Markowitz, who was also mistaken for being the handyman. The Shrink Next Door explores the progressively controlling, isolating and unhealthy ‘therapeutic relationship’ between Herschkopf and Markowitz which gradually saw Herschkopf taking control of Markowitz’s relationships, finances and business. As a mental health professional, this story made my jaw drop. I once agonised over whether it was appropriate to accept the gift of a DVD from a client who wanted to say ‘thank you’ at the end of therapy; the concept that a therapist could break every professional boundary going was utterly astounding to me. This podcast will interest anyone with a background in mental health or a concern for the oversight of therapeutic relationships in health systems. The Shrink Next Door is available to download from Stitcher, PlayerFM and Apple podcasts.

Is psychology a sexist discipline? Reflections on The Patient Gloria

In 1964, Gloria Szymanski was recruited by her therapist, Everett Shostrom, to take part in a series of films demonstrating psychotherapy. Shostrom also recruited three leading psychotherapists: Carl Rogers, creator of ‘person-centred therapy’ (widely known as ‘counselling’), Fritz Perls, creator of ‘Gestalt therapy’ and Albert Ellis, creator of ‘Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy’. Shostrom told Szymanski the videos would be used solely for education purposes. He lied. He later turned the videos into a motion picture, ‘Three Approaches to Psychotherapy’ which was shown in cinemas and on TV. You can still watch it on YouTube today. Szymanski took legal action, but it was unsuccessful.

Last week, I went to see “The Patient Gloria” at Traverse Theatre; a production based on the videos and Szymanski’s experiences. The play combined re-interpretations of the therapy scenes with narration, music and dancing. It took a highly sceptical view of the therapies, highlighting each therapist’s stereotyped interactions with Szymanski (“Rogers is paternal, Perls aggressive and Ellis is predatory”, an information sheet handed out before the play explained). Gina Moxley played all three therapists and also narrated the play, comparing her own experiences of harassment and negative treatment by men with Szymanski’s experiences at the hands of Shostrom and the therapists.

The Patient Gloria

The play was, I think, intended to provoke thought about gender issues; about relationships between men and women and how the ill-treatment of women is often overlooked. As a Clinical Psychologist, my thoughts moved in a slightly different direction. Mainly I was struck by one thing: all three therapists in The Patient Gloria were men. They were therapists I was familiar with, though not the ones who created Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, the psychological approach I use. No: that therapy was created by another man, Aaron Tim Beck. In fact the more I reflected, the more I realised that male views have had a disproportionate impact on the field of psychology. I found this most troubling because psychology is a female-dominated discipline: 80% of undergraduates and around 80% of Clinical Psychologists are women. I began to wonder: is psychology sexist, and is the discipline disproportionately influenced by male views?

In brief: yes

A quick look at the statistics concerning men and women in education and academic psychology would suggest this is the case. While around 80% of psychology undergraduates and Master’s students are women, this drops to 69% at PhD level. It drops further to 63% at Lecturer level and then to 33% at Professor level*. I also did an analysis of the male:female ratio of heads of psychology departments at Russell Group universities (for my advanced spreadsheet, see below). Similar with the ratio of Professors, this suggested that only 36% Of current UK psychology department heads are women. This pattern is a classic version of the “leaky pipeline”: women seem to get lost along the career progression trajectory, until only a minority remain in the most senior positions.

psychology heads of school

No bias in education and training

To be clear, there does not appear to be any bias at the point of enrolling students into educational courses. For example, with undergraduates, females tend to be slightly more successful than males at the application stage, and this has been attributed to females achieving higher grades overall. Similarly, for psychology graduates seeking to enrol onto a competitive Clinical Psychology Doctorate programme, the statistics show no evidence of an anti-female gender bias.

A complex picture

So, when and how do women get lost along the way? The Athena Swan Charter was created in 2005 to address issues of gender inequality in higher education, and academic schools now monitor and report their action on gender equality in order to gain awards (Bronze, Silver, Gold). Some of these reports are available online, and show that the issues are not straightforward. As the School of Psychology at the University of Birmingham reported in their Athena Swan Silver Application, they have tended to receive far more applications for professorial positions from men than women. In fact, over a 3-year period, they reported receiving 3 applications from women, compared with 29 from men.

Part of a wider academic problem?

One possibility is that the inequalities seen in psychology are part of a wider gender bias in academic outcome indicators. For example, an analysis of grants submitted to the Gates Foundation found that those led by women were 16% less likely to get funded than those led by men. Furthermore, where grants are awarded to women, they tend to be for smaller amounts of money. An analysis of funding awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) found that on average, grants awarded to women were 40% smaller than those awarded to men. There is also some evidence to suggest that research papers written by women are less likely to be accepted by journals.

Part of a wider societal problem?

Another possibility is that the gender patterns present in psychology careers simply reflect patterns present in wider society. For example, an analysis of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office found that women were overly represented in junior grades; only 30% of employees in senior management were women. Furthermore, those women who were employed in senior management earned on average 6.5% less than men in the same category of job. Nationwide, the hourly wage gender pay gap for full-time employees has been estimated to stand at around 8.6%. About 40% of the pay gap between men and women is unexplained, indicating that it could be due to bias.

What has all of this got to do with Gloria Szymanski?

The three approaches to psychotherapy demonstrated in The Patient Gloria involved four prominent men: Carl Rogers; Fritz Perls, Albert Ellis and the instigator, Everett Shostrom. All men benefited in having their ideas broadcast worldwide, gaining international recognition for their work. Szymanski, the only woman in the equation, paid a high price for their gain. Her personal views and experiences were laid bare for public dissection. Furthermore, none of this was necessary. I have made several successful videos on YouTube which aim to demonstrate therapeutic techniques; these have been viewed over a million times and are now used by healthcare organisations and universities internationally. Crucially, none of these has sought to demonstrate therapy with a real patient. ALL of the demonstration videos have used actors. Contrary to the concept behind the Gloria videos: most people can’t tell. If you don’t believe me, just read the number of comments underneath where someone is asking if the clients are real. So the question I am left with is: if the gender balance of leading psychologists was more equal, would Szymanski have suffered in the way that she did? Furthermore: would the videos have been created and promoted, at all?


The Patient Gloria is showing at Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh until August 25th.


*I have taken these statistics from the Athena Swan Gold application submitted by the School of Psychology at Queen’s University Belfast. While the report said it took the figures from 2014-15 HESA data, I was unable to locate the original data online, and so have relied upon second-hand reporting of these.