Psychologist logo

Money on my mind

Does a culture of graduate volunteering represent 'a socio-economic and politically driven subjugation of women'?

16 November 2015

The future generation of clinical psychologists is perhaps more acutely aware of austerity’s effect on career aspirations than ever before: ‘Graduates told “work for free” for a year if you want to be employed by the NHS’ (The Mirror: The article tells us this ‘news’ is a ‘shocking indictment’ of the pressures being placed by the Tory government. Be this as it may, the expectation that psychology graduates work voluntarily is nothing new.

My heart sinks, listening to a recent graduate, eager to gain yet more voluntary experience, which she finances by doing a carer’s shifts. She wants to become a clinical psychologist but it’s so competitive. She sighs.

Psychology continues to be one of the most popular undergraduate subjects. The majority of students are female. We find the same feminisation trend in clinical psychology training: 83 per cent of accepted applications are women (see Examining the career attraction of female trainee clinical psychologists, Baker and Nash (2013) identified themes, such as ‘making a difference’, ‘idealising a challenge’, and ‘identifying with distress’. Important life goals were anticipated as sacrificed or postponed during training and some perceived NHS salaries as demotivating.

Whilst graduate psychologists earn on average £20,667, the Graduate Market Report (see predicted a median graduate salary of £30,000 (e.g. investment banks paying £45,000; law firms £40,000). And whilst salary figures vary depending on the source and various other factors, there is a trend that female earn less than male graduates, and graduates from more prestigious universities earn more than graduates from less elitist universities. Over four fifths of UK graduate employers are offering paid work experience and work programmes for students and recent graduates (13,049 paid work placements being available).

These figures do not compare favourably with what’s on offer for graduates in our profession. Are we undermining the value of psychology by working for nothing, and, according to one university’s FAQs: ‘Is volunteering worth doing? Yes, firstly it’s a nice thing to do and… it will help support your application’ (see

Sure, but why are we expected to transcend the materiality of the economic and political world and embrace poverty and inferiority? Is the reluctance to pay highly skilled professionals a subjugation of clinical psychology, associated with the female, nurture and sacrifice? A socio-economic and politically driven subjugation of women? Whilst known, has something in the cycle of knowing been forgotten? Is it wilful amnesia and complacency or the work of a collective unconscious, where socio-economic exploitative practices pass as natural? Today, the gender pay gap remains the clearest example of inequality. Female managers earn 22 per cent less than their male counterparts and, according to a report in The Guardian earlier this year, ‘work for free’ for nearly two hours a day ( Is ceasing to become an equal partner in the economic enterprise a sacrifice females are willing to make and males won’t, hence, the gender disparity in (clinical) psychologists? Mental health services are shaped by men (Morison et al., 2014). Men continue to have the real socio-economic and political power in the UK. Money, whether we like it or not, goes hand-in-hand with power. Perhaps the idea of women in power still creates anxieties so that volunteering becomes a place where unconscious socio-economic gender battles are being politically acted out? It’s a complex issue – what are we going to do about it?
Dr Susanne Vosmer

Baker, M. & Nash, J. (2013). Women entering clinical psychology: Q-sort narratives of career attraction of female clinical psychology trainees in the UK. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 20(3), 246–253.
Morison, L., Trigeoris, C. & John, M. (2014). Are mental health services inherently feminised? The Psychologist, 27(6), 414–416.