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Paula Nicolson


Training Location(s):

PhD, London School of Economics, (1988)

CQSW, University of Surrey, (1977)

MS, University of Surrey, (1979)

BS, University of Wales, (1973)

Primary Affiliation(s):

Royal Holloway, University of London, (2005-present)

Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust, (2008-2010)

University of Sheffield, (1990-2005)

University of East London, (1978-1990)

Media Links:
Professional Website

Paula Nicolson at the University of London


Psychology's Feminist Voices Oral History Transcript


Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Feminist Identity

Oral History Excerpt on YouTube: Reflexivity



Career Focus: Gender and organization; postnatal depression; pregnancy; domestic violence; psychoanalysis; health.


Paula Nicolson was born in London, England on July 24, 1949. When she was eleven years old, Nicolson attended a girls' grammar school where she excelled in her studies. Her father's job in the Royal Air Force resulted in the family having to move soon afterwards and Nicholson was then placed in a co-educational grammar school. Not long after, she noticed that her academic performance began to decline. Students at this school took gender-based classes that focused the students' knowledge on one particular area. Nicolson described her experience at this school as  "strange, and I didn't understand why I was being made to do something, on a gender basis." Instead of needlework and cooking, she actually preferred to learn what the boys studied, e.g., politics. Nicolson recognized this time in her life as a moment when her feminist identity began to coalesce.  


Nicolson studied psychology at the University of Wales for her undergraduate degree. She was one of only three women in her class. About three weeks after receiving her B.Sc., Nicolson gave birth to her daughter. Since she was at home taking care of the baby, she also took care of the house and the cooking, even though she remarks that she was neither good at, nor fond of, doing so. Her husband was aware of Nicolson's desire to continue on as an academic and he wholeheartedly supported her decision to return to school.


Nicolson completed both her M.Sc. and her CQSW (Certificate of Qualification in Social Work) at the University of Surrey before attending the London School of Economics to complete her Ph.D. with research on postnatal depression. For her Ph.D. she chose the "radical" method of interviewing participants for data collection. This occurred in 1980, a time when qualitative research was not as highly respected as quantitative research.  Early on, and throughout her career as well, Nicolson valued the interview process as a rich and eloquent method for obtaining data.


About two to three years after beginning her Ph.D., Nicolson and a few of her colleagues were interested in creating a section of the British Psychological Society (BPS) to be called "The Feminist Section of the British Psychological Society." It was later named the "Psychology of Women Section" (POWS) due to complaints from the BPS - they wanted a title that sounded more objective and scientific. One of the main goals of POWS was to set up a psychology journal dedicated to women's issues.


Nicolson also spent some of her career working with companies and corporations. As one example, she conducted research on "expert witnesses" in reproductive health. She encountered cases of women "who had a [pregnancy] termination that didn't work or had a termination and found themselves sterile," or other instances of careless medical negligence. Nicolson would then conduct interviews with these women and write reports based on her findings.  Qualitative methods have been at the heart of much of her research. When she later began working at the School for Health and Related Research (ScHARR) in Sheffield, England, she led focus groups and conducted interviews with patients with chronic illnesses such as multiple sclerosis, chronic bronchitis, and overactive bladder.


Some of Nicolson's more recent administrative research has involved an investigation of leadership in the National Health Service (NHS). The study entailed "ethnographic, storytelling interviews and focus groups." Through interviews with men and women, Nicolson uncovered a prominent thread in the male interviews about the perception that women had "slept their way" to their positions.  Despite this, the senior women interviewed largely claimed that "Gender is not a problem now," but later acknowledged that, although much testosterone was present, they were able to handle it. Nicolson later explained that no clear conclusions could be drawn from the study since companies appeared to be changing for the better in some ways, but were becoming more damaging to women in others.


Nicolson, when describing her experience of being a busy and successful professional, mentions how her circumstances were distinct from most of the women she grew up with. Whereas most of her friends finished their educations first and had children afterwards, Nicolson gave birth to her daughter before beginning her postgraduate education. She explained how her peers were forced to juggle having young children and new careers at the same time, while she could focus on her Ph.D. and then her new career, with her daughter at an older, more independent age. As Nicolson puts it, "she was off my hands." That said, Nicolson  was still needed to care for her daughter, and so completed her Ph.D. as a part-time student from 1980 to 1988.


Nicolson's career was slow to take off at first, and she regards this as a challenging point in her life. Numerous times during her Ph.D. she questioned her ability to finish her degree. She notes that her husband was a significant motivator for her, since he would remind her about her goals and would help put her life into perspective. Regarding one of her discussions with him, Nicolson recounts, "I wouldn't have gone on if we hadn't had that conversation."


Above all, Nicolson is very aware of gender discrimination, particularly among women academics: "being a feminist, an academic, and doing reasonably well actually upsets an awful lot of people, including yourself, because you feel you have to justify it to yourself in certain ways." She also describes a form of antagonism that is created between feminist academics and feminists who believe that they are "doing something more useful than being an academic."


During 2008 and 2010, Nicolson attended courses at the Tavistock & Portman NHS Foundation Trust, an organization that aims to make high quality mental health services available to whomever needs them. Here, Nicolson devoted herself to psychoanalytic research, an area that has remained an interest for Nicolson for most of her career.


Nicolson's most important advice to feminist women entering psychology today is to form a relationship with a coach or a mentor.  Nicolson describes that she was "isolated" by not having a mentor herself.  She explains that it is challenging for women in particular to be academics and clinicians since the number of women present decreases as you become more highly ranked and, thus, become more socially isolated. Any man or woman can be a mentor, Nicolson believes, as long as they respect your work and are trustworthy individuals.


by Lori Caplan (2011)

To cite this article, see Credits

Selected Works:


Nicolson, P. (2010). Domestic violence and psychology: A critical perspective. London: Taylor and Francis.


Nicolson, P. (2010). What is 'psychological' about 'normal' pregnancy? The Psychologist, 23(3), 190-193.


Nicolson, P. (2001). Postnatal depression: The paradox of loss, happiness and motherhood. Chichester, UK: Wiley.


Nicolson, P. (1996). Gender, power and organisation: A psychological perspective. Routledge: London.


Nicolson, P., Kopp, Z., Chapple, C. R., & Kelleher, C. (2008). It's just the worry about not being able to control it! A qualitative study of living with overactive bladder, British Journal of Health Psychology, 13(2), 343-359.


Nicolson, P., & Wilson, R. (2004). Is domestic violence a gender issue? Views from a British City. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 14(4), 266-283.


Interview with Paula Nicolson: Developing a Feminist Identity

Interview conducted July 15, 2010 by Alexandra Rutherford and Kelli Vaughn in Windsor, England.


Interview with Paula Nicolson: On Objectivity & Reflexivity

Interview conducted July 15, 2010 by Alexandra Rutherford and Kelli Vaughn in Windsor, England.