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History of Psychology Centre

BPS and Equality

26 April 2019 | by History of Psychology Centre

The following article has been provided by Sophie O’Reilly, Assistant Archivist and part of the society’s History of Psychology Centre.

In my time working as an assistant archivist for the BPS, I have encountered several examples in its institutional history of the BPS taking a stand to promote equality, one of the most recent of which is the society’s decision to become a primary signatory to the Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK.

And, due to this year’s BPS annual conference theme ‘The psychological impact of inequality’, I thought it an apt time to briefly look at the history of the BPS's role in promoting equalities.

When I joined the BPS four months ago, I was pleased to discover that one of the 1901 founders of the society was Sophie Bryant. She was, among many other things, the first woman to be elected to the senate of London University and also President of the Hampstead branch of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

Another early member, Beatrice Edgell, became the first woman President of the BPS in 1929, only a year after British women achieved the vote. As assistant archivist I am also grateful to Edgell who wrote the first history of the British Psychological Society in 1941.

And while the early BPS was no different to wider psychology at the time in terms of its involvement in the history of pathologising sexual and gender identities it is worth noting that Eric Benjamin Strauss (then BPS President) was part of the BPS working group who produced evidence to the Home Office Committee on the Law Relating to Homosexual Offences in 1956 and was also a founding member of the 'Homosexual Law Reform Society', which was established in 1958 to campaign for the recommendations contained in the Wolfenden Report.

The BPS also has strong track record in speaking out against racism. Their stance on apartheid was made clear at the 1974 AGM when it was agreed that South African job advertisement would only be accepted in the society's appointments memoranda if there were reassurances that the posts were open to people of all ethnicities.

In 1989 the BPS formally condemned apartheid by voting that apartheid was against the society's code of conduct, which stated that:

"Psychologists shall not allow their professional responsibilities or standards of practice to be diminished by considerations of religion, sex, race, age, nationality, part politics, social standing, class or other extraneous factors".

This may seem a little late to the game (Apartheid legislation in South Africa was abolished in 1991), but in fact the BPS was not allowed to directly comment on political issues before this and it was only due to the 1987 constitutional changes that allowed for the 1989 vote, which made it clear that discrimination was against the BPS code of conduct.

Even before this the BPS had begun to formally make issues of equality and the promotion of social justice a core activity, beginning with the creation of the BPS Standing Committee for the Promotion of Equal Opportunities (SCPEO) in 1981.

I have been cataloguing the records of this committee over the past few months and have found it rewarding to document a committee which was active in encouraging positive action among, and by, psychologists to promote equal opportunities for both sexes and for members of minority groups.

SCPEO’s agenda was raised at the 1983 January ‘Open Forum’ of the BPS. The Committee focused on the role of the psychologist in facilitating positive action, the lack of information on the numbers of women and minorities working in psychology, the effects of the underrepresentation of minorities in professional psychology and the contribution of psychologists to the implementation of equal pay for work of equal value.

Another avenue by which SCPEO promoted psychologists’ work towards equality was the creation of an annual Award for Challenging Inequality of Opportunity (later the Award for Promoting Equality of Opportunity), which recognised work which challenged social inequalities within the UK.

The Committee went on to implement BPS Membership Equal Opportunity Monitoring as well guidelines on inclusive language; a BPS Equal Opportunities Policy (1994) and held symposia on equality issues including a Round Table on ‘Psychologists, Racism and the Lawrence Enquiry’.

Due to equal opportunities and diversity becoming mainstream Society business SCPEO was dissolved in 2009.

The BPS continues to promote social justice and has become ever more vocal in issues of equality. In 2009 they responded to the Department for Communities and Local Government Consultation on the discussion document ‘Tackling Race Inequalities’:

“The effects of inequality are felt on a personal level and can impact on psychological functioning and behaviour. On an interpersonal level, inequality, discrimination and prejudice are grounded in psychological and social processes; psychological interventions to address these processes are a key means of reducing inequality.”

And, in addition to this, the BPS has remained consistent in its promotion for the equality of the LGBTQ+ community. For example, in 2016 the BPS condemned the reported proposal by the Indonesian Psychiatrists Association to classify lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender sexual and gender identities as mental illnesses.

These few examples, illuminating as they may be, really only give a very brief glimpse into how the BPS has institutionally addressed equality – if I were to include all the amazing work by the various Member Networks, Boards, Working Parties and others I would need to write a book!

To find out more about the BPS and its history visit www.bps.org.uk/hopc or browse our archives and collections at archives.bps.org.uk//default.aspx .

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