‘If we are serious about the pursuit of equality and fairness for all, it is essential that social class is recognised as a protected characteristic’

26 May 2022

Our Conversations on Class feature from September 2021 brought some of the issues faced by psychologists with working class backgrounds into the open while this year’s BPS senate campaign, to include social class as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act, has also shone a light on the impacts of class-based discrimination. I spoke to some of the psychologists from the original class feature, as well as experts in psychology, the measurement of social class, and law, to discuss what could happen if we bring working class experiences more firmly into the middle- and upper-class consciousness. 

The impact of ignoring class

Last year a report by the Nuffield Trust, supported by the BPS, explored the education and career journeys of psychologists. While the socioeconomic status of psychology graduates and students was not always clear, the findings highlighted the inequality in applications to psychology degrees, attrition rates at university and the accessibility of entry level positions for those wanting to pursue careers in psychology. 

Last year we heard from clinical psychologists Dr Will Curvis and his colleague Dr Ben Campbell – who sadly passed away in late 2021 – who set up the Class in Clinical Psychology group to open conversations among working class people with ambitions to break into careers and education in clinical psychology. Curvis recently spoke to us about the broader impact of what happens when we don’t take social class into account. ‘It’s very well established that people from more deprived communities have a higher risk of developing health problems and are also less likely to get the appropriate help. I think Covid shone a light on this in a way that nothing ever has – when the first lockdown happened, it was predominantly essential key workers and minimum wage roles that were affected. The same is probably true for mental health – we know that, whatever your philosophical position on what drives mental health problems, you can’t separate out that social perspective.’

Curvis said that during his career he had worked in mental health services where class and socioeconomic status were rarely taken into account. ‘To understand why somebody has come into a psychology service it is really critical to have class as part of your formulation – both in terms of financial and practical issues.’ He added that services were not designed with the needs of working class or deprived communities in mind. ‘I used to work in IAPT so we would get referrals from people whose anxiety or mood was a direct result of their life circumstances – they can’t just think differently about that! There may be things we’re asking them to do differently – doing more pleasurable activities or taking more time for themselves, that broad wellbeing stuff – that isn’t easy when people have got parenting responsibilities, caring responsibilities or when their financial situations are on an absolute knife edge. It doesn’t work.’

BPS Director of Knowledge and Insight, Dr Debra Malpass, said the bias against those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds could be seen in the selection processes in higher education, in employment, and in the experiences of working class people once they enter traditionally middle class spaces. ‘There is an issue of people not feeling that they fit in – people feel rather disjointed and they may feel that they don’t have the resources or connections to be able to navigate even that first selection process. Within your family and your community, if you haven’t got role models then you may not even think that certain opportunities are open to you.’

Malpass comes from a traditional working class family from the West Midlands. Her mother was a nursery nurse and her father was a semi-skilled factory labourer, and she was the first in her family to gain a university degree. ‘When I graduated in 1999 I didn’t feel that clinical psychology as a career was open to me, because the people that I saw doing that course and the lecturers did seem to me to be very, very middle class.’ Malpass said that, during her time working with the BPS, she had met young trainee psychologists who, similarly, felt they were ‘too’ working class for a career in clinical psychology. ‘That has been quite shocking to me – that in that 20-year period things haven’t really moved on. Some universities may argue that they do a lot to open access, but it is also about perceptions and I think there’s more that can be done there.’

Once a working class person enters middle class spaces, such as universities, Malpass said they can experience microaggressions, and feel as though they are not accepted. ‘I’ve certainly experienced microaggressions based on my socioeconomic status, particularly around my accent. I have quite a strong Black Country accent which people associate with a working class background. When I was a PhD student I remember being in the bar at the university, and someone saying, “oh, have you seen where so and so lives? It looks like a council flat”, I said, “well I live in a council flat”, and three of the students who were at the table with me physically lifted up their chairs and moved away from me.’ 

How can we bring class in the light?

Malpass has been exploring ways to bring class into the open within the BPS – not an easy task given the difficulties in measuring social class. As she tells me, unlike some protected characteristics, class may fluctuate across a lifetime – even if the working class identity remains stable. Malpass has faced the challenge of the best measurement for social class in previous research roles with the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority and the exam board AQA. She told me that many organisations ask people whether they were eligible for free school meals as a measure of class. However, the policy which determines who is eligible changes over time, and many parents may not be aware their children are eligible or may not claim free school meals due to the stigma associated with receiving them. 

The BPS has started to gather members’ socioeconomic data on the society’s new membership database system using measures recommended by the Office for National Statistics. Members are now asked about the highest qualification gained by a parent or guardian by the time a member was 18, and the type of work the highest income earner in a household did when the member was 14. ‘All of our diversity data will be locked down on the system, so it won’t be available to view. When extracted for analysis it will be fully anonymised – and when it is shared it will be at a group level so individuals cannot be identified. But the importance of us collecting that data is so that we can effectively monitor the BPS’ activities – we can look at things like how many people with certain characteristics are engaging with us on different activities and whether our committees, working groups, task and finish groups, and boards are representative. Then we can compare it with the wider BPS membership, but also with the wider population, because, as psychologists, we should be representative of the populations that we serve.’

Curvis said it was important to acknowledge social class, but with caution, and without conflating class with financial circumstances. ‘There’s an identity people have of being from a working class background, it’s part of your make-up, it’s part of your DNA… that might change with your financial circumstances, but a lot of people never let go of that.’ 

When discussing working classness, Curvis said there was often an implication that all working class people strive to be middle class, or should strive to be middle class. ‘One of the first things that got me started ranting about these issues was an article in The Guardian, it was an obituary for an academic and said they were from a deprived working class background, but they always really tried to “better” themselves by reading the broadsheets. My reaction was, so what? Not everyone who is working class has this desire to be middle class!’ This implication taps into meritocracy myths, Curvis said: ‘…that if you work hard you can reach the upper echelons of society, which is nonsense. It’s a myth that all people want to do that and that it’s feasible for people to do that – it’s a very neoliberal idea that keeps people striving away.’ 

Curvis said the working class identity can cause people to feel out of place in middle class environments, and that should be considered when trying to encourage more people into careers including psychology. ‘You feel like you’re muddling through, you feel like you’re trying to navigate these worlds. For people who are stepping out of traditionally working class environments you can feel like you don’t fit in either camp any more – you feel like you don’t fit in in a work context, but also you feel a bit different from your family and your friends and the way you grew up. 

‘I don’t think it’s just about having a more diverse workforce, but also how we actually support people to do well and thrive in those roles when we get them in, and this is true of race, culture, age, gender – and a lot of these things will intersect with class. If we’re bringing people into these professions, we need to think about how we look after and support people to actually go on and do good stuff in these jobs. There’s always a challenge in any type of positive-action recruitment strategy that people will feel they only got the job because thresholds have been lowered, but that shouldn’t be the case – the thresholds should be set at the right level in the first place.’ 

While Curvis said he did not expect psychology to have an answer to all these issues, but he did suggest that psychology should not be adding more barriers for people and should be engaging with issues at the political level. ‘Why aren’t the big organisations like the BPS challenging some of this stuff around energy bills? Where’s the role of psychology as a profession in actually putting that pressure on the government to think about this from our point of view? Similarly, where’s the training for practitioners who are in the therapy room with a person who’s really struggling to pay the bills or manage financially, what tools have they got at their disposal to help people cope with that beyond saying “that’s really tough isn’t it”?’

Should social class be a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010?

I spoke to Jennifer Nadel, a trained barrister, journalist, and co-founder of Compassion in Politics about the legal implications of class being included in the Equality Act 2010. ‘This country is one of the most socially and economically unequal countries in the world… We know that the occupation of your parents has a far greater impact on your prospects than the type of degree you earn.’ Nadel pointed to the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage on health, life expectancy and educational attainment – as well as the added effects of being from multiple marginalised groups – something highlighted during the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘Now we have rising inflation and a brutal cost of living squeeze which will inevitably hit those with least hardest.’ 

Nadel said that while including social class as a protected characteristic would be a positive step, there would be issues with defining social classes. ‘For example, the Office of National Statistics uses a definition which is based on types of work. But class discrimination is about more than just social mobility. You can have social mobility but still be exposed to rampant classism and stereotyping. We only need to look at the insults that are levelled at Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party [see also thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/social-class-matters]. Abuse centres on her working class accent despite the high status of her working achievements.’  

While including social class in the Equality Act would not be legally impossible, Nadel said it would require wider cultural changes to accompany it. ‘During the pandemic we saw very starkly that those we often relied on most in a crisis were the least well paid. How can we have an economic structure that fails to adequately reward those who do the jobs that are most needed whilst over-rewarding those who often contribute far less to society?’ 

Nadel’s organisation Compassion in Politics campaigns for measures to tackle inequality and hardship. ‘It’s totally unacceptable that in one of the world’s richest nations benefit levels and wages are so low that growing numbers of people are forced to rely on food banks or go hungry. There are structural inequalities that must be addressed alongside action on discrimination. True equality, which is at the heart of compassion, means that we are all of equal value, irrespective of educational attainment, life-style choices, geography etc. A compassionate society is one in which everyone can live free from hunger, homelessness and constant financial insecurity.’

While supporting the BPS’ campaign for ending discrimination on socioeconomic grounds, Compassion in Politics also campaigns for a living income and for Section One of the Equality Act to be introduced. ‘That section, which is already on the statute book but not yet enacted, would put a positive duty on all public bodies to work to reduce socioeconomic disadvantage. It’s a positive and proactive duty. Versions of this have already been implemented in Scotland and Wales and if this government wants levelling up to be more than just a slogan it could enact this measure which is already on the statute book immediately.’ 

I caught up with Dr Laura Kilby (Sheffield Hallam University), who featured in our original class feature, to ask her whether she felt social class should be a protected characteristic. She said she would strongly support this move to help tackle class-based discrimination in the workplace and education. Whilst acknowledging that there was no simple way to measure or define social class, she argued that ‘the challenges of how we define social class are not insurmountable and it is in the interests of social justice that we seek solutions’. She further added that ‘social class intersects with many of the existing protected characteristics, recognising social class will enable more nuanced considerations of how forms of prejudice and discrimination are multi-layered and intersecting. If we are serious about the pursuit of equality and fairness for all, it is essential that social class is recognised as a protected characteristic.’ 

Curvis told me that, while he thought it would be positive to include social class as a protected characteristic, he also raised concerns over defining social class without being exclusionary to some groups. ‘It would potentially be quite controversial because I think class is so embedded within people’s identity and sense of who they are and it’s not very well defined. But I think it would be a positive move, especially if it created more opportunities for people who come from more deprived parts of the country or more working class backgrounds. The challenge is how do you do that in a fair and supportive way?’

It took around 10 years for the Equality Act to become law – Malpass tells me – driven by Harriet Harman. ‘I think it’s a very important measure to be included, but I’m not sure the government appetite is there at the moment to be able to get that included or it may well be replaced by a new Bill of Rights. But it’s important, it should be looked at, and not just class in isolation because of its intersection with so many other protected characteristics.’