Should class be a protected characteristic?

Ella Rhodes reports from a discussion at BPS Conference 2021.

13 July 2021

Should social class be included as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act? Psychologists and experts in health policy and law came together to discuss this question – ­­­hosted by Dr Nasreen Fazal-Short, Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Presidential Taskforce on Diversity and Inclusion.

In his research senior lecturer and social psychologist Dr Matthew Easterbrook (University of Sussex) explores how our social identities can help to explain educational inequality. He agreed that class should be included in the act and pointed to the additional barriers for people from working class backgrounds. ‘Sometimes pay is less for working class people… for equivalent jobs, some professions are virtually off limits to people from working class backgrounds. Four per cent of doctors say they are from working class backgrounds – if you're a working class person going into the medical profession that's a pretty clear message that that's going to be a very hard task.’ 

Easterbrook said that working class people also feel a great deal of stigma; like they do not fit in, and are generally under-represented in middle class worlds and professions. He said that including social class in the Equality Act would be a recognition of the inequalities that exist for working class people, and would legitimise positive action which aimed to reduce social class inequalities. 

Head of Psychology Dr Bridgette Rickett (Leeds Beckett University) said that as well as reiterating the arguments for the Equality Act to protect class-based inequalities she also wanted to implore psychologists to attend more to class. She said that a general view in psychology research of working class people being deficient in some way had led to discriminatory practices being supported within research. Rickett added that career pathways in professional psychology were almost impossible for many working class people to embark on, and that these pathways are based on middle class ideals – for example assuming a person would have external financial support or would be willing and able to leave their support networks in their local communities. Rickett said there was a well-established link between economic inequalities and psychological distress. ‘This is important for policy… we know that equality and social justice and social cohesion in our communities and our society bolsters better psychological wellness. For psychologists these are the many reasons why this should be of interest to us.’

Qualified barrister, campaigning journalist, and co-director of Compassion in Politics Jennifer Nadel said unfair socio-economic structures affected life expectancy, psychological wellbeing, physical health and educational attainment. She said it would be a great thing to include social class in the Equality Act but that definitions could be a barrier to this – many different definitions of class exist and many do not take aspects such as self-identification into account. 

‘At Compassion in Politics we’re very supportive of this idea but we’re probably more supportive of a different part of the Equality Act which is section one – which would basically enshrine socio economic rights as a fundamental human right, and it would place an obligation on most public bodies to prioritise getting rid of inequality. We would argue that getting rid of inequality and having targets and being obliged to address inequality is probably the most pressing need. It's there on the statute… It doesn't need to be drawn up, it's there, it just needs to be enacted, and versions of it have been enacted in Scotland and Wales.’ 

Senior Fellow in Health Policy at the Nuffield Trust, Dr William Palmer, has recently been involved with work for the BPS on psychology graduates’ career paths. While there is a diverse range of people studying psychology, he said this range is not balanced – more white people study psychology at undergraduate level than medicine, sociology and nursing. 

Palmer said progressing through to a career in psychology was a long road and said there were several issues worth highlighting. ‘Nearly two thirds of entry level positions for psychology typically list previous experience, which might prohibit certain people with certain backgrounds who don't have those opportunities to gain those experiences.’

Palmer also examined the career paths of people from the lowest socio-economic quintile compared to the highest. ‘People from the lowest socio-economic quintile are half as likely to apply to study psychology and once you’re there it’s 1.4 times the likelihood of not completing your degree.’ 

People from the lowest socio-economic quintile are also less than half as likely to be successful when applying to postgraduate clinical psychology courses. ‘Throughout this career pathway we see issues for those from lower socio-economic groups in terms of their ability to participate in psychology, education, training, and then in careers.’

Fazal-Short asked the panel why the Equality Act does not already protect social class, and what some of the barriers may be to its inclusion. Rickett suggested that notions of class had been disintegrated, and that the British were particularly bad at discussing class – adding that the idea we hear of a classless society may lead to a feeling that we do not need to protect it. 

The interaction between social class, race, and other characteristics, also came up for discussion. Easterbrook said that identities did interact, and that different groups faced different realities, stigma and threats, but the data in this area were poor – for example while some ethnic groups have higher levels of exclusions there is little known about any interaction with gender or social class. ‘Whenever there's a discussion about social class or ethnicity we need to try to ensure that this incorporates other intersecting identities within that, so that the data start to be routinely collected and we can understand it better.’

Nadal said that this conversation had been politically hijacked recently by those with a definite right-wing agenda. ‘The [Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities] education report that came out recently which highlighted the plight of white working class males, could have chosen all sorts of different sets of data… which would have focused on ethnicity… but it chose not to. And so we have to be really vigilant and on guard and be able to argue with the facts that are there… it was really disingenuous and very damaging report.’ 

- Look out for 'Conversations on class' in our September issue.