‘This early experience of being the outsider has shaped my perspective'

Joanna Wilde presents her ‘other CV’ – the personal events and motivations behind her career.

In the photographs I’m two-years-old, holding a watering can, with muddy hands and a beaming smile. These portraits were taken by Oscar Mellor as thanks to my mum for introducing him to Henri Tajfel, and to my dad for recruiting the photographic subjects for Tajfel’s experiments on discrimination and social categorisation. So perhaps my very early life determined my interest in social psychology.

I was born in the early 1960s in Oxford when my parents were university students. Having an ‘unexpected’ child largely kept them from going out to experience the 60s, so instead they invited it into our melting-pot terrace in Osney Island. Our home was the go-to place for those exploring social change in 1960s Oxford. These faces, now catalogued as part of psychological history, were my early family.

When I left school in 1980, my first job was working in a designer wedding dress company: hand stitching, embellishment and headdress design. I already had a place to study psychology at Brunel University, but needed to do something practical after years of schooling. My experience of textile design has been an ongoing influence in my approach to organisational psychology. I have focused on using what we know to design different psychological environments – working with creative uncertainty – rather than using research methods in organisations.

I chose to study at Brunel University as it offered a thin sandwich course, with six months each year on placement. This was important because I was raised in relative poverty (in the grammar school I attended I was the only child in my class on free school meals). Earning was a necessity given my family circumstances. With today’s price of study, I suspect I would never have done a degree.

My parents divorced just before I moved from primary school. This left them both financially constrained and me living between their two houses. My dad, with Irish working-class ‘made good’ roots, lived at the posh end of town, taking in lots of lodgers to cope financially. My mum, from a middle-class academic background, lived at the impoverished end of town. I regularly experienced comments like ‘stuck-up bitch’ walking to and from Mum’s house in Grammar School uniform, and ‘filthy pikey’ walking near Dad’s house. I also experienced the embarrassed pity from teachers at school when I had to explain the reality of my parents’ financial constraints.

I lived with the daily reminder that I did not fit anywhere, always being on the ‘wrong side’ of the intersection of class, gender, ethnicity, education and poverty. This early experience of being the outsider has shaped my perspective. While I clearly have the advantages of being white, educated and with a middle-class voice, I am tuned in to the realities of disadvantage, the process of ‘othering’ and the hurt that this causes; realities that those with easier backgrounds often ignore. I could also argue that this was effective preparation for being a woman and out as a ‘psychologist’ in the construction industry in the late 1980s early 1990s.

Another appeal of Brunel was that the Dean, Liam Hudson, had written a book called Contrary Imaginations. I loved the title as I knew I had one – an orientation that comprised a designer’s imagination with an activist’s determination. I was an activist from a young age. One important memory for me is travelling to Birmingham aged 16 to protest against the National Front. Following in my grandmother’s footsteps, protesting in 1930s against Mosely, I tumbled off the bus into what I believe is called the battle of Digbeth!

While Brunel did not deliver on the contrariness I was hoping for, the structure of the psychology programme did allow me to study sociology, economics and anthropology and offered entry-level legal training. This breadth, combined with prison placements, primed my interest in the organisational justice literature as it developed in the 1990s, and provided the basis for becoming qualified in employment law.

I made a fairly unusual employment choice after graduating. I set up as self-employed, which in the mid-1980s was not that common. The reason was my chronic ill health, which I needed to conceal to earn a living. I gained confidence from listening to Joanna Foster describing female careers as ‘patchwork quilts’. She had been invited (as head of the Equal Opportunities Commission) by Celia Kitzinger to talk to the new British Psychological Society Psychology of Women Section.  

Secrets and the system
My grandpa died when I was six. He had been a key source of stability for me in what was an increasingly stressed home, and we slowly disintegrated after this. Born in 1895 into an Irish community in a Manchester slum (his words), he left school through necessity at age 13. Through his traveller heritage he helped shape the structure of transport in the transition from horse to machine, serving on the UK parliamentary committee for transport in the 1930s. In doing this he pulled himself out of poverty. I remember the feeling of satisfaction of following in his footsteps when I was appointed to the Civil Government and Transport operational board in Hewlett Packard in 2007, and later to a senior executive role in British Airways.  

He died at the time a child begins to notice the outer world and claim a place in it. About a year after he died, I was alone with my two younger sisters on the night our home burned. Both my parents were out, attending after-hours events required by the institution my dad worked for. There were no family-friendly policies then. I had been instructed by my mum to ensure we all stayed in bed and didn’t answer the door. They left in a rush and forgot to turn off the gas under the chip pan. The inevitable happened. I woke up to the noise of something falling, the taste of smoke… I heard a neighbour’s voice calling through the front door to open it. I disobeyed my mum’s explicit instructions and we were swept out before the emergency services came.

What followed was silence – a cover up. Everyone in the block of flats colluded with a fake story that my mother had been at home and had got us out in time. As a family, we did not speak of it for another 40 years. Even at this young age I saw and felt the ‘system’ at work. I couldn’t articulate it, but came to know its power. I am convinced that this formative experience is why I notice the systemic processes around organisational dysfunction, social compliance and whistleblowing. I have used my training in psychology informed by this early experience to develop an approach to organisational psychosocial audit and remedy (that I outline in my recent textbook published with Routledge).

Shortly after the fire, I started getting the symptoms of what was later diagnosed as coeliac disease – chest infections, shaky legs, joint pain, fatigue, vomiting and intestinal pain. Recent developments in our understanding of trauma suggest that this fire was probably the trigger that activated a genetic predisposition. I know that I stopped feeling safe at that point, and as an adult psychologist I now understand the impact that this untended trauma will have had on my vigilance levels. I recently heard a Grenfell Tower victim describing her experience, saying ‘the fire lives in me, it is part of me now’. My experience was nowhere near as devastating as hers – the safety mechanisms did their job and no one died. But I know exactly what she means. I still suffer with flashbacks, memories that are visceral and not visual. Unsurprisingly, I am fascinated by the research exploring the physiological consequences of psychological trauma, the role of the micro-biome on psychological health and the challenge to the claim that false memories of trauma can be implanted visually.

Turning points
The symptoms of undiagnosed coeliac disease plagued my years in education, but managing them became even more complex as I entered the workplace. I graduated 10 years before the disability discrimination legislation and the only viable option was to mask my symptoms. I managed to get part-time contracts with the Tavistock Institute, the Construction Study Unit at Brunel University and a drug treatment project in London. The option for Chartered Psychologist was introduced shortly after I graduated, and I worked to ensure that my ‘gigs’ developed into a suitable occupational psychology portfolio. My reputation as an applied psychologist grew and, in 1987, I was given a contract as the psychologist on the London property development scheme called the Broadgate Project.  

This contract provided me with the data I needed for my doctorate. In parallel with training as a practitioner psychologist I undertook a PhD in the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge supervised by Professor Steve Woolgar, researching networks and knowledge translation across the academia–business boundary (now described as ‘impact’!) This approach, using my sociological research into science and credibility, has been integral in successfully holding senior roles in large businesses, while being the first psychologist in each position.

Shortly after I completed my PhD, I was offered a six-month senior lecturer role in Australia by Professor Stephen Linstead. This was based on my integration of arts, design, sociology and psychology, to teach innovation to business students. My move to Australia led to Rio Tinto commissioning me to audit organisational change processes across large construction sites in Australia and New Zealand.  
It was also a significant turning point for my health. I was getting increasingly irritated with the failure of the UK medical system to engage with my problems. I was, in effect, living with confirmatory bias in action. I would describe my symptoms to each new doctor I met in the UK, but as they read the medical notes about me they ignored the physical. Instead each would tell me I had a ‘mental health’ problem. I was variously told I was a malingerer, depressed, anorexic or anxiety-disordered, but was never offered any help.  

By virtue of being on the other side of the world, my Australian GP listened without being framed by what other doctors had written. I was referred to a specialist within two months and diagnosed by biopsy with coeliac disease within six months of arriving. On adopting the required gluten-free diet, I found that the majority of my most debilitating symptoms and associated issues became more manageable.

This diagnosis also coincided with the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Act, which provided for reasonable adjustments and protection on disclosure. This change culminated for me when British Airways appointed me through their ‘Positive about Disability’ programme, as Senior Leader, Organisation Development and Change and as the Senior Psychologist on their Leadership Forum.

The DDA is clearly important, but the reality in our workplaces is that managers constantly change, and each time this happens it requires a new act of disclosure of sensitive information. Managing the unpredictability of the response is a significant demand. I have found that only in 30 per cent of cases of disclosure is this response kind and helpful; 30 per cent may express pity but no practical understanding of how to respond; 30 per cent are uncivil; 10 per cent downright abusive.

Holding the line
My lived experience as a disabled person has regularly been co-opted by organisations, with requirements to add ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ responsibility to my day job. From relatively early in my career this meant I had access to pay data, which clearly demonstrated how serious the disparity in women’s pay is (to say nothing of the inequity linked to race and disability). In one case there was such a large discrepancy in pay between my salary and the salary paid to a non-disabled man doing the same job with the same performance ratings, that I contacted the Equal Opportunities Commission. They told me that unless a case was won in an Employment Tribunal there was nothing they could do. After much soul-searching I decided to take out an equal pay claim in the Employment Tribunal, as I felt my silence would make me complicit. The parties are obligated to attempt resolution and after 18 months in the Tribunal I accepted settlement. I experienced how psychologically debilitating being a claimant is, and learned both the human cost and the limitations on impact when a regulatory system requires individuals to lead on matters of social change.

I got through this experience with emotional support from my sisters, an excellent, equality-savvy union representative, the knowledge and funds to commission barrister Nick Smith, now of Guildhall Chambers, and the health insurance to pay for psychological support. It is clear to me that ‘resilience’ is a feature of such social resources, not of individual character. I am offended by the current rhetoric that fails to recognise this and subsequently blames victims.  

This lived experience deeply informed my later practice. Increasing fairness at work through redressing social causes of distress to enhance individual wellbeing and organisational productivity became my priority in my executive roles and has been the basis of my contribution as Director for the Council for Work and Health. I volunteered with the British Psychological Society, as founding chair for the work and health policy group and representing the Society on the DoH review of whistleblowing in the NHS, to ensure that this evidence would be more widely shared. It has since been embedded in NICE guidelines and is informing the HSE review of managerial standards and the UN Human Rights Committee. I have also been advocating for equality and pay transparency, including leading the BPS consultation responses to questions of equal pay.

When I look at the photographs of me at two they showed I loved to garden. I still do: my childhood attention to nurturing the natural environment has stayed with me into adulthood. In parallel with the assaults on the planet for which we are all responsible, we have seen the proliferation of psychological environments that are damaging to the human spirit. I am committed to using what we know to design better psychosocial environments. These are environments that work with our humanity and that celebrate our dependence on each other. They must also try to inhibit that deadly demagoguery lurking in all our psyches. It has been a life’s work and work that I am proud to continue for as long as I am able.

Dr Joanna Wilde is a Chartered Psychologist and Chartered Scientist, and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She has had a 25-year senior executive career in organisational change and wellbeing in organisations such as Rio Tinto, Hewlett Packard and British Airways. She has, in parallel, provided a private pro bono psycho-legal practice for victims of disadvantage and discrimination. She has been an active contributor to the Society’s social justice policy influencing strategy.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber