‘The heat and light that draws us together’
Introducing the two days of Zoom keynotes and discussions, outgoing President David Murphy noted how Covid-19 has ‘brought into focus the deep inequities which exist in our world, and magnified them.’ This, he said, can leave us feeling overwhelmed and negative. Yet the Society’s logo offers, Murphy felt, the symbolism of ‘the heat and light that draws us together’.
Host, broadcaster and Society member Claudia Hammond, who skilfully brought together the conference themes and audience questions throughout the entire event, noted of coronavirus that she ‘can’t think of a policy issue where there has been more mention of psychology and behavioural science’. And so it proved, through a series of stimulating and well-received talks…
‘We have to get our own house in order’
Ella Rhodes reports from British Psychological Society Chief Executive Sarb Bajwa’s introduction to the online conference.
Opening the second day of the conference, CEO of the British Psychological Society Sarb Bajwa addressed the organisation’s ‘historic lack of action’ on issues of race and equality and its institutional racism. After being challenged on the lack of speakers from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds at the conference, Bajwa was asked whether the Society was institutionally racist. While his first reaction was ‘emphatic denial’, the question led him to reflect.
Earlier this year Bajwa said he was told by a Black trainee clinical psychologist that they would not attend a BPS event as they would feel unwelcome. ‘That's not an organisation I want to be a part of. I reflect on the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on the BAME community. And as an Asian, I can say that it doesn't surprise me in the slightest, in fact, what surprises me is that people are surprised.’
Bajwa pointed to the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry on racism within the police, which described institutional racism as a form of collective behaviour and a workplace culture supported by a structural status quo. He said that this description led him to reflect on the Society’s own committees, working groups and governance structures which seemed to be built to aid the structural status quo. ‘I also reflected on the fact that many of our members are angry, frustrated, feel their voice isn't heard, and they do not trust us. So if my colleague was to ask me again if we were institutionally racist, I think my answer would be that if it feels like we are then we probably are.’
The time had come, Bajwa said, to admit the Society had been deaf to the pleas of its members, slow to address their concerns, ignorant of their issues and had not taken action to address any of this. To move forward and become a truly representative organisation he said the organisation needed to admit those mistakes.
The Society’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force should be part of the organisation’s day-to-day work and should not run in isolation, Bajwa added. While addressing the Society’s lack of action on race and inequality would take time, he suggested some first steps – including benchmarking the BPS against other professional bodies, using The Psychologist magazine as a way to explore the profession’s history and biases, and running a survey of trainee clinical psychologists’ experiences of racism.
‘I'm not saying this can be fixed overnight. It can't. But perhaps the most important first step is admitting that we haven't spoken up when we should have, we haven't acted when we should have, especially when you, our members, told us that we needed to for too long we've been on the wrong side of this issue. If we really want to positively influence psychology to be the diverse profession it needs to be then we have to get our own house in order first.’
Improving lives at the heart
Given the opportunity to open the conference after winning the student competition, Alice Thomson (University of Westminster) spoke eloquently on her hopes for the future of psychology:
‘I believe a focus on diversity, driven by an anger at the lack thereof in the bulk of classic research, combined with increased collaboration across disciplines, approaches and countries, will have driven the foundations of the field to where they ought to be. … those creating and investigating, or those accessing and engaging, will be truly acknowledging that this isn't a one size fits all kind of discipline. Increasing diversity and acknowledging where we have previously got it wrong in theory, research, practice and education is incredibly important.
By 2040 we will be more accurately reflecting the world we live in, encompassing all people, all communities, and all cultures. … psychology as a field will be nearly unrecognisable. … these are massive changes, and even if they're really good, they can be quite daunting to think about. But I think the motivations behind everyone who’s here – of understanding behaviour, improving lives, and supporting each other – is going to remain at the heart of every person involved.’
Psychological contributions to managing the Covid-19 pandemic
A symposium convened by David Murphy as Society President and Chair of COVID-19 Coordinating Group included contributions from Angel Chater on ‘Advising policy makers and public health on behavioural science and Covid-19 disease prevention’; from Ingram Wright on ‘Undertaking reliable & valid psychological assessment remotely’; from Vivian Hill on ‘Psychological perspectives on transitions during a pandemic’; and from Daryl O’Connor on ‘Psychological research priorities for the COVID-19 Pandemic and beyond’.
Find all the workstreams and resources they talked about here.
Now for the rest of our coverage… note that an account of David Murphy's Presidential Address, 'What Improv, Ubuntu & COVID-19 have taught me about inclusive leadership', will follow in due course.
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