'The same difference allows you to connect to people'

Ella Rhodes reports on a British Psychological Society webinar around issues of class.

Despite what many would like to believe, social class still has a profound impact on access to careers, opportunities, and education. As part of a series of webinars on diversity and inclusion psychologists from working class backgrounds came together to discuss the impact of living in middle class worlds with working class identities. 

Dr Will Curvis and Dr Ben Campbell have been running their own series of webinars on being working class in clinical psychology. Both clinical psychologists, and both from working class backgrounds, they were joined for a discussion by research assistant psychologist Sarah St Ledger and assistant psychologist Amy Goddard. 

They each shared their journeys through life and into psychology. Campbell, who has experience of the care system, spoke of his shock at being accepted into university in the first place and his financial struggles throughout training. St Ledger said that, growing up in a dysfunctional family, there was never an emphasis placed on education or career paths. 

After she began her A-levels she experienced a sudden bereavement and became pregnant with her daughter and felt the odds of becoming a psychologist were stacking up against her. In her late 20s, after an undergraduate degree in early childhood studies and later working in school nursing, she returned to university to complete a psychology conversion masters while also working at a pub in the evenings and at weekends, caring for her two children and volunteering with Mind. 

Goddard became homeless at the age of 16 but managed to get into university and later completed a masters while working as a support worker and caring for her children. She spoke of the difference between herself and her peers, who were lucky enough to have their accommodation paid for by their parents, and who did not have to work through their higher education.  

They spoke of some of the systemic barriers on the journey to becoming a clinical psychologist – difficulties affording to pay for education without also working, feeling a difficulty to fit in with the culture of the profession, the lack of social capital (contacts already in the profession who could lend a helping hand), and the lack of close family members to act as a 'cushion' when things become difficult. Goddard said it was important that clinical psychology was as diverse as possible – and that service users appreciate the fact that she can relate to their experience in many ways. St Ledger added, ‘It’s a paradox within the profession, your background, your difference, leaves you feeling like you don’t fit, but it’s the same difference that allows you to connect to people so well in your work.’ 

A second panel included Curvis, Campbell, Senior Clinical Tutor and Admissions Tutor Dr Cathy Amor (Lancaster University), Leah Sharkah – a psychology student at the University of Birmingham and event leader for The Black Mind Initiative and BPS Director of Knowledge and Insight Dr Debra Malpass, with British Sign Language interpretation by psychology student and member of the BPS Presidential Taskforce on Diversity and Inclusion Layne Whittaker. Chair of the taskforce Dr Nasreen Fazal-Short opened the session by asking panellists about the barriers they had experienced on their journey through psychology. 

Amor said she felt her class could be an advantage, in feeling closer to those in her clinical work and understanding clients’ lives better than others might. Having left home at 16 and completing A-levels at night school and working throughout her degree, Amor said she felt a great sense of resilience, but she had also felt less inclined to ask for help in the past.

She also spoke about her work to make access to the Clinical Psychology Doctorate at Lancaster University fairer – for example by shortlisting applicants through the use of short mental ability tests, rather than using references or rating information on application forms, interviewing those people with top scores. Amor said that using application forms was a poor predictor of ability in a given job, and using references tended to perpetuate the status quo as referees tend to recommend people similar to themselves. 

Malpass also left home as a teenager, became a mother at 18 and experienced homelessness for a time. She said she had not pursued a professional career in psychology as she felt she didn’t fit in because of her background. She spoke of some of the stigma she had felt from others in her work – people commenting on her Wolverhampton accent, not believing she should be a team leader because she hadn’t been to public school. Malpass said people did not realise the impact these words could have on a person. 

Sharkah said she expects to face struggles after her undergraduate degree is finished – in gaining clinical psychology experience and potentially being expected to work for free as an honourary assistant psychologist – she said it was important to acknowledge the way class creates huge barriers to people who want to pursue careers in psychology. As a black woman, when met with disagreement or conflict, Sharkah said she felt a need to tone herself down, and not be as opinionated as she might want to be, for fear of coming across as aggressive. 

Malpass said she was putting plans in place to collect data on protected characteristics, including socioeconomic background, from panellists and attendees at BPS events. ‘We want to represent the profession and give everyone a voice, then we can see where there’s barriers.’ 

Fazal-Short ended by telling those people listening to the webinar that they should not feel they don’t have the 'right' qualities to work in psychology because of their background. She urged those with power in the profession to remove honorary, or unpaid, positions and help to change the system.

Asked for final thoughts, Curvis said it was important to consider our own privilege and work to mitigate the impact of privilege to ensure we have a more diverse profession. Campbell said he was really happy that the conversation was being had and that it was tapping into something powerful. 

Amor said the event had made her consider how much easier a career journey can be for someone from a supported and privileged background and encouraged attendees not to internalise a sense of 'do I belong?'. Malpass also encouraged attendees not to be ashamed of where they had come from and also said that when people reach their goal they should not pull up the drawbridge behind themselves.

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