We need to change to make Psychology a fairer science

Dr Allan Laville is Lecturer in Clinical Psychology and Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Reading. As part of the Department of Psychology’s centenary celebrations, he led a recent webinar on this topic.

One wonders why psychology still endures a reputation as the upstart science given that it was nearly 300 years ago in 1732 that Christian Wolff identified the study as its own science in the publication Psychologia Rationalis.

Perhaps in the UK we had a later start to be recognised as a ‘serious science’? The British Psychological Society traces its history back a mere 120 years, and the University of Reading where I work is only celebrating our centenary of the study of psychology. 

Of course, one of the silver linings to being the new kids on the block is that we don’t suffer from the same stereotypes of STEM that some of our fellow sciences endure. Psychology is seen as more attractive for female students in particular and this should be celebrated. But we also recognise that there are deep and systematic barriers to achieving diversity, equity and inclusion in our subject.

As part of our celebrations to mark the centenary of psychology at the University of Reading, I have been reflecting on the past 100 years of psychology and the progress we have made. And like the Roman god Janus, one face looks back over those years to help us consider how we can make positive change in the next century for the D&I agenda. 

I want to suggest that there are five themes that are going to be important in the coming years to advance the D&I agenda.

First, we need to more honestly explore and reflect on the history of psychology and the ways it has been used and supported the marginalisation and othering of people. 

The role that psychology has historically played in persecuting homosexuality as both crime and mental illness is shameful, and we as a community need to address. The ripple effects of the complicity between psychology and the persecution of homosexuality exists to this day and it’s no surprise it was less than 30 years ago that the WHO declassified homosexuality as a ‘mental disorder’. 

So what do I ask myself, being a Bi psychologist and a leader of diversity and inclusion for an institution whose history includes being led by Lord Wolfenden prior to the historic Wolfenden report? How is this affecting the perceptions of psychology for people today, and not just in the UK but around the world? Who is being alienated by this historic complicity to make LGBT+ people feel that they have an illness that needs curing? Who is working in the field of psychology, and yet feels that their workplace or the academic field is not a welcome place for them? This is where the future of psychology lies for me; having the emotional intelligence as a scientific community to recognise this historic hurt and to help healing take place.

Second, we must look at how psychology can support social mobility to take place and remove the barriers that stop some young people from finding meaningful professions in psychology. In particular, although as previously mentioned we enjoy an almost unique status among STEM subjects in seeing women well represented, we do struggle to see those from more socially deprived areas (and particularly young men from these areas) and those from UK minority ethnic backgrounds attracted to psychology. 

With ‘levelling up’ so high on the political agenda and the place of STEM facing a major shake-up in the wake of the global pandemic, the time is ripe for accelerating change in the way in which we see better, more diverse representation. What’s more, the consequence of inaction could lead to psychology being further reduced in status compared to other STEM disciplines. 

So how do we go about this change? How do we inspire generations of young people in schools and colleges to consider a career in psychology? What are the barriers that stop young males from thinking about psychology?

Third, and a related point to my second point, is how we get to grips with a move towards lifelong learning and enable more people at any age to consider a career in psychology. 

Just as the mood in political circles is refocusing on the role of further and technical education and lifelong learning, we need to reflect the affective state by considering how we can draw on a wider range of experience, values-based strengths and transferable skills to bring more people into our sector. 

We have a problem with a shortage of psychologists in the UK, one which is projected to get worse as the deficit grows. But the problem of having a skills deficit on its own does not really address the underlying disorder that we face. 

A leaky pipeline is the one of the most commonly used analogies to think about the progression into STEM subjects. I would contend that the route into clinical psychology training is more akin to a telegraph pole, where you can only climb up the pole if you already have the right type of ladder. If the route into clinical training is weighted towards those that have the means and connections to engage in honorary unpaid placements, we are perpetuating a system that is self-selective and we are missing out on an enormous amount of value that having greater diversity in our science brings.

Fourth, for those us engaged in the education and training of future psychologists we need to carefully review the curricula to ensure that they are fit for the coming century. The world has changed in ways that are deeply upsetting, challenging and yet rightly demand that we change. The global response to deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other black lives in the United States has meant that institutions cannot avoid confronting racism and systematic racial inequality. 

These movements have challenged us to consider whether our accepted ways of thinking about teaching and learning are reflective of the breadth of academic literature out there. The idea of decolonising curricula may well be a contested space in the minds of some in politics, but there is no doubt in my mind that our teaching, learning and professional development will be stronger as we ask the questions: what voices and views are underrepresented and how we can address this?

Fifth and finally, it seems to me that it is beholden on us to demonstrate the sort of emotional intelligence that we often espouse to clients and in classrooms. 

The Johari Window, created in 1955 by US psychologists Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, gave rise to the (in)famous ‘known knowns’ quote by US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in 2002. What the US intelligence services adapted version of the Johari Window gives us is a way to consider what we know, what we know we don’t know, and what is so unexpected that we can’t know it. 

Why is this relevant to diversity and inclusion? Well, if we are to make meaningful change to advance the cause of psychology and maintain our relevance for now and the future, we all need to identify what we do now know, and what do we need to know that we don’t already.

Once we have established our ‘known knowns’ and our ‘known unknowns’, I contend that is it all our responsibility to decide how are we going to take action. The great fallacy of doing the job I do is that people look to me to make change happen. This is so obviously untrue as to be perverse. The only way that we can make change happen is by everyone playing their part. 

Playing the Roman god Janus again, the one and only thing I can say with certainty that will happen in the next century is that change will happen. In what ways things will change is to an extent up to us.

Let us change things for the better.

- The centenary celebrations continue

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