Classism should be banned under the Equality Act, argues the British Psychological Society in new research seen exclusively by the New Statesman.
In a report highlighting the psychological impact of snobbery in schools, healthcare and at work, academics say social class should become a protected characteristic under law.
The British Psychological Society wants the 2010 Equality Act – legislation that protects people from prejudice based on age, sex, race and other characteristics – to include social class.
The report, called “Psychology of social class-based inequalities”, reveals the damaging effects of class-based discrimination in key parts of life.
It defines social class using three measures: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital. In other words: “financial resources, who you know and what you know”, I was told by Dr Bridgette Rickett, the report’s lead author and head of psychology at Leeds Beckett University.
Defining class is complex. Establishing a uniform definition and auditing it in workplaces would be a key benefit of allowing it to be included in the Equality Act, she said.
“The words escape us when talking about class, even though we experience it quite profoundly… It’s what rules we know, our clothes, the way we speak, our accent, how we understand the world,” she said. “Research indicates these are used in an ‘implicit poshness test’ in some of the most influential occupations.”
One of the British Psychological Society’s most disturbing findings is of “stereotype threat”, a phenomenon in children as young as six who worry their behaviour in school will confirm negative assumptions about “people like me”.
This can be triggered by “seemingly innocuous yet ubiquitous classroom practices like raising hands, ability testing, and the presence of books and furniture associated with affluence”, according to the report. “As stereotype threat affects only individuals who are members of negatively stereotyped groups, it increases educational inequalities.”
Teachers absorb society’s stereotypes about working-class children. Research shows they may be less encouraging of pupils from those backgrounds to do “fruitful extracurricular activities” or speak in class, and are more likely to put them in lower sets.
Indeed, one experiment cited in the report found teachers “give grades according to class”, explained Rickett. “When the pieces of work were identical, they’d give lower marks to children perceived to be working class.”
In reception (ages four and five), “within weeks a gap emerges between working-class kids and middle-class and upper-class kids on educational outcomes and continues to widen”, said Rickett. By the time pupils take GCSEs, there is an 18-month attainment gap between those who have free school meals and those who haven’t.
It’s not just education. The report finds working-class people experience judgement and blame when accessing medical treatment. This affects diagnosis and treatment.
“They might get less pain medication, have more dehumanising experiences, or be said to have one disease over another, just based on class,” continued Rickett. Examples include a higher likelihood of someone being blamed for their asthma, judged for obesity, or doubted when pursuing a dyslexia diagnosis.
Health inequalities are so stark that between 2018 and 2020, women in the most deprived areas of the UK lived almost eight to 11 years fewer than women in the wealthiest areas. For men, the gap is ten years.
“Lower” social class is also a causal factor in poor mental health, finds the report. Stigma persists in treatment: UK-based studies find working-class patients may feel “misunderstood, powerless and shamed” when their therapist is of a perceived “higher” social class, leading to a damaging disconnection from therapy.
Class snobbery at work causes psychological distress and hinders life chances. It has a proven link to salary, occupational status and promotions: the average “class pay gap” in UK law firms, for example, is 44 per cent between upper-class workers and lower-class workers (defined by parental income at the age of 14).
Having a lower wage or more precarious employment conditions can “create barriers to the formation of a stable work identity, elevate psychological distress and worsen self-rated health” (the questionnaire answers you give when rating your health on a scale), the report says.
Perceived social status is connected to other prejudices, such as sexism and racism, in education, healthcare and employment. Women from working-class backgrounds earn on average £19,000 a year less in “elite” occupations than men from privileged backgrounds, for example, while ethnic minority workers from working-class backgrounds in “elite” roles earn around £10,000 a year less than their white counterparts of middle-class origin.
Would banning classist discrimination really fix these problems?
“All of a sudden these things would become illegal, so there would be a mandate to try and reduce them,” said Rickett. “It would also change the notions of what we understand to be right and wrong in our society.”
A copy of the report has been sent to Dr Suriyah Bi, who is leading the ongoing Equality Act Review, and its findings have been discussed with government and policymakers.
“They are understanding, but people in government and policymakers have said there just isn’t the stomach or the room or the time to do this right now,” revealed Rickett.
In the meantime, she and her co-authors hope to raise awareness of classism. “It’s the elephant in the room,” remarked Rickett. “Embarrassment over talking about class has got in the way, and the notion that there is a classless society now and it’s all about merit impedes the discussion.”
The psychology of social class is “something of a paradox”, she reflected. “People don’t seem to have the words to talk about class and their class identity experiences – but, when asked, they’re very clear about them and that they’re sometimes treated accordingly. It’s invisible and visible at the same time.”