Physics must tackle class prejudice to be truly inclusive

Mike Follows argues that class prejudice can have an equally devastating effect in science as other forms of discrimination

Downbeat People from a working-class background are more likely to suffer imposter syndrome, which undermines confidence and stymies career progression. (Courtesy: iStock/sturti)

During Boris Johnson’s resignation speech as UK prime minister on 7 July 2022, he referenced his “levelling-up” agenda – one of his government’s key domestic policies. “If I have one insight into human beings,” he said, “it is that genius and talent and enthusiasm and imagination are evenly distributed throughout the population. But opportunity is not. And that is why we must keep levelling up.”

Social mobility – the potential for people to achieve success regardless of their background – remains worryingly low in the UK and science is not immune. In 2014, for example, the educational charity the Sutton Trust and the advisory body the Social Mobility Commission published a reportElitist Britain? – that confirmed those educated at independent schools and at the universities of Oxford or Cambridge are “over-represented among Britain’s elite”.

In 2015, meanwhile, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reported that less than 30% of new recruits to leading accountancy firms had attended non-selective state schools despite accounting for almost 90% of the population. A year later, the Social Mobility Commission published research stating that people from more privileged backgrounds are over-represented in scientific roles in the life sciences.

Then, in July 2022 the University and College Union published its first survey on social class in post-16 education, which revealed that people from working-class backgrounds feel they have been denied job opportunities and had their careers limited because of their background. The report also found that people who are already at the greatest risk of being discriminated against, such as disabled, Black, LGBTQ+ and female staff, are also more likely to face class-based discrimination. Simply put: those from under-represented groups in physics have even greater problems if they are from a working-class background.

One shortcut that people often use to identify someone’s class is the accent they speak with, even though there’s no link between accent and intelligence. Indeed, accent prejudice – or “accentism” – is commonplace. As George Bernard Shaw famously complained in the preface to his 1913 play Pygmalion, “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him”.

The unfortunate truth is that, in Britain, people speaking with a “received pronunciation” are perceived by those aged 40 and above as higher-class and more intelligent. And making that assumption can be incredibly quick. A study by Yale School of Management in 2019 found that even during the briefest interactions, a person’s speech patterns shape the way people perceive them, including assessing their competence and fitness for a job. Those from higher social classes are more likely to be assigned higher salaries, which perpetuates class stratification.

The way ahead

Despite the long-standing knowledge that class prejudice exists, it is not among the protected characteristics under the UK’s Equality Act 2010. However, while positive discrimination enshrined in law may be required to reduce all forms of discrimination, even the law can be subtly circumvented. Someone with an impressive CV could be invited to interview (to comply with the Equality Act) only to be unsuccessful, fobbed off with a trumped-up excuse to conceal discrimination.

It is not even as simple as moving from one class to another. Shunned by the class you leave, you can end up encountering hostility from the class you join. In fact, people from a working-class background are more likely than those from other social classes to suffer impostor syndrome, which undermines confidence and stymies career progression. They can also end up suffering from micro-aggressions (insults).

Victims of micro-aggressions are usually told they are just imagining the slight, or that they are overly sensitive or paranoid, or that they simply need to develop a sense of humour. Indeed, even the anticipation of micro-aggressions can cause an enormous amount of mental and emotional stress.

A rush to identify the most discriminated against characteristic will be doomed to failure and could even inspire conflict between marginalized groups

So, are there solutions? The international law firm Clifford Chance has adopted a “CV blind” policy to break its Oxford and Cambridge recruitment bias. There is also software available that changes a speaker’s accent to eliminate unconscious bias during online interviews. But we need more research to find out if the different levels of the academic pyramid reflect the socio-economic diversity of the population at large.

We already know that academia does not authentically reflect ethnic or gender diversity. Yet a rush to identify the most discriminated against characteristic (class versus colour, for example) will be doomed to failure and could even inspire conflict between marginalized groups. A better approach is to identify the source of class discrimination and find ways to address it.

In prehistoric times, it made sense to be wary of outsiders, who might attack us or steal our food. That’s why people formed “in-groups” of family and friends to compete for finite resources. The trouble is that although we no longer face the same existential threat, our “ethnocentric” behaviours persist.

Education is the key to tackling the problem. In a study by Sohad Murrar and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, students were shown five-minute videos that suggested most peers at their university support diversity and try to behave in an inclusive manner. Almost immediately, attitudes toward out-groups and appreciation for diversity improved (Nature Behaviour 4 889).

Physics has one of the largest disadvantage gaps within science, with high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds – as measured by free school meals – much less likely to do physics at A-level and less likely to gain top grades if they do A-levels than those from more privileged backgrounds.

Despite the portrayal of physics as rational and objective, physicists are not immune from human frailties. It’s time we did better to tackle all forms of discrimination and that includes class prejudice.