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Class Bias is Still All-Pervasive in the Modern Workplace

Your chances of getting ahead rely fundamentally on where you have come from, says Basit Mahmood

Three Eton College students. Photo: Jeff Gilbert / Alamy Stock Photo

Class Bias is Still All-Pervasivein the Modern Workplace

Your chances of getting ahead rely fundamentally on where you have come from, says Basit Mahmood

The academic Richard Hoggart once wrote: “each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty”. This remains true today as ever, with class background casting a longer shadow over our futures and careers than popular narratives admit.

As someone who was born into a working-class family, I’m used to people telling me that class background no longer matters once you’ve ‘made it’ to university or a well-paid profession. I’m sure I’m not alone in this experience; being told that once you’re embedded in the system, it’s a level playing field, and all that matters is merit.

Yet social class matters throughout a person’s life. Our life prospects are never detached from where we are born, the type of school we attended, or the background of our parents. People from working-class backgrounds who enter elite universities and professions still earn on average £6,400 less than peers drawn from the middle-class.

That’s a class pay gap of nearly 16%. While many have rightly highlighted and campaigned for companies to publish their pay gap data by gender and race, the class pay gap remains neglected.

These issues are of course all interrelated. The class pay gap is worse for women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. The Labour Force Survey (LFS) found that women from working-class backgrounds earn on average £19,000 a year less in elite occupations than men from privileged backgrounds. The figure is even higher for non-white women.

Much of the failure to acknowledge the class pay gap can be explained by the widely-held belief that class inequalities wash away the moment a person gains access to an elite university or profession. Yet social mobility and equality of opportunity are not just about ‘getting in’ but ‘getting on’.

According to the LFS of 100,000 people, only 10% of those from working-class backgrounds reach Britain’s higher managerial, professional or cultural occupations. You are 17 times more likely to go into law if your parents are lawyers, while the children of those in film and television are 12 times more likely to graduate into these fields.

Yet getting in is only part of the battle. Even when the outcomes of Oxford and Cambridge graduates are considered, those from well-off backgrounds still earn £5,000 more than their working-class peers.

For one, the overt school-tie system still very much operates in the UK – with opportunities blatantly handed out to people with family or cultural connections.

However, perhaps more insidious is the popularised idea of ‘meritocracy’, which implies an equal playing field yet is actually highly subjective. Indeed, intelligence and ability are often conflated with cultural tastes, mannerisms and confidence. These are all signals of social class, not necessarily aptitude. I have repeatedly heard people talk about someone being the “right fit” for a job. This idea is laden with class assumptions and personality prejudices.

Nor does merit operate in a vacuum. It needs a platform upon which to be recognised and activated. Yet, once again, those from working-class backgrounds find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to rely on the bank of mum and dad to support the unpaid internships that are now a staple of most high-end professions.

These professions are also typically concentrated in London – the place with the highest living costs in the country, by some distance, hence further restricting the opportunities of people outside the bubble. In the media, 83% of internships are unpaid.  

It is these hidden factors and assumptions that so many of us from working-class backgrounds have experienced, yet are only spoken about in whispers.

The first step towards a solution would be to demand major companies release data on their class pay gaps. This would highlight the pervasiveness of class discrimination, and hopefully motivate reform.

Companies must also clamp down on the culture of informal sponsorship that allows those from privileged backgrounds to promote people due to cultural or social similarity. Firms should establish formal procedures for all hires and prevent senior employees from elevating people on the basis of a ‘tap on the shoulder’.

It’s also time for people from working-class backgrounds to be provided with legal protection against discrimination. While the Equality Act 2010 provides employees with protection against discrimination and harassment in respect of the nine protected characteristics including sex, race, and disability, class remains unprotected.

The class pay gap is a stain on our society. No one should be held back because of their background, and we should recognise that class continues to have a hold on modern Britain.

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