by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison
8th April 2019

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Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison

An edited excerpt from the epilogue of The Class Ceiling by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison.

In contemporary Britain it quite literally pays to be privileged. Even when individuals from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering the country’s elite occupations they go on to earn, on average, 16% less than colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.

More significantly this class pay gap is not explained away by conventional indicators of ‘merit’. A substantial gap remains even when we take into account a person’s educational credentials, the hours they work and their level of training and experience. In fact, as we demonstrate in our new book The Class Ceiling, more powerful than ‘merit’ are drivers rooted in the misrecognition of classed self-presentation as ‘talent’, work cultures historically shaped by the privileged, the affordances of the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’, and sponsored mobility premised on class-cultural similarity and familiarity.

Unfortunately there are no silver-bullet policy tools to address this class ceiling. The mechanisms that underlie such systematic inequity are in large part societal; they are about fundamental inequalities in the resources (economic, cultural and social) that flow from a person’s family background. This means that however well-meaning and committed employers may be, there will always be limits to their ability to unilaterally tackle class inequality and social mobility in the workplace.  Yet this doesn’t mean that change is not possible and worth fighting for. Here we team up with Nik Miller, Chief Executive of The Bridge Group (a charity that specialises in working with organisations to improve social mobility) to outline 10 practical ways in which employers can tackle the drivers of the class ceiling (adapted from the Epilogue to the book).


  1. Measure and monitor class background

The first step towards meaningful change is accurate measurement. At present there is little consensus across sectors about the measurement and monitoring of class or socio-economic background. Many organisations still don’t collect data in this area and, among those that do, a range of different measures are used. But things are starting to change. In June 2018 the UK government worked with the Bridge Group to publish recommendations on how employers should measure class background in their workforce. This recommended data collection in four areas; parental occupation, type of schooling, free school meal eligibility and parental experience of higher education. Many large organisations, such as the BBC, KPMG and the Civil Service, have already collated these data and others are poised to follow suit. To this end, we would urge all employers to follow The Bridge Group guidance on how to collate class background data.  This provides detailed guidance on the precise survey questions to ask, the answer categories to provide, and how the resulting data should be presented.


  1. Find out whether your organisation has a class ceiling

Effective measurement has two dimensions. Organisations of course need to understand the overall class composition of their workforce. But they also need to go further and investigate whether they too have a class ceiling. This can be achieved by both looking at how socio-economic composition varies by grade or position, or by investigating whether there is a pay gap by class background. Where firms do uncover ceiling effects, we encourage them to undertake qualitative research to understand the factors contributing to this and attempt to find solutions.


  1. Start a conversation about talent

One of the most significant drivers of the class ceiling is how talent and ‘merit’ are defined and rewarded within organisations. Our research shows that the objective identification of ‘merit’ is often intertwined with subjective responses to the way ‘merit’ is performed (in terms of classed self-presentation and arbitrary behavioural codes) and who the decision-makers are whose job it is to recognise and reward these attributes. In this way, it is critical that employers interrogate how ‘merit’ is recognised within their organisation, and to what extent it can be reliably connected to demonstrable output or performance. This interrogation might take the form of a conference, online engagement via blogs and webinars (often anonymity can be useful here), a set of public events, or an internal away day. Conversations should pit authoritative but purposively opposing voices against one another, ensuring that those at all levels contribute, to discuss and debate evidence, research and data, and should be aimed at creating practical responses.


  1. Take intersectionality seriously

Equality and diversity provision within organisations is very often organised one-dimensionally along a single axis of social inequality, such as gender or ethnicity. Yet people’s work lives are better understood as being shaped by many axes of inequality that often work together and influence one another, or create distinct types of disadvantage that are experienced in different ways. For example, white women and people of colour from working-class backgrounds face a very clear ‘double disadvantage’ in earnings, which can be multiplicative rather than simply additive. This is often rooted in the different ways that markers of class backgrounds are ‘read’ by decision-makers. Organisations should examine intersections between different strands of diversity, both in terms of how they analyse their employee data, and also in their design of ‘diversity’ interventions.


  1. Publish social mobility data

Positive change with respect to social mobility requires collective responsibility and collaborative action across sectors. To achieve this, individual organisations need to be bold and transparent about the issues they face. This means publishing data regarding the class backgrounds of all staff and senior leaders in particular. This will allow for benchmarking across firms and sectors, as well as for sector-wide drivers to be identified and collective solutions sought out. Where data are published, firms should also include details about what actions they are taking to drive improvements; publishing data alone could have the effect of deterring the very audience – candidates from working-class backgrounds – that organisations are trying to encourage.


  1. Ban unpaid and unadvertised internships

One of the clearest drivers of the class ceiling is the way in which those from privileged backgrounds use the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ to help them establish their career. Perhaps the most direct way this takes place is via unpaid, or very low-paid, internships – which can often only be undertaken if one has outside financial support. These kinds of internships remain commonplace in many elite occupations and can be important stepping stones in accessing highly competitive graduate employment opportunities.

We would urge all organisations to cease altogether the practice of unpaid and unadvertised internships, and to advocate a four-week legal limit on all internships; the use of apprenticeship levy funding to generate quality placements; and the publishing of accessible national guidance on the rights of interns.


  1. Senior champions are necessary but not sufficient

If organisations are going to take social mobility seriously there needs to be meaningful buy-in from senior management. In the best examples that we have seen, this means that a very senior individual acts as a visible champion for forwarding the agenda.

Change, however, also requires the engagement of middle and senior managers who are often most responsible for enacting and ‘socialising’ dominant work cultures, and who make routine decisions about how talent is defined and identified. This group may perceive themselves as having most to lose in efforts to drive forward inclusion and equality, so engaging this audience usually requires a compelling case for change built on both advancing business performance and social equality; collation and presentation of internal and benchmark data to highlight the nature of the challenge; and the collation of voices from within the organisation that animate the issues at stake in a way that resonates.


  1. Formalise the informal

Our research shows that across elite occupations a culture of informal sponsorship exists. Here senior staff, often operating outside of formal processes, are able to fast-track the careers of junior staff whom, crucially, they are initially drawn to on the basis of cultural similarity.

While it is both difficult and problematic for organisations to try to dictate who builds relationships with whom in the workplace, employers do have the power to decide the autonomy that senior staff have in bypassing, circumventing or ‘gaming’ formal processes regarding hiring (especially experienced hires rather than entry-level roles), promotion, progression and work allocation. Properly articulated, and properly enforced, guidelines are therefore key to shutting down informal progression tracks that disproportionately reward the privileged. One way to achieve this would be to formalise (through transparently designed and communicated programmes) and democratise (by making opportunities available to all) sponsorship opportunities.


  1. Support those who want it

People from working-class backgrounds often self-eliminate from pushing forward in their careers, or sort into less prestigious areas. This is rarely about a lack of ambition, but more to do with rejecting expectations to assimilate, battling feelings of ‘otherness’, or negotiating low-level but constant microaggressions in the workplace. These issues should be approached sensitively.

The dominant narrative about socio-economic diversity tends to misinterpret self-elimination through the lens of individual deficit (“there are less advantaged people out there who lack certain attributes, who need our help to succeed”).  Practical initiatives are often designed to help under-represented groups assimilate into unfamiliar professional cultures, rather than interrogating whether the cultures themselves (see recommendations 3 and 8 above) and should be reimagined to enable diverse groups of people to thrive and contribute equally.

Support networks or advocacy groups may work to combat self-elimination, though it is important for employers to recognise that coming from a working-class background is not always an ‘identity’ that people want to wear or own in the workplace. Less public support mechanisms may be more appropriate, such as mentoring or buddying. Either way, it is important that organisations consult with staff from disadvantaged backgrounds about how to best support them.


  1. Lobby for legal protection

The Equality Act 2010 ensured legal protections for a range of minority groups but did not include class or socio-economic background. What is less known is that the Act actually contains a section entitled the ‘Socioeconomic Duty’, which requires government and all public bodies to have due regard for ‘reducing the inequalities of outcome which result from socio-economic disadvantage’. Notably, successive governments have declined to bring this section into effect, which (among other ramifications) would provide a clear mandate for making class background a protected characteristic.

But momentum is gathering around furthering this legal agenda. Scotland recently introduced the ‘Fairer Scotland Duty’, modelled on the Socioeconomic Duty. And In England Harriet Harman has instantiated Early Day Motion 591, which calls on the government to enact the Socioeconomic Duty. We would urge readers to support this further by writing to their MP and asking them to support the Early Day Motion, using a template written by #1forequality, a campaign led by Just Fair and The Equality Trust.


bk_the class ceiling [fc]The Class Ceiling by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £15.99.
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