The Class Ceiling

8 months ago by Sophie Stones

The Class Ceiling


Last year marked the inaugural publication of the Social Mobility Employer Index, a list of 50 UK employers taking the most action on social mobility. Social mobility, unlike other inequality issues has often been resigned to CSR and stayed off HR’s radar. However, Rachel Hill, Inclusion Manager at Grant Thornton, says companies can no longer ignore class issues, writing, “after the vote to leave the EU this can no longer be ignored. The forward-thinking firms are thinking about the impact in terms of being able to access the talent they need.”

Studies show that there is class inequality at all stages, from school where British teens from disadvantaged backgrounds are a third as likely to achieve good scores, to University when they are half as likely to attend. And those who do beat the odds are still less likely to gain a better paid job in the 6 months after graduating.

Writing in The Class Pay Gap in Britain’s Higher Professional and Managerial Occupations, Laurison and Friedman state that “while many such differences can be explained by the direct inheritance of wealth, social connections, legitimate tastes and educational opportunities, [we’ve] also found that the [socially] mobile have considerably lower average incomes, pointing toward the kind of ‘glass ceiling’ normally associated with women and ethnic minorities.” In fact, even when those who are not from professional backgrounds are successful in entering ‘high-status’ occupations they earn on average 16% less, than those from privileged backgrounds.

Studies show that such disparities in pay and opportunities are down to both conscious and unconscious bias, so whilst there are practices that indirectly discriminate, such as computerized application forms which weight educational background, there are also human thought processes that need to be unlearned.

The Social Mobility Foundation recently found that “elite firms are systematically excluding working class applicants from their workforce”, with hiring managers requiring state school applicants to present higher grades than their privately educated contemporaries. In this case too much reliance is placed on class signifiers in order to spot talent.

However, all evidence points towards the fact that uniform work forces don’t work for long. We need to take responsibility for diversifying our workforces, in order to gain the best talent possible and create teams with the best of both worlds. Especially if we are to believe what Gideon Calder, Senior Lecturer of Social Sciences, writes, in that “while Eton equips you for individual achievement it doesn’t equip you for teamwork”.

PwC who were 7th on the Social Mobility Employer Index state that this responsibility starts at the recruitment process, where they ask if the candidate is the first generation to go to University or whether they attended state school. These methods go against the often-referred to “blind recruitment”, instead skewing towards positive discrimination.

Once those from more disadvantaged backgrounds have made it through the recruitment process, they can’t be left to flounder in unfamiliar waters. Companies which were built upon a certain type of employee may quickly become hostile, as those from disadvantaged backgrounds fail to move up the ranks. Joan Williams, Founding Director at the Center of Worklife Law says this could be down to “people from working-class backgrounds [having] a solidarity versus individual achievement ethic. So they’ll be uncomfortable blowing their own trumpet because that’s considered bad taste.” This embarrassment means we may need to look at the way in which promotions are facilitated and in which self-appraisals are framed.

Mentors, who are often utilized by other underrepresented groups are also just as important here. Despite only 7% of the UK public attending private school, 71% of Senior Judges, 43% of Newspaper Columnists and 33% of MPs are among them. We can’t kid ourselves that this is due to talent alone but rather involves their connections. As these people affect the way in which we see the world we live in, mentors can help us to create our own narrative.

As employee diversity hits the headlines time and time again, it’s important that class is included in the debate, and that alumni cronyism becomes a thing of the past.