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“While you’re up there, polish the class ceiling”…

The report published by the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission in June 2015, revealed 70 percent of graduates who received job offers from leading accountancy firms were educated at selective state or fee-paying schools. Bearing in mind that 89 percent of children graduate from comprehensive schools, seven from independent schools and four percent from grammar schools, applicants from poorer, socioeconomic backgrounds are still bumping against a societal “class ceiling”.

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“While you’re up there, polish the class ceiling”…

The report published by the Social Mobility & Child Poverty Commission in June 2015, revealed 70 percent of graduates who received job offers from leading accountancy firms were educated at selective state or fee-paying schools. Bearing in mind that 89 percent of children graduate from comprehensive schools, seven from independent schools and four percent from grammar schools, applicants from poorer, socioeconomic backgrounds are still bumping against a societal “class ceiling”.

The social gulf is not diminishing, indeed, “classism” is alive and well, especially in the workplace, where jobs in certain professional sectors remain the preserve of Russell Group graduates, who receive between 60 and 70 percent of all job offers, but are comprised predominantly of students from more privileged backgrounds (81 percent). For other UK universities, the figure is a much lower (67 percent). Further, research conducted by the London School of Economics (LSE) in 2015 established that professionals within Britain’s elite occupations are drawn disproportionately from elite social and educational strata. Further, even when individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are able to break through the metaphorical class ceiling, they frequently fail to achieve the same level of success as their “upper class” counterparts. Most worryingly of all, both the Government report and the LSE research indicate that social mobility (in terms of accessing the elite professions) has not only stalled but is going into reverse. This is cause for concern.

However, do these dispiriting statistics mean that employers in the professions are actively discriminating against “working class” applicants and employees? Not necessarily. Me, Myself and I: Affinity bias and social identity theory in the workplace. Social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner would probably argue that social identity theory was at work. This is the concept that a person’s sense of who they are is based on their group membership(s) and that we sort people into categories and adopt the social norms of the groups to which we have subscribed. Since our confidence and self-esteem are inextricably linked with our group memberships, we tend to enhance the benefits of our own groups and focus on the negative aspects of other groups. Clearly this can lead to self-limitation as well as prejudice and discrimination. Affinity bias is another driver for socioeconomic discrimination. It is an unconscious bias which causes us to favour individuals whose background and attributes are similar to our own. The role of these unconscious biases may well perpetuate a workplace dominated by individuals from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds as employers proceed to hire and promote in their own image.  

Consider class as a protected characteristic – would it work? At first blush, there is much to be said in favour of introducing social class to the current list of protected characteristics (currently comprising age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation). It would perhaps encourage certain employers to address their unconscious class biases and acknowledge the issue of class discrimination in the workplace. In turn, it could increase the recruitment and promotion of individuals from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. However, there would be a number of legal, social and practical disadvantages. Firstly, it would be nigh on impossible to establish an objective definition for the nebulous term of “class”. Whilst some believe that social class is determined by the professions of one’s parents, others believe it is determined by one’s geographical place of residence. Whilst some believe an individual’s social class is set in stone at birth, others believe it is possible to join a higher class by entering certain professions, such as law or banking. The BBC’s “Great British Class Survey” (2013) may have established a seven-tier social structure, but this is just one of the many social models and structures that have been devised over the years.

The European Convention on Human Rights (article 14) covers discrimination on grounds of “social origin” and “property, birth or other status”. Although several countries (not including the UK) have signed and ratified this section of the Convention, very few class discrimination claims have been brought. It may well be that the ambiguity of the term has deterred claimants from pursuing claims. After all, how can one establish whether a case is likely to succeed on the balance of probabilities (i.e. the likelihood of success is more than 50%) when the basis of the claim is inherently indistinct. This substantiates the idea that class discrimination is not a feasible claim. Even if the Equality Act 2010 was amended to add class as a protected characteristic, its subjective nature would make it difficult for judges to enforce consistently. And even if judges were to adopt a uniform view as to the nature of “class”, the fact that 71% of senior judges were educated at private schools and 75% have attended Oxbridge suggests that their interpretation may well be skewed by personal circumstance.  

Furthermore, it appears that public opinion would be opposed to the introduction of class as a protected characteristic as almost three quarters of the population (73 percent) do not regard legislation as the appropriate forum for tackling social class discrimination. The preferred solution to the class conundrum at work seems to be trying to effect cultural change by demonstrating the benefits of a diverse workforce and winning hearts and minds in this respect. A voluntary approach was adopted by Lord Davies in his attempt to reduce the gender imbalance on corporate boards. The result exceeded expectations with the number of women on FTSE 350 boards more than doubling between 2011 and 2015. The winds of cultural change seem finally to be blowing through the legal profession too with media, university campaigners and even professionals themselves forcing a spotlight on the diversity agenda in the widest sense. The same is also true for the accounting profession. One could argue that if class was made a protected characteristic, it would actually be crystallising a concept we should be attempting to dissolve. Whilst many of the other protected characteristics are personal attributes that are unavoidable, class is simply a social concept, its very existence dependent on its usage. By seeking to effect a cultural change, we can greatly reduce its usage and, by extension, its relevance in contemporary society.     

One of the best proven ways to tackle the class ceiling and encourage socioeconomic diversity is to offer unconscious bias training. After all, if we are casting judgement on people based purely on stereotypical beliefs held about their social class and if we are favouring individuals who demonstrate the greatest similarity with ourselves, then shouldn’t we at least be aware of this? Being alive to unconscious bias does not require the imposition of quotas or the use of positive discrimination, it simply involves developing a greater awareness of one’s own inherent biases and using this knowledge to carry out a fair and informed decision-making process. Other methods of increasing socioeconomic diversity in the workforce include: Implementing diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives; offering work experience placements/internships organised in association with organisations that promote diversity and inclusion in the workplace; and revising recruitment processes to ensure that candidates’ schools, universities and residential addresses are not visible to initial recruiters.    

The legal sector with which we are most familiar does seem to have recently become alive to these solutions. Some firms have made great strides already and the Law Society is committed to monitoring firms’ efforts on diversity and recruitment every 2 years. Only time will tell if these efforts and others actually deliver change. As a final point, it is worth bearing in mind that addressing the class challenge is not just a diversity issue but a business issue for employers too. It is now known that there is a strong correlation between board diversity and company profitability. By recruiting and promoting individuals with a range of backgrounds and personality types, employers allow for a greater range of ideas and options to be explored and help ensure all market demographics and societal influences are represented in their business. Of course, there is still some way to go in the so-called elite professions. But most likely the changes afoot will be sufficient to stave off pressure for class to be added as a protected characteristic.

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission 2015, A qualitative evaluation of non-educational barriers to the elite professions; and Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman, Introducing the Class Ceiling: Social Mobility into Britain’s Elite Occupations (LSE Academic Publishing 2015)

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