Breaking through the class ceiling

A new book calls for employers to adopt an intersectional approach to tackling inequity in the workplace and monitoring class gaps as well as those relating to gender and the ethnic minorities.

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There is still a significant class pay gap at play in many professions

Employers should conduct class pay audits similar to those on gender pay in an effort to make the playing field more level at work, according to a new book.

The book, The Class Ceiling,  urges politicians to “be bold” and mandate reporting on the class pay gap.

It says even if educational credentials, hours worked and level of training and experience are taken into account, there is still a significant class pay gap at play in many professions and states that this requires urgent attention.

The book, by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, interrogates the meaning of merit, saying that for it to be demonstrated in many professions it needs to align with dominant ideas of the ‘right’ way to work and has to be valued by those who hold the keys to progression.

It puts forward an intersectional approach to addressing social inequities in the workplace and points out that disadvantage is layered. This means, for instance, that class bias is worse for women and even worse for working class women from ethnic minorities. Interestingly, it points out that class pay gaps are narrower in more technical professions such as engineering, although it adds that these professions also tend to be “profoundly skewed in favour of men”.


The book highlights that class issues are not just about access to jobs, but also about promotion within them, with progression being more informal and less transparent the higher up an organisation someone goes.

Confidence is important, say the authors, with lack of confidence coming from a feeling of not fitting in. They say it is not just about bringing your whole self to work and being ‘authentic’, but feeling confident that you are able to do so and that workplace culture and behaviour do not exclude those who don’t conform to certain social norms.

The book says people from upper and middle class origins have about 6.5 times the chance of landing an elite job compared to those from working class backgrounds. The research cited in the book also shows how those from working class backgrounds are more likely to go into less prestigious specialisms and office locations, but often also struggle to get beyond middle management roles and are significantly under-represented at the top of certain organisations.

It contains a detailed study of four professions – tv, architecture, accountancy and acting – and shows how certain behavioural codes are embedded in particular professions. This can lead to the recruitment and promotion of people who look like those who are hiring, with risk aversion in the hiring process resulting in a focus on ‘like-minded’ people.

The book says many elite professions have been made in the mirror image of certain classes, “magically allowing them to appear more ‘naturally’ suitable and able”. This is because getting ahead is often to do with relationships and because “similarity breeds connection”.

Helping hand

The book talks about the sometimes invisible help people from the middle and upper classes have which help them get ahead. That includes financial support from the Bank of Mum and Dad – often downplayed because people want to believe in the idea of merit – which enables them to take more risks as well as access to sponsors which research shows is often based on cultural affinity and sharing humour, interests and tastes. Given the upper echelons tend to be biased in favour of middle and upper classes these sponsors tend to favour the already privileged, says the book.

What’s more, it points out that feeling you don’t fit in can cause self-elimination and an exaggerated feeling of being a fraud which can have a big emotional toll on people. The book talks of an “emotional juggling act where, facing upwards, individuals often expressed feelings of insecurity and self-doubt, but then when they faced down towards their origins they were often hit with feelings of guilt and estrangement”. It concludes that “upward social mobility is not the unequivocally positive force often assumed in wider society”.

The benefits of diversity

So what can employers do to avoid excluding people because of their class? The book has  several suggestions, from monitoring the class background of employees and starting a conversation about how talent and merit are defined to banning unpaid internships, formalising informal sponsorship, supporting those who want it and lobbying for legal protection – the Equality Act excludes class and socio-economic background.

It concludes that the rewards of tackling class barriers effectively include “more inclusive and diverse workforces, higher levels of productivity and, most importantly, a more socially just approach to the workplace, where individuals can thrive irrespective of background, and where differences of class origin are a virtue on which to draw rather than a challenge to be addressed”.

*The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays To Be Privileged is written by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison and published by Policy Press.

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