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We Need To Talk About The Class Ceiling

The terms "nepotism" and "nepo babies" are increasingly becoming talked about in media as the public becomes more aware and critical of the ease of success some celebrities have due to the influence and money of their parents.

This conversation allows a wider and more important discussion about the class ceiling to be had.

Handshake representing class ceiling

What is the class ceiling?

The class ceiling describes the invisible barriers which hinder the lower classes' career progression. It does not mean they will never reach the top, however, it typically takes longer, happens less often and is more exhausting to achieve. On the other hand, the upper-class benefits from advantages afforded which allows career progression with less effort.

This does not mean that these people in powerful positions aren't talented and don't have the skills, but it can lead to those who have been fortunate to believe they have got to this position on their own. Whereas those who have not managed to achieve their dreams are left feeling bereft and blame themselves when other factors outside of their control have influenced the outcome.

The class ceiling leads to salary inequalities, a lack of diversity in top positions and leads people to be emotionally exhausted and criticise themselves harshly.

Key statistics

  • Those from working-class backgrounds earn 13.05% less than their most advantaged peers

  • Those from professional-managerial origins working in the most prestigious jobs are paid over £51,000 a year, but those from working-class origins in the same jobs are paid less than £45,000 per year

  • Women are paid £9,450 less than their male colleagues, even when they are both working in higher managerial positions

  • People who are of Bangladeshi and Black Caribbean heritage are paid £10,432 and £8,770 less respectively than their white peers in the same jobs

What causes this divide?

Education explains some of the gaps because those from privileged backgrounds tends to have higher qualifications and attend more prestigious universities, which therefore leads to higher earnings. Additionally, higher-class backgrounds tend to work in London, in large firms and higher-paying positions. However, if these factors were adjusted, the class pay gap would remain.

Promotion is not solely achieved based on the efforts of the individual, rather, they have outside help which is often kept secret. This outside help comes from two places. Employees who can rely on the bank accounts of their parents can move into more promising career tracks, resist exploitative employment and take risky opportunities which can lead to long-term success. Support also is likely to come from above. Well-connected workers get promoted over more experienced colleagues and typically working-class people have smaller networks, mainly due to their lack of ability to travel for things like study, work or leisure. In many elite occupations, a senior leader identifies a junior protégé and can fast-track their career by providing them with better opportunities and vouching for them. This partnership is not formed due to work performance, but rather social aspects such as shared taste and lifestyle, favouring the elite.

Well-connected workers get promoted over more experienced colleagues

Elite business recruiters are less likely to hire-working class candidates in the first place, despite having the right skills and experience, because of worries about whether they are a "cultural fit".

The working-class people who do manage to get jobs tend to feel increasingly isolated because of persistent biases and the lack of support structures. They do not feel as though they fit in because their backgrounds and values are misaligned which generates unease. They also may start to question the way they were brought up and feel embarrassed by it which therefore causes social distress.

Which sectors are most affected?

  • UK civil service: only 18% of senior staff come from low social backgrounds

  • Creative fields: 23% of people working in music and the performing arts are from the working class

  • Doctors: Only 6% are from working-class backgrounds

  • Higher managerial, professional or cultural occupations: only 10% of those are from low socioeconomic backgrounds

  • Law and journalism

What can be done?

Companies need to understand how socioeconomically diverse their workforce is and figure out ways to boost representation to address this class gap. To do this, employers need to designate a measure of how to define class, particularly as people are unreliable at gauging what class they are in. Organisations routinely collect data about gender, race and other protected characteristics, but it is very rare for them to collect data about class and act meaningfully on it. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives should include class diversity also. Only two accounting firms, KPMG and PwC are trying to diversify their employees' class backgrounds, and do this using their own measures.

Recruiters can diversify the workforce by hiring beyond their usual requirements, for example, hiring from all universities rather than the top ones. Their judgement of a person should also not come from their socioeconomic background.

Why this is important?

People from working-class backgrounds tend to be more resourceful, loyal and resilient when it comes to changing or chaotic situations and have different perspectives in life. Businesses are missing out on these skills in their workforce and excellent candidates due to their short-mindedness and biased systems.

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