In this weeks column, Julia Rampen explores social class and the British workplace and considers how we define social class and how we tackle class-based discrimination.
In a recent speech on the media in Edinburgh, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested the BBC should publish the social class of its employees. The BBC has in fact already collected similar data, but reports of the speech focused instead on Corbyn’s own top team, which included two advisers educated at the elite boarding school Winchester College. “Mr Corbyn and his own own top team don’t exactly set a great example for diversity and equality,” noted an article in The Sun. “Many of them have attended top private schools, universities and had parents with influential jobs too.”
Look past the tit-for-tat battles, though, and it’s obvious the absence of people from working-class backgrounds is hardly a problem for the media and politicians alone. Just 7 per cent of children attend private schools. But a 2016 report by The Sutton Trust found that nearly two-thirds of senior doctors were privately educated, as well as three-quarters of judges and half of the senior civil service. Of course, this is in part a reflection of students educated at private schools getting better grades. But it was also the case for high achievers in industries that do not necessarily require a traditional academic route. Three-quarters of top military officers were privately educated, along with 42 per cent of Bafta winners and two-thirds of British Oscar winners.
Talent and social mobility
There are multiple reasons this is bad news. First, most people agree that in order to make the most of talent, we need social mobility. But second, if employers hire decision-makers who are almost exclusively from middle-class backgrounds, they risk not representing between half and three-quarters of the population and having blind spots as a result. Take Universal Credit, the government’s new welfare scheme, which is supposed to prepare recipients for working life. So it is paid monthly – just like a professional salary, but not at all like many minimum wage jobs, which are paid weekly or fortnightly. If more top-ranking civil servants were from low-income families, perhaps this would have been taken into account.
For all the uproar about Corbyn’s comment, a good start to improving social class diversity at work would be monitoring it – something that only a quarter of leading employers actually do (the government is actively encouraging more to follow their example). However, this means grappling one of the biggest conundrums of being British: what actually is class? Is it economic? Or is it the type of job your parents hold? Is the son of an in-demand plumber more or less privileged than one of an out-of-work actor? Or is it something even harder to measure – the way you speak, the sports you follow, the holidays you take? When employers look at CVs, do they make a judgement based on whether your name is Charlotte or Charlene?
Among those employers that do measure socio-economic backgrounds, almost all look at whether the applicant was the first in their family to go to university, and whether they attended a state or private school. Roughly 60 per cent ask if the applicant was eligible for free school meals, an indicator of economic deprivation. Taken together, these questions do a fairly good job of accounting for educational advantages, and the most extreme financial disadvantages (14 per cent of students are eligible for free school meals).
Defining social class
But some analysts believe class itself is changing. The 2013 Great British Class Survey, a collaboration between the BBC and a number of academics, outlined seven socio-economic classes: the elite, the established middle class, the technical middle class, the new affluent workers, the emergent service workers, the traditional working class and the precariat. The same survey argued that class was not just the job you do, but your social and cultural “capital”.
The definition of class matters, because A grades and the money to buy a suit don’t add up to a successful job interview on their own. I’ve written before on how even blind aptitude tests still filter out applicants from the lowest socio-economic backgrounds. The Sutton Trust report mentioned earlier also makes this clear. Not only do employers hire people who resemble themselves, but they value the kinds of work experience and extracurricular activities that come with a certain background. In a study of US recruitment, the academic Lauren Rivera found students with interests in expensive sports like polo and rowing were favoured by recruiters, while the unfortunate applicant who listed “karaoke” as their hobby was ignored – but not before the CV was circulated so everyone could have a good laugh.
There is, I would argue, one other dimension to class, that has become more relevant in Britain over the last quarter century: geography. There are, of course, middle-class Mancunians, aristocratic Scots and entrepreneurial Scousers. But for working-class job seekers in all those areas, there are extra hurdles to getting their foot in the office door.
As the Sutton Trust report noted, a high proportion of elite jobs are based in London. A quick search of the government’s apprenticeship directory found that 32 out of 46 engineering and manufacturing roles were based in London, and a staggering 254 out of 258 roles relating to business, administration and law. Working-class graduates from other parts of the UK not only have to find the money to travel to London for job interviews, those lucky enough to succeed have to make a calculation about whether they can afford to live there on a starter salary: the average rent for a single room in the capital is around £750 a month.
“A lot of the people that I was interviewed by were terrible snobs. I didn’t go to the right school, live in the right street,” the son of a Scottish bus driver told The Scotsman in 2000. He had fitted in his university work around a bus conducting job, before being rejected by numerous accountancy firms. That bus driver’s son was Brian Souter, who went on to found Stagecoach and become a transport tycoon. Given Britain’s particularly fraught relationship with class, the idea of defining it and monitoring it can be daunting. But if it stops the snobs overlooking one of the country’s most successful businessmen, it’s worth it.