Around three months into a new job, a few years ago, while I was running a daily news conference, my editor-in-chief tried to convince me to write about social mobility. I was the right person to write the piece, I was told, because, as the editor said, "I thought I grew up poor – but not as poor as you."
What she knew of me was that my hometown, in Lincolnshire, was around 150 miles north of the media bubble I now inhabited and that I grew up with a single mum, a nurse. I laughed while the rest of the team squirmed and stared down into their computers.
At the time I brushed it off but I’ve since asked myself and others: what is the correct way to address a comment like that? And what exactly does it constitute? Certainly it was aimed at my upbringing – the assumption that I come from a working class family was admittedly correct – and it was also embarrassing in its delivery. Not malicious, perhaps, but uncomfortable at best and undermining at worst.
Today, class discrimination is as insidious and difficult to spot as ever – and conversations around the issue are arguably still in their infancy. The Labour Party has called for a ban on fee-paying schools, which has reignited political debate about the role of public schooling, but most people are already living with the consequences of Britain’s class hierarchy, which plays out in workplaces all over the country.
Among those who are "upwardly mobile" in the class system, there’s often an underlying feeling of acute imposter syndrome – and a learned attitude that it’s only the anomalies who "make it", either because of a stroke of luck or dogged hard work. The resulting implication is that working class people who move in middle class circles or sectors should be in some way grateful for their position. And it’s bullshit.
In practice, that attitude plays out as the "class pay gap". Research from the UK Labour Force Survey estimates that working class people earn on average £6,800 per year (around 17%) less than their middle class colleagues in elite sectors like finance, medicine and law. The gap is largely due to differences in education, "occupational segregation" – whereby working class people are more likely to enter the workforce on a lower salary – and an overarching, deeply embedded system that favours the wealthy. Working class employees are also reportedly less likely to feel entitled to ask for a promotion or a pay rise. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when combined with other factors like gender, race, age and sexuality, the resulting gap is considerably worse.
In short, the issue is a lot more impactful than simply being dubbed the token northerner in a London office and not being "able to take the joke". So much so that last month the Trades Union Congress (TUC) called for an end to class discrimination in the UK and for new legal measures to be taken to protect workers from falling victim to it. Class prejudice, the TUC says, means that graduates from wealthier backgrounds are more than twice as likely to start on £30,000 as their working class peers. "We all deserve an equal chance in life, whatever our background," Frances O’Grady, the TUC's general secretary told Refinery29 UK. "But if you’re working class, the odds are stacked against you. Not only is that an injustice, it’s a waste of some of Britain’s best talent."
Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison of the London School of Economics found plentiful evidence for this. In The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays To Be Privileged, they concluded that those from privileged backgrounds who attain a 2:2 degree from university are still much more likely to "get a top job than working-class students who went to the same universities and got a 1st". Black British working class women have "average earnings in top jobs that are £20,000 less per year than those of privileged-origin white men," they found.
"The government could make a difference by making class discrimination unlawful, just like for race, gender and disability," O’Grady continues. "There should be a legal duty on public bodies to address class and income inequality. And it should be compulsory for employers to report their class pay gap."
According to some reporting, the pay gap is highest in sectors like finance, technology and medicine – and, of course, the media. When the BBC revealed its own pay gap in the summer of 2017, the conversation (perhaps rightly) centred around its chronic gender and race gaps. But one conversation that didn’t get much light was the organisation’s class gap. If you think about it, class underpins and intersects with race and gender – it’s all part of the same picture.
The data showed that 45% of the BBC’s highest paid employees went to private school. As Sky’s political correspondent, Lewis Goodall pointed out at the time, that compares to just 7% of the general population.
Class discrimination plays out in many different ways and it’s time we started to have a meaningful conversation about it. Or so say these three women who spoke to Refinery29 about their experiences.
Holly Peacock-Goodwin, 32, a digital strategist from Co. Durham
I learned to send emails so I wasn't undermined for my northern accent.
"You don’t forget being called a 'pit-yacker' in a hurry. Especially at work. For those not in the know, that’s a gobby person from the mining communities up north. At the time I was a young employee in a predominantly older, white male London office. It was said in front of my other colleagues in my first week at the company. That was kind of the vibe from there on in.
"My Durham accent is quite strong I suppose and has frequently become a talking point. People like to imitate it and mock the way I speak, which isn’t unusual, I suppose. But in the workplace it can be very off-putting – and it can feel like people just aren’t listening to what you’re saying because they’re focusing on the 'entertaining' way you’re saying it.
"The other connotations I’ve found associated with my northern, working class background are being deemed 'aggressive' in the way I speak, and thick. I remember discussing with a client how to best communicate a complex energy issue to the public. The conclusion was that we should 'aim it at Geordies' because 'if they can understand it, anyone will'. I was told I wasn’t the 'right fit' to go in front of the board. Time and time again I couldn’t act authentically and, in turn, my confidence almost completely eroded.
"I quickly learned to send emails so I didn’t have to speak out loud as much. Around the same period of time, in my mid 20s, I remember trying to mask my inflections so much that an interviewer asked me where I was from and pointed out that my accent was 'all over the place'. I began to write more to show my strengths – getting ahead in business is usually about having your voice heard and listened to, and because mine was so different to the status quo I was undoubtedly disadvantaged. No one can interrupt you on paper.
"Now there’s a whole new set of connotations of being white, northern and working class. Thanks to the co-opting of this section of society by the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, people assume you’re a Brexiteer. And years on from being called a 'pit-yacker' it still feels like it’s just accepted that it’s okay to cut someone down because of class. No one should have to respond to that. It’s not a joke, is it?"
Mikai McDermott, 23, a freelance hairstylist from Newham, east London
We're not having the right conversations about how layers of privilege work.
"British society has a very false sense of meritocracy in the working world. And I think that very much parallels how we treat working class kids in school, and universities. It’s based around the idea that you just need to work hard and you will succeed and, really, it’s just not true. There's no discourse around how privilege works – and how layers of privilege work.
"I’m from a single-parent family in Newham. I would say I’m now technically middle class because of my job and further education (I’m currently studying for a master's degree in empires, colonialism and globalisation at the London School of Economics and already have a degree from Warwick). Going to Warwick was my first encounter of being from a different class and from a minority ethnic group, I’d say. I didn’t even realise race was a 'thing' until 18 – at school I’d been surrounded by black and Asian kids who looked and spoke like me. I didn’t do grammar lessons, I didn’t do debating societies and I spoke in colloquialisms. It was a huge culture shock to suddenly have people commenting on my hair, the way I dress and the things I eat.
"When I moved into the working world – especially during a brief stint in advertising after university – I found that I was often surrounded by people I just didn’t relate to. People who thought nothing of borrowing upwards of £10,000 from their parents, who spoke about the 'bank of mum and dad'. I learned to keep quiet. I didn’t want them to find out that my family wasn’t like that. I didn’t want them to know that I was the odd one out. I suppose I was embarrassed.
"Now I’ve developed a 'professional' voice but I still struggle when I’m confronted by classism or racism or both at work (it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins). I react defensively – while black public school kids learned to articulate and assimilate themselves better, I don’t feel as equipped for this I suppose. Much of what holds us back is access. Especially in creative industries, the expectation to work for free just to get a foot in the door is ludicrous. It means that whole sectors of society are completely written out of these jobs. It’s those structural issues that we need to urgently address.
"In some aspects class is just as important as race in discussions about access and opportunity. The emerging black middle class is very separate from the lived experience of black and ethnic minority people in Britain, even from London. There’s not enough conversation about the nuances in race and class and how they interact. I’d like to see that change."
Nicola Slawson, 34, a journalist from Shrewsbury
She looked at what I was wearing, paused, then said: 'There's a sale on in Whistles, you know.'
"It’s the things that people don’t see – all the extra hoops you have to jump through just to get a glimpse at an opportunity – that really shows how class discrimination works in this country. At one point I was working literally around the clock – completing work experience at a publication in the day and assisting in a boarding school at night – just to be qualified to apply for a bursary scheme aimed at people like me.
"Thankfully, I was awarded the bursary and began a prestigious course at City, University of London and began lodging with an elderly lady in exchange for cheap rent. Not long after I started the course – with a load of very posh people and two others who were beneficiaries of the bursary – one of the other students turned to me and said that it was 'great' that 'poor people like [me] can try to be a journalist'.
"Once I started working at a national newspaper things weren’t much different. While men with plummy accents on the same starter level as me were taken to lunches by very senior people, I was largely ignored and felt worried to speak up. I ended up being there for three years and it steadily eroded my confidence. I felt overwhelmingly like I didn’t fit in. A colleague made a point of taking in what I was wearing, paused, then said: 'There’s a sale on in Whistles you know.'
"That kind of sums it up: this upper tier of people who casually wear expensive brands like Whistles and act like they’re saving the world. I would get so frustrated in ideas meetings where they told everyone to remember just how privileged we all were, and all the time I was barely surviving on the pay they gave me with no back-up. It all came from good intentions, but it’s ironic that you can’t even spot the privilege you have when you go looking for it.
"People talk about 'failure' as a kind of abstract thing now that you can control – that you should just bounce back; learn from your mistake and move on. But there’s a misunderstanding that many of us just cannot afford to do that. If I make a mistake there’s no financial safety net waiting to catch me or cushion the blow. It’s my whole livelihood that goes. It means you live with a different kind of anxiety about work. The odds really are already stacked against us."