Can social class hold back your career?

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Sabah Zdanowska struggles to define the class. “It’s never something that interested me very much, but it seems to be important to a lot of other people,” she says.

As a product strategy consultant running her own business, she would call herself a middle class, but what about her background? She was raised in the East End of London by her stay-at-home mom from Pakistan and went to public school. But her mother came from a middle-class family and went to college, just like Zdanowska.

At times in her career, she wondered if her background had held her back over her peers who had been privately educated. After studying physics at the University of Bath, she continued to work in business intelligence.

“I seemed to do my job better than everyone else,” Zdanowska says, but she “would still be on a slower track,” she came to believe. “I didn’t have parents who were professionals. Some people had a head start in their careers. I was a little late. In the end, she chose to work for herself as a consultant.

The issue of class in the workplace came into the spotlight in September when professional services firm PwC revealed a pay gap by class among its UK employees. PwC said 14% of its UK staff come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and are paid less than their peers, with a median pay gap of 12.1%. For his part, his rival KPMG has declared that he wants to increase the proportion of partners from the working class from 23% to 29% by 2030.

After tracking ethnicity and gender, the class seemed an “obvious development,” says Sarah Churchman, Head of Diversity, Inclusion and Wellbeing at PwC UK. “Sometimes we make assumptions about preparing people for promotion based on their ‘polish’, if people adapt and are the end product.”

Yet collecting workforce data is complex. The definition of class is complicated by the fact that it is not a characteristic protected by law, says Sarah Atkinson, executive director of the Social Mobility Foundation, a charity.

“We have to find a way to ask questions [to employees] which are easy to understand and easy to answer. The holy grail is to find a single question that can identify someone’s social background, that is easy to understand and answer, has high response rates, and can be easily recorded.

Parental occupation when an employee was 14 – used by KPMG and PwC – is considered the simplest approach and is recommended by the government as a measure. For further analysis, it can be combined with other questions such as what type of school a person attended, whether they were entitled to free school meals, and whether their parents attended college.

But people would rather see their success as due to their innate talents than to have been helped by education and family role models and relationships.

Recent research by Sam Friedman, associate professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, found that people from “privileged classes often mistakenly identify their origins as the working class.” Through interviews, Friedman and his co-authors found that professionals would draw on their family history to portray their humble origins and “tell an ascending story,” fueling a narrative of meritocracy.

Employees are also concerned that revealing their background could hurt their prospects. “Getting people to honestly share their data requires a clear explanation of how that data will drive change,” says Atkinson.

At PwC, 80 percent of UK employees shared their socio-economic background. Reluctance is greatest at the time of recruitment. Churchman says, “It took years. You don’t ask people once, you have to keep asking. Putting information in the public domain is the best way to get people talking about it internally and externally.

Friedman hopes others will follow PwC and KPMG: “They have the resources. The domino effect is accelerated when large organizations take the lead. He says employer action on courses has been uneven – higher education, for example, has broadened the participation of students from low-income backgrounds, but this has not been reflected in the workforce. work of its own establishments.

In the UK, the discussion of the “left behind white working class” has also become politically heavy. There are fears that the class is being militarized to diminish the importance of racial inequality.

Friedman, who says UK employers are ahead of other countries in class analysis, advocates intersectional analysis. “The value of collecting data and thinking about class and social mobility allows you to see the intersections between class and other characteristics” – for example, if the gender pay gap is due to women from the working class.

For all employers’ efforts, greater forces are at play, points out Louise Ashley, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London.

“Class inequalities in the workplace are often rooted in structural and systemic inequalities rooted in society at large. As it is, organizations need to make some pretty radical systemic and structural changes in response.

Too often, she adds, solutions have been “individualized and psychologized, for example, with attention to unconscious biases, which have limited effect.”


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