We Need to Talk About the Class Pay Gap
Working class people on how they have to change themselves in middle class environments.
The Frost Report/BBC
Last week, the Social Mobility Commission released a report showing a class pay-gap in Britain's top professions. Those from working class backgrounds earn an average of 17 percent less per year than their middle-class counterparts, for doing the same jobs.
The study, looking at responses from more than 64,500 Brits, found that the average working class person got paid £6,800 less than those from more privileged backgrounds within the same profession, even when they made allowances for middle class people being more likely to work in London and at bigger firms. The highest gap found was in the finance sector – at £13,713 per year.
Women and those from ethnic minority communities (excluding people with Chinese heritage) were also found to earn less than their male and white counterparts. These things taken together caused what the researchers coined a "double disadvantage" – with working class, upwardly mobile women from ethnic minorities earning the least.
Unsurprisingly, certain fields, like medicine and journalism, were particularly less open to those from working class backgrounds than others. Seventy-three percent of doctors had parents who were from professional or managerial backgrounds, compared to a paltry six percent from working class roots. A similarly small percentage (12 percent) from working class backgrounds went into journalism.
So what might be causing this class pay gap? The report suggested that working class employees might lack the confidence to ask for pay-rises, or may resist going into roles where they feel they wouldn't fit in due to their class. Another report from the Social Mobility Commission, released last year, showed employers were denying access to working class applicants, judging them on proxies for class such as their accents and whether or not they understood hidden middle class dress codes that weren't formally required.
We spoke to a number of people from working class backgrounds about their experiences around middle class people, to see if we could make sense of the results.
PEACE EVBUOMWAN, BPP LAW STUDENT, KENT
VICE: Have you ever felt distinctly aware of your class?
Peace: I'm from Peckham, but I went to a grammar school in Kent for my A levels. I never thought about class before then, but I felt very excluded. In those schools you're taught how to be a manager or a boss; in state school you're taught how to be an employee. It was clear from the way I spoke, the way I carried myself, that I wasn't from the same background.
Have you ever felt embarrassed by your class at work?
I work for Centrepoint [a youth homeless charity] and I used to live in their homeless hostels. We went to a polo event with Prince William in 2014. It was slightly different being a member of staff, but my heart went out to some of the young people I was working with. No one told them they were doing anything wrong, but you can see when you stand out next to the people dressed in really nice clothing.
Do you feel like you face a double disadvantage being a working class black woman?
I always wanted to change my last name. That's so sad to say, but I feel having an African surname has always held me back at the application stages. In general I feel like the odds are against me, and I've felt like that from a young age. My primary school headteacher told me I was never gonna go to uni; that I was going to live in a council flat and get pregnant. He said that to me at primary school. Of course, in a way it has spurred me on to do better.
SEYI AKIWOWO, LABOUR PARTY COUNCILLOR, NEWHAM
VICE: Have you ever felt singled out, ashamed or denied an opportunity because of your class?
Seyi: The social experiences after work came as a massive culture shock. I didn't know how to navigate the discussion topics, the dress codes. For example, I'm a rum and coke kind of person, but I would get funny looks from people at the table, like I should be forcing myself to drink wine. You want to remove yourself from those situations but you can't, because that's where you get noticed and make your contacts. I think those who understandably do opt out of those situations are probably penalised in terms of opportunities
What's your hypothesis of where the pay gap comes from?
I would say we don't know our professional worth. Our parents had to work hard and not complain. We don't know how to negotiate a salary in black or working class communities because, historically, the most we've been doing is trying to make ends meet. For the middle class, I think there is also an element of feeling accustomed to it – feeling that you should be earning a certain amount, regardless of how much you're doing. As a working class person, if I'm not stressed out to the point of mental exhaustion, I don't feel like I've earned what I'm getting.
Which working class aspects do you dress down about yourself in middle class environments?
I think that, politically, we don't embrace the fact that we're poor. I hate the word disadvantage: we've made poor synonymous with dirty. Culturally, it means we're pushed to believe that aspiration is simply being middle class. There is just as much beautiful working class culture, and for some reason that's not something to aspire to.
MATTHEW MURRAY, TEACHER, BARNSLEY
VICE: You went to the University of Manchester. Was being working class at university easier because you were at home in the north?
Matthew: Quite the opposite. I didn't really know anyone else from the north, apart from the people who worked there. That struck me. It made me feel alone. Loads of people from the south knew each other already when they went there. I didn't meet anyone from Barnsley, and it was only 30-odd miles away.
Were you singled out?
I would immediately be noticed for my accent. People would mimic me, or ask me to repeat what I was saying. When people make fun of your accent it's like a cultural imperialism – they're telling you that there is a way that you should speak that is more civilised. People make presumptions based on it, that where I'm from would be bigoted or racist because it's a northern, post-industrial town. You become quite proud of where you're from, and it's hurtful to you when people assume that stuff. It's something I still remember now.
What would be the barriers to the kids you teach at school if they got a big job in the city?
The area I work in has a notoriously bad reputation. If people saw the address on their CV I think a lot of people would make assumptions that they were no good based on their postcode.
How do you feel about that?
Disadvantaged, really. It makes you quite angry. You feel like you have to work harder to shake the reputation of the area you're from, and that's not fair. If you're from a working class background then you go out in the working world and start from the bottom. There's no one in your family to tell you what working in that company is like.
CHARLES OLAFARE, COPYWRIGHTER, THAMESMEAD
VICE: Do people notice your class?
Charles: I come from a working class background, but I don't sound like I do and my first name is Charles, which kind of gets people's guards down. Certain friends of mine have had to change their first names on their CVs to get jobs; I've never encountered that.
Why do middle class people get paid more?
I think people believe that just because you went to a redbrick you'll be good at certain things. I think that's why I see so few people of colour or working class backgrounds in my industry. No one ever tells that you're not required to be a genius to get these jobs. You can do them and just be a normal person.
Can you think of a reason why someone from a poorer background could get paid more than his middle class colleagues?
We don't criticise enough how limiting growing up with privilege can be. People will say, "He grew up in a poor family, he doesn't know about X." No one says, "He went to boarding school and wore those stupid suspender things that attach your shirt to your trousers. Why is he writing about grime?" There are things that people from working class backgrounds are more qualified for. It makes me sad that we don't get that opportunity. The middle classes have been doing things for years, and what do we have? Ken Loach and, I dunno, Top Boy. There's a space for us to be present in those places; we've heard enough about the trappings of wealth.
Do the two classes have different work ethics?
I had to hit the ground running when I left uni, to find a job so I could rent. I didn't get to go and live in Berlin for a year to "grow". I see that as both a race and a class thing. If you're middle class, the world lets you take time off from life a bit more. So many more things are open to you – they're not asking for black guys to do TEFL courses in Korea, if you know what I mean.
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