I remember vividly a strange evening at university where a friend turned to me and another friend and asked ‘Which one of you, do you think, is more disadvantaged?’
It was a provocative, spiky question, possibly intended to cause division, especially as neither of us felt particularly disadvantaged. Divisive or not, it raised questions around the interplay of class, wealth and race.
At present just 1.5% of black employees hold the top management roles in the UK private sector, according to research from Business in the Community found in 2020. This worryingly low figure shows just how far there is to go until UK businesses can claim to be truly diverse and inclusive.
But there’s more to discrimination in employment opportunities than a lack of diversity. The elephant in the room is the crucial part played by social class.
For the privately educated, which typically means people from wealthier, middle and upper middle-class backgrounds, there are employment opportunities aplenty, regardless of race or gender.
A report in 2019 published by the Social Mobility Commission using data from the Sutton Trust found former fee-paying pupils occupied almost four in ten of the top professional jobs, despite just 7% of Britons being privately educated.
Judges, senior civil servants, politicians, diplomats, MPs, police chiefs – the most senior roles in these institutions are, for the most part, filled by people who went to fee-paying schools.
The same holds true for our most successful sportspeople. For example, 43% percent of male professional cricketers went to a private/public school, as did 31% of Olympic medalists.
It is evident that a private school education opens doors to a world of professional privilege, creating opportunities that others are simply denied access to. Irrespective of the actual quality of the academic education, public and private schools provide contacts for life and lay down cultural background knowledge and social etiquette that simply helps the privately-schooled to glide more easily through life.
My own personal circumstances are interesting. I too was privately educated but being a woman from a mixed-race Muslim background comes with a somewhat different set of circumstances, especially when it comes to competing in the workplace for the glittering prizes.
In the UK, out of top roles held by women, 23% are ethnic minorities, which is rather high, but as The Times recently reported, some earning actually half as much their male counterparts. Ethnic minority men hold only 6% of the top jobs, which obviously needs to be higher.
In recent years the number of ethnic minority women in senior roles has been rising and this looks set to continue. This is likely due to more diverse hiring policies, and more broadly based advertising that goes out of its way to attract professionals from all backgrounds, as well as less reliance on word-of-mouth recruitment through informal, closed networks. Processes such as written diversity statements in job adverts also help to bridge gaps.
The question then becomes: how different am I from my privately educated contemporaries? We received the same schooling, share the same advantages and many of same social network connections. While aspects of my life are clearly different from some of my peers, the advantages of my private schooling put me in a similar boat to most of them.
My friend, on the other hand, was a white English boy who attended a comprehensive school. A recent TUC report found that UK graduates with parents in ‘professional and routine jobs’ are more than twice as likely to start on a high salary compared to working-class graduates irrespective of their degree grades.
In the US, 97% of working-class individuals say their social class has impacted negatively on their career. Working class Americans were almost a third (32%) less likely to achieve managerial roles, compared to women (27%) or black candidates (27%) from middle class backgrounds.
I feel there are discrepancies that cannot be addressed by blunt instruments like quotas. That said, it is time we faced facts and looked at the issue honestly without the traditional embarrassment over social class difference.
A short blog cannot cover all the reasons and complexities at play in the intersection of class, race and gender. But without at least addressing the class issues, some of the main inequalities in professional employment are not even being looked squarely in the eye.