Why tackling the class pay gap should also be a priority for progressives

People from working-class backgrounds who enter ‘elite’ universities and professions still earn on average £6,400 less than peers drawn from the middle-class.

class pay gap

The academic Richard Hoggart once wrote: “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class; each decade the coffin stays empty”. This remains true today as ever, with class background casting a far longer shadow over our futures and careers than popular narratives admit.

The narrative of ‘we’re all middle class now’, seems like it came from another universe and the idea that Britain is a meritocracy, whereby those who rise to the top only do so because of their hard work and talent while those at the bottom only have themselves to blame has been widely discredited. A meritocracy presupposes equality of opportunity, yet we know that in modern Britain this is not the case.

Our life prospects are never detached from where we are born, the type of school we attended, or the background of our parents. People from working-class backgrounds who enter ‘elite’ universities and professions still earn on average £6,400 less than peers drawn from the middle-class.

That’s a class pay gap of nearly 16%. According to the Social Mobility Commission, even when those from working-class backgrounds have the same education attainment, role and experience as their more privileged colleagues, those from poorer backgrounds are still paid an average of £2,242 (7%) less. Only 10% of those from working-class backgrounds reach Britain’s higher managerial, professional or cultural occupations.

A rather narrow view of social mobility has taken hold, that which believes that the moment someone from a working class background enters an elitist profession or occupation, then that’s it, we can give ourselves a pat on the back as its now a level playing field.

Social mobility isn’t just about ‘getting in’ it’s also about ‘getting on’ and it’s in getting on where those from working class backgrounds continue to face obstacles and hurdles that are so often ignored. The class pay gap also interacts with race, gender and disability and is worse for women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities.

The Labour Force Survey (LFS) found that women from working-class backgrounds earn on average £19,000 a year less in elite occupations than men from privileged backgrounds. The figure is even higher for non-white women.

Among the reasons that the class pay gap has continued to persist is because of the lack of attention it has received. While many have rightly highlighted and campaigned for companies to publish their gender and race pay gap data, the class pay gap remains neglected. This is not to say that class operates in a vacuum and it is of course linked to race and gender too.

The class pay gap exists because intelligence and merit are so often conflated with cultural tastes, mannerisms and confidence, the latter of course being clear markers of class background rather than any innate ability. Notions of being the ‘right fit’, of being able to speak and dress a certain way, shared cultural tastes with those in higher positions, are all makers of class and which continue to play a key role in deciding who gets into senior roles and positions.

So how do we propose to tackle the class pay gap? To begin with, we should be pushing major companies to publish data on their class pay gaps. This wouldn’t be a particularly challenging task, given that many have already begun collecting data from employees about the type of school they went to, whether or not they were on free school meals as students and parental occupation. Publishing data regarding the class background of all staff, in particular those in senior leadership positions, will allow for transparency and benchmarking across firms and sectors.

With class based prejudice an issue within workplaces, we should also be pushing for socio-economic background to be put on an equal footing as other protected characteristics found in the Equality Act of 2010, which would make discrimination on the basis of class illegal.

None of these proposals alone will be a magic bullet in addressing the class pay gap but they would be moves in the right direction.

Basit Mahmood is editor of Left Foot Forward

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