Social Class in The Workplace – The Final Equality Frontier?

Social Class in The Workplace – The Final Equality Frontier?

It is a truth widely known that the top end of most British professions are overwhelmingly dominated by posh people. Recent research by the Social Mobility Commission has found that 72% of the Senior Civil Service come from what it terms ‘privileged backgrounds’. This picture is replicated across most of the UK’s boardrooms, cultural and media institutions and political parties as social class in the workplace continues to be a major talking part. Turn on the TV and you cannot move for Etonians and Harrovians such as Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and Damian Lewis. The current Cabinet could give rise to a parlour game of ‘spot the non-Etonian’.

We as lawyers are little better. In the most recent Bar Services Council Diversity Report only one fifth of barristers declared that they had attended a UK state school. Interestingly, at entry level at least, the figures for gender and racial diversity were more favourable with the ratio of female pupil barristers (50.4%) and BAME pupils (16.3%), roughly equal with their representation in wider society.

I should perhaps declare at this stage that I have nothing whatsoever against posh people and I am sure that the vast majority of people who have got to the top of their professions have done so on the basis of hard work and talent.  However it is also the case that access to the elite is a zero-sum game. There are only a finite number of top jobs and if they are monopolised by a privileged few they are, by definition, excluded from the rest of us. This can only be a just state of affairs if you accept the proposition that hard work and talent are mainly found amongst the wealthy, which I do not. It is also not a recipe for a happy and contented nation if large sections of society are permanently excluded from positions of wealth and power.

So what is to be done? One solution favoured by many including the Trades Union Congress (TUC) would be to make social class a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010. There is a lot to be said for this. As noted above, whilst there is still a long way to go, there has been upward movement in fields such as gender and race which is likely to be related to their protected legal status. Class inequality has stagnated or even regressed over the last 20 years.

The fact that legal protection does not exist for social class means, for example, that it is technically legal to not give someone a job on the basis that they have a working-class scouse accent. The TUC also highlights how various workplace practices such as unpaid internships may indirectly discriminate against working class candidates who cannot afford to do 3 months of unpaid work simply to get their ‘foot in the door’. So employers need to be more considerate with social class in the workplace.

The principal difficulty with the TUC’s proposal is likely to be definitional. Whilst gender and race are (relatively) easy to define, class is a slippery concept with approximately 60% of the UK’s current population currently self-defining as ‘working class’. The Social Mobility Commission suggests 4 defining factors of parental occupation at age 14; type of school attended at age 11–16; free school meal eligibility; and highest parental qualification. However these categories are likely to produce mixed results in a lot of cases. For example, I attended a comprehensive school and my mother was a nurse but my father was a teacher and I have never had free school meals. 

A further problem with making social class a protected characteristic is, paradoxically, that it would render many current initiatives to address class inequality unlawful. Positive discrimination is generally unlawful under UK law. Measures such as universities giving priority interviews to state school students would become problematic and could arguably be challenged by the more privileged as directly or indirectly discriminatory.

An interesting alternative approach suggested by The Times is to make it unlawful to discriminate on grounds of ‘accent, dress or appearance’. This would address the majority of class-based discrimination but would not be limited to class. Reducing social class inequality at work would improve working life for many individuals.  It would also protect others who may have been denied jobs and opportunities due to factors which are not relevant to their role. This could include a diverse range of people include those who are overweight, those of unusual height or those with tattoos or long hair. As such, it would plug a significant gap in discrimination law and will improve the conversation around social class in the workplace. 

This blog has been written by Mark Alaszewski, solicitor at didlaw.