Where does class fit into the diversity debate?

Hello everyone, I am a Human Resource Management and Employee Relations MSc. student at Brunel University and a first time poster.

My dissertation at present is on the topic of class and diversity and my initial idea was to survey professional service companies in London to see whether they do actively try to recruit those from working class backgrounds, do they monitor staff in regards to social background and getting a feel of whether class does matter to companies. 

I have always had an interest in Diversity issues and I have been lucky to undertake a Global Diversity Management course with Professor Mustafa Ozbilgin , a leader in the Diversity field and has worked on a number of reports with the CIPD.

What has struck me having studied the topic is how Class is seemingly invisible in the Diversity debate.

It seems that whilst Universities are rightly scrutinized if they do not attract pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds i.e. Oxbridge and the Russell Group universities, that is where class concerns stop. 

Diversity is about inclusion yet a lot of the professional services careers for example have always had the white. male (able bodied, hetereosexual etc)  and middle to upper classes in them and it seems that the last part is being ignored.

Whilst I do not think that this is a conscious choice (I promise I have not got that big of a chip on my shoulder!) and more perhaps despite the business case arguments being paramount , Equality Legislation is a big part in why companies pursue diversity initiatives. 

From a personal point of view, I feel the working class get a bad reputation in this country and whilst proportionally speaking not many of us go to university, even when we do get a degree we are still disadvantaged be that by not going to the best universities or schools, having an "accent", not having the best GCSE's etc. 

But then what people view themselves as is very complicated and I appreciate there is many complexities in this  

I am very interested in hearing from you all as to your experience of how class is treated by companies , particularly to those that do working in the legal, banking, accounting and consultancy sectors.

It would be nice to get a good debate going and maybe take this outside the forums and doing something meaningful.

I look forward to your comments  


  • Hi Richard.

    A very new  take on diversity and one I'm sure many of us under privileged northerners wonder about whilst we tek our 'lowance during our breaks  at the bottom of the few pits left for us to work in, by the posh southerners who live in those, now flooded houses, by, or in, the Thames. 

     I'm sure there are many doors which are still only open to those who 'fit in', and by that I mean those who, as you describe are either middle or upper class or where us working class are allowed in, for whatever reason, only find a glass ceiling to prevent them rising to the top.

    In the middle 60's when I joined HM Navy, it was transparently obvious that you could be the proud owner of as many GCE's (as they were then) you  hadn't had a chance in hell of being an officer unless you 'fitted in'.  Those from working class backgrounds that could fit in and talk 'proper' and had qualifications or potential, invariably found themselves confined to administrative functions and had their careers limited via a glass ceiling within their own officer ranks.  Thus you might find yourself a Commander in charge of stores, communications or catering you simply would never find yourself being a Commander of a warship, or in some other operational role.

    Has this changed over 50 years?  Possibly, but  it still appears that if you have any hopes or aspirations in having a career with no limits on your promotional ceiling then there are regiments such as the Guards & Cavalry  where you can sprout as many degrees as you wish.  Unless these were gained via public schooling and oxbridge universities, and you have the right social background, and connections (which certainly are not ones you'd describe as working class), then you may as well not bother try.  Yes, I know there are officers promoted from within the ranks but these are as far as I can see limited to only certain jobs and roles and all have glass ceilings imposed on them one way or another.

    Are my views consistent with civvi street?  I'd say there are plenty of jobs or careers out there where one's prospects are severely curtailed  for exactly the same reasons as I've described  and can only because of class prejudice  reasons.

  • Thanks for you reply David.

    I haven't quite felt the full thrust of crossing the north/south divide since the business graduate school in west London that I'm in has very few British people in but I am sure entering the corporate world in the very near future will be a wake up call!

     I can imagine, my grandmother was really intelligent but never got past gce level because of the times and expectancy to work, and she went into the RAF and was based near London . She always said that you were aware of being surrounded by your social "betters"

    She never managed to progress up the ranks and in the end became a secretary for a law firm where she lived in Llandudno in North Wales. Whilst my great uncle managed to get the A-level equivalents and ended up being a bus driver for years .

    Honestly, I would say that it is not dissimilar. One researcher (I'll put the article name when I can remember it) found that in law firms there was a lot of accent discrimination and without generalizing, would a magic circle law firm take someone with a thick Manchester accent who had to meet clients?

    My university did a seminar about "the hidden job market" saying that 70% jobs are found through networking (an arbitary estimate but it was for effect.) So again it becomes who you know , and whilst obviously networking can be done by anyone etc, if you don't have family,friends or some kind of professional connection then it becomes increasingly difficult to find jobs.  

    I'm sure there is a lot of "fitting in" that has to be done and I am limited with time and scope in what I do want to research but it would be interesting to see what goes in with these places.

    I think the problem with this , is that it is a form of "Invisible discrimination" in that if you see a picture of a white male ceo you only see what he looks like , not his background, accent, school or anything of the same. And it would be difficult to proclaim we have diversity, if the new ceo was working class but white and say "we've made progress" 

    But who knows, maybe there are forward thinking companies out there, and it is an issue for them?

    What is strange though is that I've spoken to pretty high ranking academics about this and they have thought it is a really interesting idea to link class with diversity so I am genuinely surprised how under-researched the area is.  

  • Hi Richard

    Whilst I can sympathise with your motives and lines of enquiry, I cannot in all honesty see this as a useful or very meaningful thing to pursue, in that you'll be stating the obvious and highly unlikely to change anything in society at large.

    It's interesting how the law imperfectly and eventually follows social and cultural and political change in eg universal free education based on innate ability; abolition of slavery; votes for all; unlawful discrimination etc., but the UK culture especially still very much runs along class-based lines and always will, for this is our history and heritage.

    At one level, you can put this down to hardwired animal / evolutionary tribal and birds of a feather instincts; at another you can look at social and power structures, and eg the distribution of wealth - in the UK a tiny percentage of the population owns most of our national wealth - and so on and so forth.

    But I return to asking 'what's the point?' - Life ain't fair - whether for women; for the poor and underpriviliged etc etc.

    I am from a generation in which I've experienced the extent to which Grammar Schools contributed towards leveling life-chances - my class at Grammar School was the top stream yet was chock - full of children from working-class  backgrounds, most of whom became doctors and teachers and skilled professionals and the like. We rubbed shoulders with the offspring of the established professional and upper classes, but only with those who had demonstrated (however imperfectly) their level of intellectual aptitude.

    Despite it's flaws, it was a good and equitable system, and we as a country I'm sure are very very much the poorer for the demise of eg Grammar and Technical Schools.

    Things do change, though, albeit at a jerky and glacial pace - eg, Dave, my cousin is a bigsot officer in the Royal Navy and will probably end up an Admiral or thereabouts yet his dad started working life as a humble  apprentice Fitter down't  local pit - imperfect / loaded though the social system and class structure still currently is, at least it allows room for unusual talent, and that can only be a good thing, to be extended wherever possible,





  • Meant 'bigshot' (in case anyone thought it was bigot!!)

    Seriously, though, it's rather controversial territory, that no   - man's land between  academic Sociology  and HR Management. going back a lot of years, Huw Beynon's famous study 'Working for Ford' (1973)  was one of the results, and not sure whether it's the same nowadays, but most university sociologists (even the Open University) seemed to regard study of HR as the work of the Devil - to be consigned to 'Business and Management' departments; nothing or little to do with serious study of Sociology. 

    It's a book that's perhaps still well worth reading, Richard and others - very well-written; not the usual turgid, dogmatic sociology speak at all: but with a viewpoint and a message that reflects the nadir of the post war class divide - a divide which many would argue is still very much with us, just in subtler form and furthermore it ventures  provocatively into that no man's land, which, in 1973 was revolutionary and even in 2014 seldom seems to happen.

    All best with your studies, Richard.
  • Hope your studies go well.  My Dad said the only reason that he was promoted to the office class was a World War and they were obliged to as there was no one else to promote!

  • It is an intersting debate. I have done lots of work with organisations looking at inequality in the outcomes from their performance management systems and one issue that has arisen is whether the lower grades often give to people from BME backgrounds is really to do with class rather than to do with ethnicity. People from BME backgrounds who have been to top unis and in particular, have 'oxbridge' accents tend to do better. Big assumptions about people are made on the basis of accent, including people with accented speech are less likely to be competent writers.

    I do think it is worth looking at. For organisations it has an impact on where they focus their diversity activity and how they tackle and communicate unconscious bias.

  • Universities aren't scrutinized on the basis of the class of their students. They are scrutinized on the basis of the broad category of educational establishments from which their applicants are drawn. This is politically and socially interesting, but not very useful, commercially speaking.

    There are, after all, state schools and state schools. And there are also private schools and private schools. Not every private school is an Eton or Harrow. Not every state school is Grimdark Comprehensive.

    If you want to get into the question of discrimination and fair access for those of differing class backgrounds, you have to start trying to define class, which is tricky. I know people with seven-figure incomes who self-identify as "working class" because of where they were born and what their parents did for a living. But their children go to private schools and they wear tailored clothes, own three homes and holiday in the Carribean. Similarly, I know people whom most categorize as "upper class" because they have cut-glass accents and aristocratic forebears but who are struggling to get by on the minimum wage.

    The vast majority of us occupy the enormous middle ground of the middle England middle class. You might try to differentiate between us on whether we use serviettes or napkins, or call our evening meal dinner, tea or supper, but it sounds like a futile pursuit to no great benefit to me.

  •  Hi Robey

    Afraid I can't agree with your dismissive remarks in your final paragraph - this isn't just about the trivial social niceties you speak-of; nor is recognizing that the society we live in is riddled with unfair privilege and class-distinction and that genuine equality and diversity workplace practices ought to take account of it (as Mary rightly observes) -  ignoring it in the workplace, as it does in society, squanders very scarce human resources and condemns the underclasses and underprivileged and their children to lives of needless poverty and misery - tackling that challenge of 'life-chances' difficult though it might be, to me at least, has to be of the utmost benefit.

  • ps

    A former close work colleague, a very cultured and otherwise-sophisticated Muslim Indian, was prone to be embarrassingly impolite and demeaning to the waiters in many Indian restaurants. When his white colleagues raised it with him, he dismissed it as too  trivial to worry about - that the waiters were from a very inferior social class and that was the only treatment they either expected or deserved.


  • In terms of a subject for a MSc dissertation I think it would be interesting and relevant. It offers a wide range of angles that can be investigated and a fair amount of academic literature than can be explored (the meaning and definition of class etc).

    Will it change the world? Probably not but not sure my masters dissertation did either (signed copies available).

    The assumption that Professional Services firms recruit from a limited range of social backgrounds and univsersities can be tested (if you can access the data from them). It would be then a step to prove that this hurts their business model and that recruiting from a wider range of uniersities and/or social backgrounds would positively impact their bottom line (if that is the diversity payback).

    Taking this a step further and coming up with practical ways you would break down the ingrained socialising practices of this industry would perhaps be teh greatest challenge.

    So good luck with the research - am sure you will find it challenging and rewarding. Although maybe not surprising.

  • Thanks again for the comments everyone and I'll try and respond to everyone as best I can

    David- I do hear you on that, and a degree of inevitability that what I will find will be stating the obvious and I will make sure to see whether my uni library or local one has that book. Perhaps the return of grammar schools is what we need instead of the free academies where the quality is somewhat debatable and more in persuading the goals of the people that run them instead of promoting high level education .

    At the same time, now that universities are more accessible and despite the worry of higher fees (which compared to other countries, is still not awful and the loan system itself)  they do give the disadvantaged more opportunities but with companies now looking back at GCSE grades there is an obvious call in having better education earlier on.

    And I agree , it isn't something that we can just dismiss , it still goes on and addressing it is important for work place fairness and society itself . 

  • Julia- I can definitely imagine that but a good of example of being in the right place at the right time!

    Mary- Out of curiosity , have you ever published any work regarding this? (sorry if this is a silly question, I have been in the womb of academics for as long as I can remember and the "real world" is still alien to me!) I would very much appreciate the opportunity to discuss this with you if possible? I think accent is quite an interesting one to look at so it would be interesting to talk to you about it.

  • In reply to Richard Bromley:

    Robey- Well I can see where you . and I'm sure many businesses would too. are going with that. Why would they pay too much attention to class, when they want the best people and do a lot in the first place in regards to diversity?

    What peeked my interest in this is the fact that many of the big companies nail their colours to their masts and proclaim "We value diversity, it adds value to our company, we want the best regardless of where they come from, it's the right thing to do."

    So for me they argue on the business case line and the social justice case line. If that is the case then class should be important for them both for potential customer insight and new perspectives for example , which are seen as some of the best business case arguments for  diversity. And if they want to go down the social justice route like many do, then the lower classes are disadvantaged and should be a concern for them.

    I appreciate defining the working class can be tricky but that example about 7 figure incomes is still relevant. I want to focus on peoples backgrounds not necessarily what they earn in companies (because of time constraints and whilst that would be interesting to see , first we have to find out what backgrounds people come from originally ) 

    I agree with David on this one , it isn't about social niceties and the idea that this big middle encapsulates everyone that's not upper class is to my mind not accurate. There are many people from disadvantaged backgrounds in this country , who despite being bright, do not get a fair crack of the whip. If the cream really does rise to the top then we would not need any of the equality legislation as the companies would have been picking people  and treating fairly those who are female, black, asian, disabled, homosexual , non-christian etc .

  • In reply to Richard Bromley:

    Keith- Thank you, and it is good to see a fellow masters person on here. Trust me, the advice I give everyone to relax about the dissertation is to realise you aren't changing the world so I hear you on that one!

    Well, it would be a difficult step to prove that , and my view on how it can improve businesses is going to focus more on the arguments and the grand statements that come out of companies in regard to how they value diversity etc Based on team theory and all the studies, most do show that the more diverse the group the better results that you get (to crudely summarise.)  

    In regards to the socialising practices, that would be an interesting thing to follow up on , especially for further study but I am hamstrung in regards to time (really only have 3 months full time) and access (I did work in a law firm last year but they refused my request to use the company as a research base- but from my own time there the partners bar one were from affluent backgrounds)

    And yes I appreciate I would be stating the obvious but with all the emphasis on diversity these days and companies arguing the value of it and with talent shortage, I do think it would be a valuable study.

  • Steve Bridger

    | 0 Posts

    Community Manager

    24 Feb, 2014 16:05

    Richard - thanks for opening this discussion, and especially for engaging with those who have shared their own thoughts.