Contributor Recommends: The Class Ceiling

For March’s Contributor Recommends, we spoke to Rachel Parker, Community Manager at Freshfields.

“Social mobility has become a national talking point, with charities, schools, universities, government, and employers seeking to find solutions to the systemic barriers which make it so much harder for those from less privileged backgrounds to achieve their potential and reach the top of their chosen career path.

Employers across the country, particularly those which are seen as ‘elite’ professions such as finance and law, are increasingly being looked upon to alter perceptions and to take a lead in driving social mobility forward.

If you want to better understand social mobility, I would recommend the recently published ‘The Class Ceiling: why it pays to be privileged.’ The authors, Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, present the factors which create a persistent ‘class’ ceiling affecting those less advantaged; ’It is not that such individuals cannot move forward, or never reach the top; just that, generally, it takes longer, happens less frequently and often represents a markedly more labour-intensive, even exhausting experience’. The book also includes case studies across three professions which are a powerful illustration of how these factors play out – going behind the scenes to reveal the means by which some appear to get ahead with more ease than others.

Particularly revealing is the distinction that Friedman and Laurison make between the barriers that less privileged jobseekers face in first accessing employment (the ‘getting in’), and the barriers which hinder progression in the workplace (the ‘getting on’). Much of this is to do with a cultural pressure to present the ‘right’ image in a professional environment –  ‘right’ being wound up in all sorts of presumptions and biases which can lend itself to the less privileged feeling unable to fit in (and, in some cases, unfairly held back from making professional progress).

This cultural element is arguably one of the most challenging pieces of the puzzle; one passage in the book describes that, in each professional setting you look at, ‘while these codes may look different, they function in much the same way’…’setting shared norms and expectations – around dress, accent, taste, and etiquette – that are routinely misrecognised as markers of ‘objective’ skill, talent, and ability.’

There’s certainly a long way to go towards a more inclusive, socially mobile economy in the UK, but this book is a great example of the previously hidden mechanisms which we need to address if we are to succeed, and is a valuable addition to the conversation.


Some other links on the topic that you might find interesting:

Breaking the class ceiling’ podcast presented by Sathnam Sanghera

Guardian Long Read based on an extract from the Class Ceiling

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