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Will DEI ever shatter the ‘Class Ceiling’?

Updated: Jun 12

During our event, The Recharge, we hosted a pass-the-mic showcase sharing insight on critical yet overlooked aspects in DEI Below is the full speech from Rosie Ngugi on social mobility.

Hello everyone, my name is Rosie Ngugi. I couldn’t attend tonight due to an injury, but I still wanted to join in with the fun and share my story, alongside my colleagues.

A bit of background about me - I currently live in Brighton, a place I am so proud to call home. But, I actually grew up in Watford, a football town just north of London. In Watford, 26% of children live in poverty, and many parents are left to make the choice between eating or heating their homes (which, we all know, has been exasperated by the cost of living crisis). I was part of that 26%. I was a recipient of free school meals, social housing, bursaries and first-generation scholarships.

With this lived experience in mind, you can imagine the laugh I had at the viral meme of Victoria Beckham saying that her upbringing was working class whilst admitting that she was driven to school in a Rolls-Royce. We could get into the cognitive dissonance of Posh Spice seeing herself as working class, but really, this moment of pop culture reveals a lot about the commonplace confusions between having a hard-working ethos and being working class. It also reveals three of the key challenges faced when accounting for class in DEI work: definition, measurement and visibility.

It’s clear, the UK has a very complex relationship with class, socio-economic status and social mobility. This relationship is laid bare when defining who is and isn’t a part of certain groups. In the UK, socio-economic status can be determined in a multitude of ways (the ABC1 methodology, parents’ salary at the age of 14, free-school meal recipients), the EU uses their ESeG classification, and the US monitors income and education through percentiles. These can be determined by academic definitions, but they don’t always align with the everyday perceptions and feelings of class. We’ve also seen that these definitions can shift over time.

Working with clients, I know this picture becomes more blurred when you factor international differences into these categorisations, measurements and protections. For instance, socioeconomic status is not legally protected in the UK, but it is legally protected in many other countries across the world, including Denmark, Ukraine, Mexico and Argentina – to name a few.

Due to this complexity, it’s often said that social class is the forgotten dimension of diversity. This feels like a lost opportunity, especially because socioeconomic status cuts across many other underrepresented communities, in particular disabled, LGBTQIA+ and communities of colour.

In studies, poverty experts have found that where you grow up largely determines how you do in life, as well as work. So, will this ‘Class Ceiling’ ever shatter?

Well this year, we’ve seen some progress capturing headlines. For example, Slaughter and May became the first magic circle firm to set targets for social mobility. Alongside other magic circle law firms, Slaughter and May are also using the Rare Contextual Recruitment System, an assessment tool which accounts for socioeconomic status to identify ‘resilient outperformers’. This is based on research that shows highly-achieving people from disadvantaged backgrounds outperform their peers in ‘elite’ jobs. It's an example of the systemic change needed to lower the barriers that working-class people face in the workplace.

And interpersonally, there is likely more we could all be doing to level the playing field. We won’t get into the myth of meritocracy now, but the key takeaway is that, for many, hard work can’t conquer all. The work that we do, has shown me, time and time again, that this is not an isolated experience. I meet lots of thoughtful and well-intentioned people seeking to build more inclusive workplaces, who struggle to know where to begin when it comes to class in the workplace. Think about: What are the unwritten rules of when and how to speak? How to dress? What is and isn’t “professional”? Do you notice people adapting their accents and code-switching? Who tends to progress? What about pay gaps? And who knew who to get which job?

At first, it might not feel immediately obvious. But in my own experience, without mentors and cheat codes, navigating social class in the workplace can feel very opaque - especially when I walk into certain spaces and environments that were not historically set up with people like me in mind.

Here are some useful starting points:

Rosie Ngugi is an Inclusion Consultant at The Unmistakables. For the full recap of The Recharge including takeaways and other speeches, click here.


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