Will ED&I ever shatter the ‘Class Ceiling’?
During our event, The Recharge, we hosted a pass-the-mic showcase sharing insight on critical yet overlooked aspects in ED&I. Below is the full speech from Rosie Ngugi on social mobility.
Hello everyone, my name is Rosie Ngugi, my pronouns are she/her. I couldn’t attend tonight due to an injury; I wouldn’t recommend running for a coach, because turns out the outcome isn’t always worth it! But, I still wanted to join in with the fun and share my story, alongside my colleagues.
So a bit of background about me - I’m a queer woman currently living 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, as 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, council 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 stating 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 equitable 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. These can be determined by academic definitions, but they don’t always align with the everyday perceptions and feelings of class – and as we’ve seen 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 such a lost opportunity, especially because socioeconomic status is so cross-cutting with many other underrepresented communities.
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. This is an example of the systemic change that is 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. Some starter questions might be: 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? And who knew who to get which job?
It might not feel immediately obvious. But in my own experience, without mentors and cheat codes, it can feel very opaque – especially when walking into certain spaces and environments that were not historically set up with people like me in mind.
Thanks for listening.
Rosie Ngugi is an Inclusion Consultant at The Unmistakables. For the full recap of The Recharge including takeaways and other speeches, click here. If you are interested in attending our next Recharge event register your interest here.