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We Need To Talk About Class.

Earlier this year the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, claimed that a focus on girls and minority ethnic groups has had a “negative impact” on others. Asked about the notoriously low intake of white, working class boys when it came to university admissions, she said: “I think it’s because as we’ve tried to deal with some of the issues around race and women’s agendas, around tackling some of the discrimination that’s there, it has actually had a negative impact on the food chain for white, working [class] boys. They have not been able to adapt.” [1]


Her statements got me thinking a lot about class, especially in relation to diversity quotas in the education system, but even more so in the professional work sphere. While, quite rightly, many diversity mission statements focus on the increase of females and individuals from BAME backgrounds in entry and leadership positions, I’ve seen very little, if any, specific mention of a commitment to recruiting individuals from working-class backgrounds. By leaving out the class aspect, and the levels of affluence and access to education intertwined within it, can inclusivity ever truly exist?


I’ve faced two white, male, middle-class institutions in a very short time – graduating from Cambridge in 2016 and starting at a London-based creative agency in September of the same year. Both of which, I suppose, were achievements unmatched to my background. Or at least that’s what everyone told me – not because I was a female, but because of where I’d come from. My parents hadn’t gone to university. In fact, they’d both had childhoods entrenched in poverty. Back in the 1980’s my mum’s bath was a bucket in front of the fireplace in her parent’s Bermondsey council flat. My dad lived on sugar sandwiches somewhere near Glasgow. True story.


I’d gone to a COE comprehensive in Belvedere, where me and my mates bought cheap Red Bulls on the walk to school and ate fried chicken on the walk home. It’s ironic that Belvedere means ‘a beautiful view’ in Italian when all we could see from the top playground was the Thamesmead incinerator. Five years there and I somehow navigated my way out of a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted status into a grammar school sixth form in Bexley, where they pushed me into applying for Oxbridge. I knew nothing about the place apart from the fact you needed grades I probably wouldn’t get. However, as a fate would have it, that’s where I ended up… but more of that to come.


Much like with my Cambridge application, I was clueless as to what to expect from the advertising world. But after submitting my CV, a written application, and a video of me speaking to the camera about advertising, I was accepted for interview at a creative agency. It went well, and I ended up getting the job. But something the interviewer said etched itself into my mind. A comment made with no malice at all, but reminding me that – as far as my background was concerned – I was in uncharted territory.


My interviewer said he had finished watching my video submission and was surprised to see ‘University of Cambridge’ on my CV. For him, my voice and my accent didn’t match up with the university, and all that it conjured up in his mind. Fundamentally, I stuck out, and everyone’s surprise continued to highlight this fact. “It’s just not the done thing” – a phrase I heard (and still hear) frequently, which didn’t (and doesn’t) seem to be because I’m a female. In fact, at my interview for the advertising role, girls outnumbered boys significantly. I wasn’t the odd one out for my biological qualities, but rather my social ones.


While there is more work coming out of ad agencies that depicts a broader scope of race, sexual orientation and gender identity, the life and make-up of the people that work in the ad agencies is still rooted in a past that’s not aligned with the society they’re talking to. The white middle class and its cultural references dominates, something the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) and many agencies are trying to change with the introduction of quotas, mission statements, and dedicated diversity task forces. Former IPA President Tom Knox set three core targets for 2020 at the annual President’s Reception in 2015, which included the following:

· On gender, women will hold 40% of senior positions within all agencies, and at each stage of the career ladder (Executive or Assistant, Middle Manager, Head of Department, Director or Other Executive Management and amongst personnel in the C-Suite)

· On ethnic diversity, at least, 15% of people in leadership positions in the IPA’s biggest agencies will be from a non-white background

· These goals are in addition to the IPA’s existing commitment to help the industry recruit 25% of new joiners from BAME backgrounds [2]


Class, however, is notably absent.


It’s a sad fact that ethnic minorities in this country are more likely than white people to live in the most deprived neighbourhoods. According to a 2018 report from the English Indices of Deprivation, black people were most likely to live in the poorest neighbourhoods, followed by Asian people; respectively speaking, 19.6% and 17.1% of these groups lived in the most deprived 10% of neighbourhoods. Indeed, if class is interlinked with the areas in which people live and the backgrounds associated with those postcodes, then the push for new joiners from BAME backgrounds does inevitably try to solve the issue. But by not separating race and class, we’re at risk of ignoring the 8.7% of white people who also live in the most deprived 10% of UK neighbourhoods. [3]


Oxbridge, ironically, seems to hold a potential solution to this in their admission methods. By using postcode based, demographic systems (ACORN and POLAR5), they can monitor the differing levels of socio-economic advantage and progression to higher education applicants have. In 2017, 10.6% of UK students admitted to Oxford came from the two most socioeconomically disadvantaged groups - an increase of almost four percentage points from 2013. They also monitor ethnicity separately, ensuring that enough attention and commitment is given to encouraging applications from BAME individuals. Of course, the numbers are still too low for both – there’s no denying that. With only 17.9% of Oxbridge students being BAME compared to the 24.7% who make up all UK universities, it’s evident Oxbridge still has more work to do in encouraging these people to believe it’s a place for them. But their emphasis on a postcode system is an interesting one – and something the advertising industry should consider if it wants to be truly inclusive.


In properly understanding the data behind who’s applying, the likes of Oxbridge and professional workplaces can only get better. But this focus on improvement can’t stop at the front door – especially because the barriers to class don’t end there. It’s just as much about what happens within the organisation. Class manifests itself in many facets – from cultural and popular references, right down to the way you speak. Each facet poses a potential barrier to equality.


For example, government research recently found a previously unrecognised ‘class pay gap’ amongst British workers. People from working class backgrounds, who are more likely to have regional accents, get paid on average £6800 less than their more affluent colleagues [4], and earn less even when allowing for the same education attainment, role and experience. In another study, 13 elite law, accountancy and financial companies found that their hiring practices favoured applicants with ‘posh’ RP accents.


There is no law against discriminating against someone with a regional accent; it is not a protected characteristic under the Equal Opportunities Act, despite the fact the way someone speaks is likely to encourage an opinion on not only their intelligence, but also who they are as a person. At university I quickly became known as “Casey from the Streets” by the students I met at college. “It’s ok”, they would say before we left to go to the club, “we’ve got Casey from the mean South London streets to protect us if we get into any trouble.” Luckily, I never did live up to the identity signalled by the way I pronounce words.


Class is a complex thing in this country and is loaded with at least 1,000 years of historical context.[5] It’s powerful too, because it defines so much of who you are, and where you have come from. It shouldn’t, however, need to define where you go and what you can achieve. If the ad industry can encourage this belief, and convince people from all walks of life that it’s the career for them, then surely more empathetic, effective work will follow. The best advertising speaks to people on their terms, with all the cultural understanding that entails.



Written by Casey Wright


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/jan/03/white-working-class-boys-should-be-more-aspirational-says-labour-minister


[2] http://www.ipa.co.uk/diversity/the-targets/


[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/english-indices-of-deprivation-2015


[4]https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-research-uncovers-class-pay-gap-in-britains-professions


[5] http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/what-was-the-legacy-of-william-the-conqueror/

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