Recently global accountancy giant KPMG made headlines for its new policy on social class and its mission to increase working-class representation amongst its workforce. In what seems like a ground-breaking initiative, the company has set itself the target of increasing the proportion of staff from working-class backgrounds to 29% in its partner and director roles by 2030. I was surprised to read that currently 23% of partners and 20% directors already self-identify as working-class. The KPMG report notes that an internal survey of around 10,000 employees showed that on average these same people were paid nearly 9% less than their non-working-class equivalents. In addition to those self-reporting as working-class, a further 10% either didn’t know or were not prepared to say.
In part the move by KPMG seems to be driven by the embarrassment over the comments by former company chair Bill Michael who claimed on a companywide Zoom call earlier this year that there was “no such thing as unconscious bias”. Michael resigned in the publicity surrounding these remarks and was later replaced by Bina Mehta, who claims working-class background herself and views equality and diversity as central to corporate strategy.
There are a lot of positives to take from this story. First, that there are so many senior people who claim working-class origin is a good thing if it reflects reality. Second, a large corporation actively recognising the issue of diversity and seeking to do something about under representation is to encouraged, and the fact this is about class is all the more welcome. Third, I think KPMG’s approach usefully begins to mainstream the language of class and the label of working-class in popular debates about economy and society.
In many ways these developments are long overdue. For decades large companies ignored underrepresentation of women and ethnic minorities as well as working-class people. Often, ingrained structural barriers in recruitment were normalised. Thirty years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the elite Durham University, all of the Blue-chip corporations attended the ‘Milk-round’ graduate recruitment events hosted by many of the top UK universities – and they wouldn’t have dreamt of travelling to lower tier institutions nearby. So a system kept self-perpetuating itself generation after generation — elite companies recruited from elite universities who in turn tended to recruit disproportionately from fee-paying schools. Transparency and acknowledgement of bias procedures has to be a good thing, right?
Well yes and no. For sure opening up a real space to debate privilege is important, but a recent article by sociologist Sam Friedman should provide a really important check on our enthusiasm. Friedman and his colleagues at the London School of Economics examined the stories people tell themselves and others about their background. He points out that 47% of Britons in middle-class professional and managerial jobs identify as working class according to the British Social Attitudes Survey. More surprizing still is that around 25% of people in such jobs who come from middle-class backgrounds (based on parental work roles) also identify as working-class. Friedman and his colleagues use their own research to make sense of this seeming contradiction by suggesting that many middle-class professionals lay claim to working-class identity as an origin story to boost their own justification for the privileges they enjoy. They ignore parental status and instead reach back to grandparents or even in some cases great-grandparents’ origins to boost their own individual achievement. This downplays their own structural privileges whilst reemphasising individual meritocratic achievement.
Why does this matter? Should we be concerned if a few privileged professionals want to claim an identity that isn’t really theirs? This reminds me of the classic 1960s Four Yorkshiremen sketch from UK TV where a succession of characters tells an increasingly grim and improbable story about their humble origins, each trying to outdo the previous narrator’s claim of grinding poverty and suffering. But I think this misrepresentation does matter a lot. As Friedman shows, these sorts of claims help to obfuscate the ingrained nature of structural inequality. By claiming, falsely, to have overcome barriers to success, privilege people effectively blame those not enjoying success for their own condition by citing lack of effort — effectively reinforcing class inequality all the more.
This allows politicians and other commentators who wish to deny those structural factors an excuse for policy inaction. In other words, all you have to do is try that bit harder — a ‘boot strap’ theory of inequality for the 21st century. Middle-class and elite attempts to game the system are of course nothing new. So while we can welcome companies like KPMG paying attention to issues of class, we need to be careful about how these things are measured. Self-reporting of an identity brings with it issues and unintended consequences. Pride in being from a working-class background is not a problem. It becomes a problem if individuals cynically adopt an identity to mask their own privilege at the expense of others. We need really good data on class inequalities and a nuanced, rather than ideological, account of the role of structural class inequality.
Tim Strangleman, University of Kent