Australia doesn’t like to acknowledge class, and it’s missing from diversity and inclusion discussions. But the evidence shows that it shapes careers.
When it comes to conversations about workplace diversity, class has long been the poor second cousin. Despite the varied experiences and perspectives different socioeconomic backgrounds can bring, it’s gender, race and, to a growing extent, disability and sexual orientation that tend to dominate discussions.
But as the business case for diversity becomes ever more compelling, can organisations afford to overlook this valuable source of difference?
In Australia, where cultural attachments to egalitarianism, mateship and a ‘fair go’ run deep, class can be an uncomfortable topic. In the UK, which has long been divided along class lines, the diversity agenda already includes discussions about setting employment quotas for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
However, as HR consultant and member of AHRI’s diversity and inclusion advisory panel Chris Lamb FCPHR puts it, Australia “just hasn’t really gone there yet”.
“I think Australia likes to think of itself as similar to the United States – a very egalitarian society where people have an equal chance to succeed regardless of background,” says Lamb. “Whether or not we are like that, I’m not sure.”
Fear of offending
Discussions about class in the workplace can be hindered by fear of “offending Australia’s national identity”, says Rhonda Brighton-Hall FCPHR, CEO of consultancy MWAH and chair of AHRI’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Panel.
“Socioeconomic diversity is wrapped up in Australia’s sense of a fair go,” she says. “But some people are born with such little opportunity that it doesn’t matter how much they have a go, they are more unlikely to make it. These conversations are long overdue.”
Rigid understandings of class structure can limit such discussions. The OECD defines the middle-class, which makes up 58 per cent of Australia, as those households with disposable income of between 75 and 200 per cent of the median income distribution. But the usefulness of this definition is disputed.
ANU academics Jill Sheppard and Nicholas Biddle, who co-authored the 2017 report Class, Capital and Identity in Australian Society, say the traditional three-stratum class model no longer reflects our society. They have proposed a model of six social classes which measures income (economic capital), social relationships (social capital) and pastimes (cultural capital).
It’s difficult to capture the complexities of society in demographic studies, but there is a clear business case for including class in diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Sean Martin, associate professor of management at University of Virginia Darden School of Business, co-authored a recent study into the extent to which class diversity has an impact on organisations. It refers to ‘social class transitioners’ – those who have progressed between socioeconomic classes during their life – and shows the particular value they bring to the workplace.
“Social class transitioners are so important and yet we greatly undervalue them at work,” says Martin. “From earlier research on social class, and from my own research, it’s pretty clear that people who come from lower social class backgrounds value community and harmony in their immediate surrounds.”
It’s not that people from upper social class backgrounds don’t value this, says Martin. It’s just that they’re more likely to prioritise themselves and their career.
“They’re more likely to think about things in terms of ‘How does this affect me personally and my self-interests?’ rather than the group.”
Martin says if employers value qualities such as “grit, persistence and demonstrated abilities to overcome obstacles”, they are likely to find them in the upwardly mobile.
“A person who has been upwardly mobile knows how to act and behave in elite spaces, but also understands what it’s like to be in lower social-class spaces,” he says. “They can connect people who don’t understand each other. They are, to some extent, multicultural because the social classes are like different cultures.”
People from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have skills that those who grew up in privilege may lack, says Nareen Young, industry professor at Jumbunna Institute of Education and Research at the University of Technology Sydney and former CEO of Diversity Council Australia.
“I think working-class people are incredibly resilient and empathetic in a very different way to people from other class backgrounds,” she says. “They tend to be very accepting of people’s foibles and probably have a creativity of emotional intelligence that could be a lesson to a lot of other people.”
If diversity of thought and experience bring measurable benefits to the bottom line, businesses that overlook socioeconomic difference risk losing a competitive advantage. What is standing in the way?
Young says we need to have a variety of voices involved in the conversation.
“The way the diversity conversation has emerged, it’s led by the concerns of upper middle-class women, or ruling-class women. That’s who diversity leaders tend to be,” she says. “I don’t think they’ve given it a consideration. Just like how they see Indigenous women as ‘other’, rather than mainstream employees. I don’t think it’s anything deliberate, but it’s a very serious omission.”
Role models for gender diversity rarely include those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, says Brighton-Hall. In 2014 she was involved in an inquiry to understand commonalities between women who had cracked the glass ceiling in Australia. The study found, in most cases, that the most successful women had been born into a degree of privilege.
Brighton-Hall says factors linked to privilege – such as socioeconomic status of parents, cultural and linguistic diversity, and religion – also apply to top teams of ASX companies and public institutions.
Class-based assumptions are another obstacle to diversity, says Martin. To illustrate his point, he cites a recruitment scenario at a bank. A manager is presented with four resumes of applicants with similar work history. Each attended an elite university.
“To make your choice of who to interview, you may start looking for cues such as whether they did an internship, or if they enjoy symphonies or playing basketball. So you end up selecting based on signals of people who are elite and have been elite for their entire lives.
“It’s my hunch that everybody genuinely believes that an upwardly mobile person would be a good hire,” says Martin. “That they are not really doing this tells me there is some kind of outside pressure they’re conforming to.”
This pressure, he says, may come from assumptions that people from an elite background are a more “defensible hire”.
“This means that if you have to show everybody who you’re hiring, you can very clearly argue that you’re hiring only the best of the best.”
Another impediment to social class diversity, says Lamb, is the tendency to value personality traits generally associated with a higher socioeconomic standing, such as confidence.
“In many cases, we confuse confidence with competence,” he says. “I think there’d be many situations where people who have grown up with privileges of wealth or a more expensive education develop that confidence in a way that those from disadvantaged backgrounds don’t.”
How can employers avoid class-based bias? One way, says Lamb, is to rethink the way interviews are structured.
“I think face-to-face, unstructured interviews are next to useless. If you insist on face-to-face interviews, they need to be very structured in a way that focuses on the capabilities required for the job and that bring out examples of how people have done things, and then apply that consistently for every candidate.”
Lamb adds that task-based assessments can help to identify skills.
“If you need someone to write a piece of code, then give them a task in the selection process where they write a piece of code.”
He also says ‘blind’ recruitment strategies don’t always guarantee a level playing field. “Evidence shows that simple things like removing name or gender from a resume may not be that helpful, because, in the absence of that information, people will still infer things.”
Does a resume show an extended time out of the workforce? This may signal maternity leave. Do you not recognise the university listed on an applicant’s CV? Perhaps they are an immigrant. And what may a particular postcode say about an applicant’s socioeconomic background?
Automated recruitment tools risk embedding class bias, such as postcode preferences, in the hiring process warns Martin.
“If the person programming those platforms has a bias, the algorithm is likely to contain a bias of some kind.”
Despite 29 years of uninterrupted economic growth, the gap between Australia’s rich and poor continues to expand. As a result, movement along the social-class spectrum is becoming more noticeable and conversations about class look set to become even more important than they are today. These are discussions that must happen in the workplace, no matter how awkward they are, says Brighton-Hall.
“People don’t always realise they have a degree of privilege, because we like to think we’ve simply worked hard. But you do have to accept that if you were born on rung eight of the ladder, it’s not that hard to climb those last two rungs. If you were born on rung one or two, getting to rung eight is really tough.”
Lamb says there is an important distinction between diversity and inclusion.
“Inviting difference in and creating an environment where ideas and backgrounds are shared, that’s pivotal to creating an inclusive environment,” he says “But you won’t get that unless you start educating managers about the power of different experiences.
“Some organisations like to say, ‘We’re gender blind here’ or ‘We’re blind to socioeconomic backgrounds,’” says Lamb. “That’s nonsense. People with different backgrounds bring different things. If you’re ignoring these differences, you’re missing out on the advantage they can bring to whatever organisational problem you’re trying to address.”
This article first appeared in the April 2020 edition of HRM magazine.
Discover where your organisation stands when it comes to diversity best-practices, and learn how to unlock the business potential of good diversity management with the AHRI D&I Maturity Model.