It's time to tackle classism in the social sector.

Our founder reflects on her own encounters with class in the social sector and what she learnt from carrying out research into the barriers facing working class young people in foreword to our new report: Playing the game- how class affects access to social sector careers.

I noticed something funny happening around class in my first role within a national charity; why had so many people studied at Oxbridge? Why did the rest of us all go to other Russell Group universities? Why did we all spend our leisure time in the same ways? Consume the same media? We were also all- perhaps needless to say- white.

While I had, by that time, the privileges of a middle-class education and the friendships and career pathways that come with it, there is a working-class heritage in my bones: a parent’s upbringing on a council estate- where some of my family live today, family business in construction and trades, my Grandfather’s accomplishments as a union shop steward etc. That’s only half the story of course; we had many middle-class add-ons too, which multiplied as I got older; but I realised that the culture of the organisations I was working in only reflected this middle-class half of the story- the more recently developed half- of my family’s identity and my own experiences.

In my early career there were a handful of moments when classism starkly surfaced, most the time it was just a backdrop to working life. It always came to the fore when I noted the difference between our beneficiaries and employees, for example. And there were some odd moments, as if we were thrown back in time, like when I overheard a senior member of staff mimicking a colleagues un-plummy South London accent. That colleague’s ph’s turned f’s sounded just like mine.

As my career progressed however and I began to build and lead teams, I became more concerned about the obvious lack of working-class people in recruitment pipelines, in teams, in leadership. I also noticed the way that concepts like ‘professional’ were often used as synonyms for ‘middle class’; this is significant when the level of professionalism is, for example, the tie-break factor in which young candidate gets a job. I observed too, the bleak impact of classism on the way some colleagues designed interventions, with group-think tied up in assumptions about lives neither they, nor anyone they really knew, had ever lived. It wasn’t just that classism was unfair, it was that it was having a material effect on how our organisations functioned- perhaps even the quality and impact of our work.

Yet classism remains largely on the level of the anecdotal in the sector. As the participants in this research repeatedly note, the social sector is middle class but its hard to put your finger on why and what to do about it. This report aims to start filling this gap; to show how classism works in the social sector, what impact it has and to suggest some practical ways we can change it.

For me, one of the biggest revelations from this small study, is that there is so much we can do- easily and quickly. My hope is that if organisations come across this report, they’ll begin to recognise how classism is present in their own cultures, and feel empowered to pick up the recommendations and do something. I would like us to move away, as a sector, from solutions that rely on individuals changing on their own; for example, away from employability schemes (which are not all bad at all) that implicitly suggest adopting middle class mannerisms is the way to get ahead, and instead move towards the structural and cultural change that can lead to larger impact, sustainable change and that can broaden working class representation in the social sector with its own identity still intact.

I interviewed many of the participants in this research myself. One week I spoke to two students on subsequent days: each with equal passion for the social sector career but with very different means. One was working many hours alongside studying and hadn’t been able to undertake any substantial volunteering because he didn’t have time. The other didn’t have to work and spoke me through their incredible experience so far, including a summer long expenses-only internship in a major, national charity. That charity could surely, surely have afforded to have paid a living wage for six weeks. If they had of done, both students would have applied. I imagined both of their CVs turning up to someone’s desk when they graduate next year: who has a better chance at getting that first break?

There really is room for change. Room for change across the social sector, room for change in our organisations and most importantly, room for change in society. The business case for diversity is long-proven and shows that if we want to do the best work possible, which, in the case of social sector organisations means achieving social transformation and positive social outcomes, then diversity is a tool we have to use. And class is a vital part of that picture.