The gender pay gap is well known and well documented – it now stands at just over 18 per cent in the UK. Likewise, the pay gap between white and black and ethnic minority (BAEM) workers has also long been studied by researchers.
But little has been known about the pay disadvantages faced by workers from working-class backgrounds – until now.
The Social Mobility Commission published a ground-breaking report (January 26) which found that when a worker from a working-class background enters into a professional occupation, they face an astounding £6,800 a year pay gap, amounting to 17 per cent – nearly just as wide as the gender pay gap.
Women and BAEM workers from working-class backgrounds are then doubly hit when they get professional jobs – working-class women earn 21 per cent less than their male colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.
Even when these workers from less privileged families have the same level of educational attainment, level of experience and the exact same role as their colleagues from wealthier backgrounds, a substantial pay gap of more than £2,200 a year still exists.
Certain professions remain all but shut off from people from working class backgrounds, such as law, medicine, journalism, banking and academia. For example, 73 per cent of doctors come from professional or managerial family backgrounds, with only 6 per cent coming from working class backgrounds.
Among the different professions, class pay gaps exist to varying degrees, with these same exclusive professions having the worst pay gaps.
In finance, for example, the class pay differential stands as high as £13,713 and in medicine, professionals from working class backgrounds earn on average more than £10,000 a year less than their more privileged colleagues.
In terms of overall social mobility, 48 per cent of households experience some measure of upward mobility, but more than third are downwardly mobile, the report found.
The Social Mobility Commission, working in conjunction with researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) and University College London (UCL), said that the reasons for the class pay gap were not clear.
It may be, the researchers noted, that workers from less privileged backgrounds are less likely to ask for pay rises, have less access to networking opportunities, or in some cases may even exclude themselves from promotion out of fear that they wouldn’t “fit in”.
It’s just as likely, though, that conscious or subconscious bias exists among bosses.
“This may manifest as outright discrimination or snobbery, or it may have to do with more subtle processes of favouritism or ‘cultural-matching’, whereby elite employers misrecognise social and cultural traits rooted in middle class backgrounds as signals of merit and talent,” the report noted.
Social Mobility Commission chair Alan Milburn said the “unprecedented research” provides “powerful new evidence that Britain remains a deeply elitist society.
“Too many people from working class backgrounds not only face barriers getting into the professions, but also barriers to getting on,” he said. “It cannot be right that they face an annual class pay gap of £6,800.
“Many professional firms are doing excellent work to open their doors to people from all backgrounds, but this research suggests much more needs to be done to ensure that Britain is a place where everyone has an equal chance of success regardless of where they have come from,” Milburn added.
“How much you are paid should be determined by your ability not your background,” he argued.
“Employers need to take action to end the shocking class earnings penalty. The commission will be sending major employers details of this research and asking them how they intend to close the class pay gap.”
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner welcomed the report.
“This latest report on the yawning class pay gap shows just how far we have to go before true equality of opportunity becomes a reality for all,” he said. “How much your family earns or what class background they come from should never determine which profession you enter or how much you earn in the future. We know that discrimination exists in many of our workplaces – especially in those sectors where pay inequality is substantial, such as in finance.
“It is important to highlight too this report has dispelled a persistent and pernicious myth – the so-called ‘culture of dependency’,” he added.
“Long-term worklessness does not pass on from generation to generation like some sort of disease. Instead, those who remain unemployed long-term almost always have chronic health problems or disabilities, or else are living in communities whose labour markets are dominated by low-pay, insecure work or few work opportunities at all.
“That’s why this government must aim to rebalance the economy away from low-pay, low-skill jobs and create decent work for all with strong trade unions,” Turner went on to say. “Trade unions are amongst the strongest vehicles for achieving equality in the workplace, particularly for women, BAME, disabled and LGBT workers.”
“If we really want to promote social mobility, the government must also end university fees and help create high-quality apprenticeships so that all people, whatever their background, can aim for a career based on their abilities, not their ability to pay.”