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Working class and a woman: what the research tells us

Characteristics such as socio-economic background do not exist in isolation, and there are important interactions between socio-economic background and women.

The Civil Service has been looking in detail at the issue of social mobility reflecting the fact that we are not particularly representative of our society. For example, fewer than one in five senior roles in the Civil Service are taken by people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. The work to understand this has uncovered some interesting aspects of gender.

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Women are much less likely to identify as being from a lower socio-economic background and even when they do so, are much less likely to reveal this to colleagues.

Men are more open to discussing their background as it fits with the idea characterised by the phrase ‘a working-class boy done good’. Manifestations of being from a lower-socio economic background, such as accent and behaviours, can be useful for men in building an identity at work.

There is no equivalent of that phrase for women, and a perception that some of the characteristics associated with being a working-class man – such as being 'down to earth’ – do not translate. This can leave working class women more isolated and feeling that they do not fit in.

In turn this creates further barriers to progress and wider success, in addition to harming people’s attachment to the organisation.

One of the main planks of our strategy to improve social mobility and support colleagues from lower socio-economic backgrounds is a mentoring programme called Stride. A strong mentoring relationship can help in many ways, demystifying some of the ways in which the organisation works and helping people to grow and develop their skills and confidence within the organisation.

Mentoring has the scope to help people to be comfortable being themselves at work, and we know that is important to engagement.

As leaders, a key part of shaping and growing an organisation is the stories we tell, and the way in which we amplify the stories of others.

At HM Revenue and Customs, we have made some big leaps in social mobility, and we are proud to tell people about what we have done. But it is important in telling those stories that we reflect that the issue of socio-economic background affects men and women differently.

Put simply, we must make sure we understand those differences and talk about women from lower socio-economic backgrounds when we make our plans for improving social mobility.

International Women’s Day may have passed for another year but let us take inspiration from the messages it champions all year round, and make sure we are supporting working class women to succeed.

Jonathan Athow is social mobility champion at HM Revenue and Customs


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