The real value of diversity and integrating social class in the inclusivity discourse.

By Anastasia Roscia.

“Diversity” and “inclusion” have become common terms in our collective vocabulary and sensibility. Perhaps due to millennials being vocal about issues such as gender discrimination, racism and minorities’ rights, businesses have fully embraced the promotion of diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. Even the most prestigious, typically white, male-dominated fields such as banking and law have added inclusivity to their recruitment policies. In addition, research also suggests that the more diverse a team, the better it will perform. If people with different points of view are integrated into an organisation, diversity will pay dividends and the business will grow as a result.

It is incredibly positive to see both firms and wider society taking important steps in this direction. It is not profitable for businesses, and neither is it morally fair to reiterate old ideas that reinforce stereotypes and discrimination. Nevertheless, there is an important aspect of diversity and inclusivity which is still considered taboo in countries such as the U.K. and the U.S.A: the value of social mobility and how social class barriers still exist, preventing talented applicants from even dreaming of working in a corporate environment.

It cannot be denied that socio-economic background and upbringing determine how far lower-class candidates will go in their professional life. I believe that by taking into consideration social class, we will get a more comprehensive and well-rounded understanding of diversity in two respects. Firstly, social class is as much of a barrier as race, gender, sexual orientation etc. in highly prestigious professions. Secondly, even those who “make it” despite their background endure a sense of isolation and dissatisfaction that might shed light on the true value of inclusion in the workplace.

According to “Why companies should add class to their diversity discussion” – an article recently published in the Harvard Business Review -, “class migrants” (an expression originally used by Joan C. Williams) are those who have managed to switch from one class to another. Similarly, in a study conducted by Stéphane Côté and Sean Martin, “social class transitioners” are highly capable individuals who understand people from all walks of life. As a result, they are able to mediate when differences arise in high-performing but fractious teams. These highly empathic individuals develop interpersonal skills, are able to adapt to new contexts and are incredibly hard-working. Unfortunately, they are also more likely to experience a sense of “isolation” and overall detachment. Côté and Martin’s study emphasises how class transitioners have to adapt to “a new set of rules” when they enter professions or schools traditionally dominated by upper-class representatives. When talking about their social-class transitioning, they describe how they were forced to learn a new and unfamiliar set of rules (for instance, the right dress-code). I find it interesting that, in doing so, social class transitioners do not seem to lose their original background’s cultural baggage: on the contrary, they simply acquire a more comprehensive and well-rounded understanding of different ways of thinking, which explains their empathy and adaptability. Although these are mainly US- based studies, I think they can tell us something valuable about Britain’s social divisions.

A powerful argument for encouraging diversity is maintaining a country’s stability. For instance, the Sutton Trust, an organisation that monitors social mobility in the U.K., has recently published “Elitist Britain”, a report suggesting that top-professions remain the (almost) exclusive domain of privately-educated pupils. They talk about “persistent inequality” and emphasise a division between media, businessmen and politics and the rest of the population, thus linking social divisions with Brexit and the rise of populism. This consideration highlights the importance of talking about social inequalities and integrating social class in the diversity discourse. Businesses and the wider society should offer equal opportunities in a proactive manner: this is necessary not only because it is socially just, but also because it maintains countries’ stability.

Studying socially mobile individuals who manage to transition highlights the real value of diversity; that is to say, the cultural baggage and innovative ideas brought by different people to truly diverse teams. The diversity debate is flawed in that it ignores social class and does not emphasise enough the unique point of view brought by different candidates to the table. It is not sufficient to include disadvantaged candidates from a wider pool of talent if they feel forced to give up their original “cultural” toolkit to learn the typical upper-class “set of rules” they feel so unfamiliar with in the first place. For a business, the risk of forcing people to cover their being “outsiders” is losing the unique competitive advantage brought by truly diverse teams; for a country, the risk of ignoring the (struggling) middle class and working-class point of view is that they might lead to surprising results such as Brexit or the 2016 Presidential Elections in the States. I think these were unexpected outcomes for businesses, politicians and media perhaps because their composition is not reflective of the society we live in: failing to include lower-class ideas in the political debate as well as in corporate professions and media discourse leads to political polarization and dangerous outcomes such as populism.

I am not suggesting that there is one class “cultural toolkit” (as Sean Martin puts it) that is better than the other: with this article, I aim to suggest that diversity should be about making people feel comfortable enough to be themselves when working along with their colleagues. They should not feel as outsiders entering the unknown when approaching a more corporate environment; they should feel entitled to bring their unique way of thinking, behaving and solving problems without having to adapt to what is traditionally perceived as being “professional” – in other words, without feeling compelled to adopt upper-middle-class values. Moreover, I believe it is a good thing when people are challenged to acquire a new understanding or “cultural toolkit”, but this should be a two-way effort, rather than the sole responsibility of those who have been traditionally excluded. The businesses which will be truly successful and innovative are those that will encourage minorities and disadvantaged applicants to be themselves, rather than the clever, empathic, hard-working “imitators” of a set of rules imposed by others. On the other hand, the sense of displacement described by social class transitioners is partially positive in that they are forced to acquire adaptability and empathy to “survive” a prestigious workplace: I wonder if the traditionally “privileged” classes would also benefit from being encouraged to understand the traditional “outsiders”, thus acquiring the same empathy and adaptability that make social transitioners so valuable in the workplace. Moreover, we need to encourage greater exchange of ideas and points of view in the media and political debate: “cross-class” mixing is the key not only for more productive and socially just workplaces, but also for less divided, more stable countries.

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