The 'class ceiling' as hard to smash as the glass one

I was 17 when I first suffered British class discrimination. I had just sat my A-level maths early and achieved an A. I had also got straight As in my mock A-levels, in biology, chemistry and physics.

I don't write this to be boastful; I know I am lucky genetically – I have brains, and I come from a family of grafters. But I don't come from money, class or privilege. My school was Yateley Comprehensive, not St Paul's or Roedean, and this fact determined what happened next.

Much has been written about the glass ceiling for women, but the class ceiling is just as difficult to break through. For me, it was the greater barrier.

New research has uncovered the "class-origin pay gap" of around £7350 ($15,800) a year in highly prized jobs such as law, medicine and finance. The LSE academics behind the study said their findings suggested class still cast a "long shadow" over life chances.

Shame, embarrassment and humiliation

I learnt this the hard way, through shame, embarrassment and humiliation. I had applied for university through a sponsorship program and was interviewed by a white male middle manager. He asked what grades I expected. I replied As or Bs as I felt I should downplay my expectations. (I got four As.)

I wish to inspire others to kick the doors down and keep fighting for a place at the table.

At the end of the interview, he told me I was arrogant, boastful and talked too much. He was about 50 and in a position of power. I was a teenage girl, and not. I cried all the way home. In his view, a girl from a 'comp' should not have aspirations. The following 28 years have confirmed this early experience.

I've worked since I was 13. I was a national/international-level swimmer and an academic high achiever - everything employers say they want. But after graduating from City University with a first-class degree in Business Studies and Finance, not one British investment bank offered me a job. They were places for privately educated men, and occasionally, a few women. The only offers I got were from American banks, which are far more meritocratic.

More than a decade later, I was interviewed by a private bank. Before me was a panel of plummy-voiced men discussing a society wedding they had all been to. Trevor Phillips, former chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, calls this "signalling" - a message that I didn't fit in. One interviewer (titled) questioned why I bothered to apply: "You do know the culture here, don't you?"

'Systematic exclusion'

In June, research from The Social Mobility Foundation found that "elite firms are systematically excluding working-class applicants from their workforce". That bright "working-class applicants struggle to get access to top jobs in the UK" in the highly paid professions of law, accounting and finance. It also found that state-school applicants needed higher grades than privately educated contemporaries to get the same job. And even if a disadvantaged graduate breaks into such a career, they won't be promoted as readily.


According to a government report, Elitist Britain, 71 per cent of senior judges, 62 per cent of senior Armed Forces officers, 43 per cent of newspaper columnists, 33 per cent of MPs and 26 per cent of BBC executives went to private schools, compared with seven per cent of the population.

The elite few

Diplomats, Lords, those in television, influential voices on radio, chief executives of public bodies, Permanent Secretaries - those who run this country, make laws and dominate national debate - are predominantly from a small "elite".

So why don't we, the majority, scream and shout at such social injustice? Karl Marx said religion is the opiate of the masses. The Romans kept the plebs quiet by distributing free bread and staging huge spectacles. So which soporific keeps Britons diverted today? Could cake and talent shows be the new palliatives to stop us demanding a fairer society?

In some ways I have been lucky. After my initial setbacks, I spent seven years at Goldman Sachs and then a decade at BBC World Service. I now work as a writer and broadcaster. It could have been so different if I'd given up hope.

Kick the doors down

I don't wish to rage blindly against the upper-class machine. I wish to inspire others to kick the doors down and keep fighting for a place at the table. Those without benefits of title, privilege, usefully connected parents and an expensive education can still try to make a difference. As the latest research shows, it will be harder and tougher, but they will always know they got there despite their background, not because of it.

Self-help books and amateur psychologists recommend that in the event of a childhood trauma, you should visualise yourself going back and comforting your younger self. If I could go back, I would say: "Feel the humiliation, the insult, the shame. Be hurt and sad and cry. Because it will make you the woman you become. It will make you a fighter and a tryer."

Do you think the class ceiling exists in Australia? Let us know in the comment section. 

The Daily Telegraph, London