In the business world, where diversity and inclusion are more than just buzzwords, a subtle yet pervasive issue lurks in the shadows: class washing. This phenomenon, often less discussed than other aspects of diversity, significantly influences the dynamics within various industries. But what is class washing, and how does it impact businesses across different sectors?
Understanding Class Washing
Class washing is the practice of organisations making superficial or tokenistic efforts to appear inclusive of all social classes without implementing meaningful changes to address class-based disparities. It’s a deceptive veneer that masks deep-rooted class-based inequalities in the workplace. In countries like the UK and the US, studies highlight a concerning trend: these nations are among the lowest in terms of social mobility among developed countries, indicating a significant challenge in changing one’s socioeconomic status.
Class washing in the workplace can take various forms. Research by KPMG UK has shown that an individual’s socioeconomic background has a more substantial impact on their career progression than any other diversity characteristic. In the UK, for instance, individuals from working-class backgrounds face an average pay gap of 13%, a figure that escalates in elite professions such as finance and law. This gap represents more than just a disparity in income; it reflects a lack of access to opportunities and networks, as well as the cultural capital that often dictates one’s career path.
Addressing Class Washing
Combating class washing requires more than just surface-level initiatives. It calls for a deep-seated change in organisational culture and structure. This change begins with inclusive recruitment strategies, such as outreach to non-selective schools, offering apprenticeships and adopting contextualised hiring practices. However, these steps must be part of a larger strategy that addresses work allocation, retention, pay equity and career progression, with a particular focus on social class.
Beyond Recruitment: A Holistic Approach
Simply recruiting a diverse workforce is not enough. Organisations need to tackle barriers throughout the entire employee lifecycle. This involves integrating social class into the heart of equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategies and training. The City of London Socioeconomic Diversity Taskforce, for example, advocates for a holistic approach to EDI that encompasses socioeconomic diversity.
While socioeconomic background is not currently a legally protected characteristic against discrimination in most US states and the UK, there is a growing movement advocating for change. Employers who are serious about addressing class disparities should consider proactively including this aspect in their EDI strategies. On an individual level, it is essential to acknowledge and challenge our biases regarding class and how these biases influence our decisions in the workplace.
Class washing is a multifaceted issue that demands a comprehensive approach. Businesses must move beyond token gestures and commit to authentic cultural and structural changes. By doing so, they can foster a genuinely inclusive environment where individuals, irrespective of their socioeconomic background, have equal opportunities to succeed.