Social class significantly affects how we are treated at work. It’s time to talk openly about it

Lisa Annese mental health class

Diversity Council Australia CEO Lisa Annese. Source: supplied.

The assumption that Australia is the land of the ‘fair go’, a classless society of equals, is deeply ingrained in our national psyche. Yet, class is something we rarely talk about.

Our new Prime Minister sharing his experience of being raised by a single mum on a disability support pension in public housing is a remarkable acknowledgement of social class because of how little we acknowledge it in public.

It has given us pause to reflect on the myth that Australia is a classless society and, as I am sure that it was for many, served as a reminder to me of how social class had affected my own life.

It wasn’t until I became one of the first in my family to go to university and then began my career in the 1990s that I realised opportunities were not equally afforded to everyone. I began to see that hard work and good grades were not enough.

Initially, I thought it was because I was a woman studying business that I was being held back, but it was more than that.

I was a working-class girl from the Shire, and I didn’t have the private school education, family connections or financial backing to help me get ahead like many of my peers.

As the daughter of post-war migrants who grew up in western Sydney and then Sydney’s south, I understand the impact of class on our experience of inclusion at work and across the nation.

How we compare to others based on wealth, income, education, and occupation determines our status, power or position — our social class — which ultimately shapes who we are and how we see the world.

It also creates a point of difference in how we identify ourselves and are identified by others.

In Australia, we might talk about cost-of-living pressure, stagnant wages growth and unaffordable housing, which are issues that have a disproportionately negative impact on people from lower classes, but we don’t talk explicitly about class.

We might discuss fairness, but we are less comfortable recognising that our class means we don’t all start from the same place, and it means that we don’t all have the same opportunities throughout our lives.

Before the pandemic, Diversity Council Australia researched social class and found that it dramatically influences inclusion and exclusion at work.

We found lower class workers were less likely than their middle and higher class colleagues to agree they were treated as valued and respected members of their team, felt accepted and included at work, or had equal access to opportunities.

More than four in every 10 lower class workers said they had experienced either discrimination or harassment or both at work between 2019 and 2020 and this was also gendered, with 45% of lower class women reporting experiencing discrimination and or harassment compared to 39% of lower class men.

There were also reflections on management, with lower class workers less likely to say their manager treated everyone fairly and behaved inclusively or sought out diverse perspectives.

On the flip side, our research revealed teams that are inclusive of all staff — whether lower, middle or higher class — are more effective and innovative and more likely to provide excellent customer service.

In short, social class has a significant impact on our experience at work.

But it can also be a barrier to accessing employment at all. Not to mention paid parental leave and childcare, some of the most significant hurdles to women’s economic equality.

That is why the Prime Minister sharing his experience is so significant because it enables us to have a conversation about class and consider how we create policies and systems that can remove some of the barriers to opportunity and success that stand in the way of people from a lower class.

Some have and will likely continue to deride his reflection on social class, most likely because they have never had to navigate a life shaped by disadvantage and underestimate how profoundly this can shape someone’s worldview.

Social class is as equally important as other diverse lived experiences, and by continuing to increase the diversity of parliamentarians, the culture within parliament will change and enable Australia as a nation to respond to challenges with greater efficiency, innovation and productivity that is truly equal.

You can’t rewrite your upbringing, but you can draw on lived experience to understand and empathise with the issues that impact our communities and better design solutions to address them.

This article was first published by Women’s Agenda.

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