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Should class be the tenth protected characteristic?

23 January 2024

The protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 are the result of a consolidation of piecemeal legislation which developed to respond to the needs of those facing race, sex and disability discrimination, among others. There has been increasing interest in the notion of class discrimination, which raises the question: should class be protected under the Equality Act?

The case for action is strong: social mobility in the UK is decreasing, and those from lower-class backgrounds suffer disadvantage in all areas of life, including education and work. From an employment perspective, access to ‘elite’ occupations such as law and medicine has become more determined by socioeconomic background than before, with 50% of those in elite professions having parents who do similarly high-status work. Additionally, when hiring, employers in such fields often select for immeasurable attributes such as ‘polish’ or ‘confidence’ which are more likely to be demonstrated by those from more privileged backgrounds.

Once they get into these professions, working class people earn on average £6,400 a year less than their more privileged counterparts, and find it harder to achieve career progression. Less privileged employees also struggle to fit in to workplace cultures in which they are a minority. This is particularly the case in industries which cultivate an atmosphere of ‘studied informality’, in which a certain level of relaxed dress and behaviour is the norm. In such environments, working class people may not be able to easily judge when it is appropriate to make a joke or swear in a meeting, leading them to be perceived negatively.

One core objection to including class as a protected characteristic is that ‘class’ can be defined in a variety of ways, and the notion of class can encompass a huge variety of factors, as evidenced by individuals’ responses to questions about class in sociological research. It is unclear why this should be a barrier to legislative protection, however. Both ‘race’ and ‘religion or belief’ face similar definitional complexities but it has been possible to formulate coherent criteria for both.

Perhaps a stronger objection is to query how impactful any change would be. While some cases of class discrimination would quite obviously be met by the legislation – for example, preferring one candidate over another due to the latter’s regional accent, or requiring candidates to have completed an unpaid internship to be considered for a position – the class impact of certain practices may be too subtle or too easily justified to lead to a finding of discrimination. Taking a previous example, it is hard to see how listing ‘confidence’ as a necessary attribute for a role could be held to be indirect class discrimination because it may be very hard for someone to demonstrate that this creates a ‘particular disadvantage’ for lower class candidates, and because, particularly for client-facing or challenging professional services work, it may be easy for employers to justify a need for confidence.

There is value to including class in the Equality Act 2010. First, it would perform an important signalling function, fostering a culture of respect for class in the workplace. Additionally, companies would be able to undertake positive action measures in relation to class, particularly in relation to recruitment and promotion, an area which often reinforces class hierarchies. There would also be an increased impetus for companies to monitor and report on social class in the workforce, something which is currently rare, and which would be an important step in reducing class inequality.

Despite strong arguments for protecting class under the Equality Act, and despite increasing academic interest in this, the prospect has been largely ignored by politicians. It therefore remains to be seen whether class will be included in the future.

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