Double ‘pay penalty’ for working-class women in elite occupations

Our research suggests that the experience of upward mobility is often particularly difficult for women
- Sam Friedman
Woman working on pc rawpixel

Women in elite occupations from working class backgrounds face a double pay penalty according to a new book The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged.  

Research by the book’s authors, Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, reveals that working-class women in top professions such as law, medicine and finance, earn on average £7,500 per year less than women from upper middle class backgrounds. These upper middle class women – in turn – earn £11,500 less than men from similarly privileged backgrounds.

This equates to a nearly 60 per cent pay gap between the least advantaged women and the most advantaged men.

Even when a person’s educational credentials, the hours they work, and their level of training and experience, are taken into account the pay gap remains significant at £9650. This means the pay gap cannot be explained away by conventional indicators of ‘merit’.

In addition to an analysis of elite pay in the UK, the book also draws on 175 in depth interviews across four case study occupations – television, accountancy, architecture and acting. This follow-up research revealed potential drivers of this ‘double disadvantage’.

Dr Sam Friedman, co-author of the book and Associate Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, explained: “Our research suggests that the experience of upward mobility is often particularly difficult for women, who are scrutinised more carefully in the workplace in terms of how they negotiate dominant behavioural codes in areas like dress, self-presentation and accent.

“It is telling that no female equivalent exists of the heroic tale of the ‘working-class boy made good’. Instead stereotypes of upwardly mobile women tend to be particularly stigmatising, emphasising pretentiousness and pushiness.” 

The authors also found that working class women from many ethnic minority backgrounds faced a triple pay disadvantage in elite occupations. British Indian women from working-class backgrounds, for example, earn on average £18 000 per year less than white men from upper middle class backgrounds – even after taking account of differences in education, hours worked, training and experience.

Dr Daniel Laurison, co-author of the book and Assistant Professor of Sociology at Swarthmore College, said: “Organisations tend to think about promoting diversity in a one-dimensional way. Yet if they are serious about equity and inclusion, our research shows that they need to start considering how some employees might be held back by multiple intersecting factors.” 

This research is the first to use nationally representative quantitative data to look at how class background, gender and ethnicity interact to affect pay in the professions.  

Friedman and Laurison analysed data collected in the ONS Labour Force Survey (LFS), Britain’s largest employment survey. This included over 18 000 people working in higher professional, managerial and cultural occupations. In 2014 the LFS introduced questions, for the first time, about individuals’ class origins, as defined by the job of their main income-earning parent when they were 14 years old.

The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison explores how and why class background still affects those in elite occupations. It is published by Policy Press.