With new research showing interviewers judge us based on the first seven words we speak, Olivia Foster talks to women forced into ‘playing it posh’ to get ahead
Well, Yale University has certainly shone a spotlight on the elephant in the room that many are convinced haunts their working lives. In not-all-that-shocking but still shocking news their recently-released study found that interviewers will make presumptions about the social class of candidates within the first seven words of the interview. The study also discovered that employers then used those presumptions to assess how good someone is at their job.
For anyone who comes from a working class background, this may not be new news. In fact, a study commissioned by the former education secretary Justine Greening, revealed that more than than half of British workers believe there is a ‘class ceiling,’ where having a regional accent, or coming from a working-class background, can negatively affect your chances of success in the workplace. And they’re not wrong – the study also revealed that in some places only 17% of leadership roles were filled by those from a working-class background.
Discrimination against the working classes is no new notion. In September 2019, speaking at the Labour conference in Brighton, the general secretary of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, issued a rallying call to the government, calling for the end of work discrimination because of your class. She said, ‘I want to issue a challenge to politicians. It’s high time we outlawed discrimination against working-class people. Let’s change the law and stamp out class prejudice once and for all.’ But as O’Grady points out it won’t end without an active force for change because as she says, ‘It’s hard to rise by hard graft and talent alone. The system is rigged from the start. Where you come from. What your parents do. Your accent. Which school you went to. If you’re from a working-class family, the odds are stacked against you.’
But what is the reality of a working life existence in a middle class world? We spoke to women who realised prejudice against their class forced them to not only change the way they spoke, but sometimes the way they dressed, or acted, in order to fit in.
‘There were certain people I was told not to speak to’
Hannah Bradsbury, a 36-year-old social media manager, says she felt looked down upon in a former job at a big-name London theatre, because of her Northern working-class background. ‘My department was staffed entirely with white women from the Home Counties who had wealthy husbands or partners. From the beginning I noticed there were certain tasks I wasn’t given, or certain donors I was told not to speak to,’ she says, ‘It felt very snobby, and it was quite clear that any variation on what was deemed ‘appropriate’ clothing was frowned upon (Oliver Bonas dresses for the lower waged, designer or Whistles for the rest). It was very homogeneous and I found myself wearing the same to avoid standing out.’
Although an Oxford Uni graduate, Hannah says her Northern roots and state school education left her feeling out of place and she used everything at her disposal to persuade her colleagues she was one of them. ‘I made some very pretentious references while I was there – an Eton educated actor in one of the plays was a friend-of-a-friend and I made that very clear,’ she says. ‘I was dating someone from quite a different background at the time so had plenty of Bollinger-filled weekends and ski resort references to rely on (despite the fact I’ve never been skiing in my life).’ She adds, ‘My accent really changed during that year too because I toned it down in the office and at events.’
‘I put on an accent to sound posh at uni’
But ‘playing it posh,’ is not limited to the work place. For 33-year-old Cara Hales she spent much of her university life pretending to be someone she wasn’t after facing discrimination because of where she grew up in South East London. ‘I went to uni in Twickenham and that’s where it really started because no one knew anything about the area I lived in. I used to put on an accent so people didn’t know where I was from. Plus I never said where I really lived so people would think I was posher and richer than I actually was.’
Cara reveals, ‘I did it because I felt judged, I’d had so many comments before. One guy chatted me up and asked where I lived and pretty much walked away from me when I told him. And even before university, someone I dated came round but he refused to come in because he thought his car would be stolen.’ Cara continues, ‘Every time one of my friends came to my house for the first time, I would apologise for it.’ She reveals, ‘Now it makes me feel sad and embarrassed. I think it’s ok to hide if it’s going to make you feel better but you should know that the people who really care for you won’t care where you’re from.’