The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays To Be Privileged by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison

The Blurb On The Back:

Politicians continually tell us that anyone can get ahead.  But is that really true?  This important book takes readers behind the closed doors of elite employers to reveal how class affects who gets to the top.

Friedman and Laurison show that a powerful ‘class pay gap’ exists in Britain’s elite occupations.  Even when those from working-class backgrounds make it into prestigious jobs, they earn, on average, 16% less than colleagues from privileged backgrounds.  But why is this the case?  Drawing on 200 interviews across four case studies – television, accountancy, architecture, and acting – they explore the complex barriers facing the upwardly mobile.

This is a rich, ambitious book that demands we take seriously not just the glass but also the class ceiling. 

You can order THE CLASS CEILING: WHY IT PAYS TO BE PRIVILEGED by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Sam Friedman is Associate Professor in Sociology at the London School of Economics and Daniel Laurison is Assistant Professor at Swarthmore College.  This is an absolutely fascinating book that really resonated with me about the role class and privilege play in social mobility and the role homophily still plays in career progression using case studies and interviews in an anonymised accountancy firm, TV channel, acting and an architecture firm.

I’m always interested in reading books about social mobility and examining the extent to which Britain is a meritocracy (in the sense of people being able to rise through different social classes).  This is because I am someone who has managed to move higher than my origins – in the classification given from this book, I had intermediate origins but I now work in what would be closed as an elite occupation.  I was particularly drawn to this book because although the professions chosen for the case study – accountancy, acting, architecture and television – are not my own, there are similarities with my own experience and I was particularly interested in the fact that the research heavily uses interviews with anonymised participants at each place of work. 

This is a book that’s intended to be read by ‘normal’ (i.e. non academic people) but the authors do have an extensive section at the back on their methodology and how they came to choose the workplaces that feature in the book.  The workplaces and individuals involved are anonymised but I had my suspicions about the identity of the accountancy firm based on the gossip mill and you can make an educated guess about some of the actors interviewed as well.  

Sociologists are better placed than me to comment on the methodology used here but if I had one criticism, I wasn’t overly convinced at the decision to include acting in the mix of professions.  It’s not that I disagree that privilege plays an increasingly important role in success in acting (and certainly this is something that comes through very clearly in the book), but it’s also one where money has – at least for the last 30 years – been very important, e.g. the lack of funding available for those wanting to go to drama school in the first place.  In addition, it’s a profession where you don’t start off as an employee but as a contractor and as such the wildly different rates of pay (even taking into account Equity scale) depends not just on expertise, previous success and networking but also on how good your agent is as well.  As such, there seemed to my casual reader eyes, more variables here than with the other roles that the authors discuss.

That said, I found the rest of the book absolutely compelling.  The authors build a credible case that demonstrates the role that homophily and your origins play in achieving social mobility.  They draw heavily on the work of Bourdieu (which I will say I do have some familiarity with, having studied sociology at A Level many years ago) and although there is some academic jargon here, it’s still pretty easy to follow and understand the academic arguments.

I was particularly interested in the sections that looked at the accountancy firm “Turner Clarke” where male, white, privileged partners spot and mentor those similar to them for career progression, giving them opportunities that aren’t available to others because they see the kind of “polish” they think is desirable.  To see those from backgrounds other than that comment on it and the associated feelings of being an outsider and feeling stuck in their role really resonated with some of my feelings from my own career path.  The starkest illustration of how unfair this is though actually came from “6TV” where a young black man from a working class background is up for a career progression opportunity against a young white woman from the same class background as the interviewees, who decide that he wouldn’t be a good fit.  

Although the focus is on class in this book, Friedman and Laurison make a point about intersectionality for women and people of colour and although the architectural firm “Coopers” is shown as offering better career progression opportunities for those from less advantaged backgrounds, women still found their opportunities more limited.  I did want more from the interview with a woman who had been an architecture partner at a different firm and taken a step down to join Coopers to find out why they hadn’t taken her on at partner level because it would have been interesting to know more about how lateral hires work in the architecture sphere.

The authors end the book with 10 suggestions for improving class mobility within the workplace, which all seemed very sensible to me.  However, I have to say that given the reaction of some of the workplaces to the research presented to them by the authors, I can’t say that I’m particularly optimistic about their implementation by some firms – the defensiveness and refusal to contemplate the impact of their actions is depressingly familiar to me from my own career.

The book was first published in 2018 and now that we are (hopefully) emerging from COVID, I would be fascinated to read a follow-up to assess whether the fact that people have been forced into on-line working makes a difference to how relationships operate in the workplace and the networking and sponsorship that affects career progression.  My criticisms aside, I did find this a genuinely fascinating read that makes a compelling case for how privilege perpetuates privilege.  Certainly anyone who has managed to move up the class ranks is likely to find a lot here that resonates with their own experience.  I certainly did.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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