On Wednesday 8 November, I was delighted to take part in a conversation with four Power2 students, Eden, Kanisha, Alek and Melanie, to discuss their thoughts on the ‘Power2 be me at work.’ The ability to bring our full self to work has become a hot topic as part of organisational diversity agendas over the past ten to fifteen years. Often these discussions have centred around social identity characteristics such as sexuality, gender, and ethnicity, but more recently we have also started to consider how these different categories intersect to influence experiences and outcomes at work, and how they interact with a previously neglected category, social class. There has been a fairly dramatic change in the regularity with which we discuss social class in the workplace - and indeed whether we discuss it at all. During the 1990s and into the 2000s, social class fell off the policy agenda for a variety of reasons, one of which was an expectation (or perhaps optimism) that improvements in the distribution of educational opportunities would turn us into a ‘classless society.’ That did not happen and in partial recognition of that fact, in the early 2010s social class came back onto the policy agenda.


The fact that we are now talking about social class in society and at work (and intersections with gender and ethnicity) is a positive development. However, for many academics like me, as these discussions are framed predominantly in relation to social mobility, this is a rather controversial agenda. One problem is that the emphasis on (upward) social mobility in public debates often suggests that people from less advantaged backgrounds must move away from their class origins in order to ‘succeed.’ Another is that the potential for upwards social mobility has arguably been used to legitimate deep structural inequalities of income and wealth rather than address them (and this is especially problematic given that the UK is one of the most unequal countries in the industrialised West). The focus is often on access to ‘top jobs’ in ‘elite’ professions such as medicine, accountancy and law, and this can set-up a rather narrow definition of ‘success.’

"I loved being on the panel as I had the chance to voice my opinions on such important discussions such as these. It's not often that young people like myself have the chance to express our thoughts, especially where related to the workplace, diversity and inclusion, so it was incredibly refreshing to have that opportunity."

- Eden, MSc Orthoptics student & Power2 young person

Perhaps as important though, is that while academics and policy makers discuss these challenges at length, some at least do so from a position of considerable privilege (a definition that would certainly include me). That is just one reason why it is so important to hear directly from people like Eden, Kanisha, Alek and Melanie, with lived experience of the issues at stake.


Power2 is all about helping young people like them fulfil their potential, which should contribute towards ‘success,’ in life and at work. Success can though mean different things to different people, and I wanted to ask the young people on the panel what it meant to them. This was where we started our conversation and they said for them, success was about making their parents proud, perhaps because they were the first of their family to attend university, or because they had opportunities that their parents had not. Like many of their peers, the panellists are ambitious, but rather than the pursuit of status and money for its own sake, as important for them they said was achieving a measure of financial stability.

“My experience of being on the panel was that there has finally been some change. It is a shame that we are still discussing the same topics however, we are in a place where our voices are being heard. I learnt that I am not alone in how I feel and there are multiple people in the same situation(s). It felt empowering to speak on a panel with great likeminded students and deliver it to an array of individuals.”

- Kanisha, MSc Forensic Psychology student & Power2 young person


We talked about the barriers to achieving their definition of success, and the panellists raised a number of points (many of which are familiar from the research literature). Kanisha specifically mentioned the role of mental health which she thought has become easier to talk about in the workplace in recent years. However, she also pointed out that some conditions such as social anxiety are more ‘acceptable’ than others, such as bipolar disorder or ADHD, which she felt remain relatively stigmatised.


The effect of stigma has become increasingly topical in academic discussions around inequalities. In my own research, I have started to show how young people can feel stigmatised in professional workplaces, perhaps because of intersections between ethnicity, gender and social class. Where young people come from especially deprived places or have attended under-performing schools this can particularly undermine their own sense that they will be valued and considered ‘worthy’ in these environments. Kanisha confirmed this theme as she told us that she does not always tell people where she grew-up in case they judge her on that basis, and this point chimes with many other conversations I have had young people, who have also explained that they experience regular ‘micro-aggressions’ in professional environments. One consequence is that rather than being their ‘authentic self,’ they feel they have to hide who they really are, and this means that people who are notionally included can feel fundamentally excluded from organisational life.


“The overall day I thought was fantastic, it was amazing to network with a diverse range of professionals from many different organisations and positions within these organisations, not to mention receiving key advice and information that I will definitely utilise going forward in my career. I thoroughly enjoyed contributing in the social mobility discussion, and giving my input into what can be done to improve diversity within the workplace. It was an experience that encouraged me to be more confident and speak up more about my experiences as they can help bring substantial change!”

- Alek-Zander, Law & Business graduate - currently working as a Litigation Paralegal - & Power2 young person

Again, the panellists took up some similar themes to underline how feeling ‘different’ in workplaces can sometimes contribute to a sense of imposter syndrome, and perhaps undermine confidence. It is worth pointing out here that confidence is usually contextual rather than absolute. Where young people from under-represented backgrounds lack confidence this should tell us more about organisational cultures than it does about them. Another dimension to this point is that hiring managers in certain sectors often value confidence most when it is performed in a certain way, often to suggest a certain sort of ‘social ease.’ This performance may be relatively available to (and more likely to be recognised in) people from more affluent backgrounds, perhaps especially those who have attended private school. The Power2 students described how in their own schools, large classes and a certain distance from their teachers made things feel more hierarchical than perhaps they could or should, possibly affecting their ability to develop this type of confidence through regular interactions with adults in authority. Nevertheless, when they were asked at the end of the discussion whether they would have attended a private school if the opportunity had been available to them, the majority answer was no, on the basis that as Melanie said, “I wouldn’t be the person I am now,” or as Alek said, “‘I don’t think I would have liked who I’d be.’


These comments hint at how our stratified educational system in the UK is one factor which can reduce understanding across class boundaries. Overall, education was an important topic for all the students. They agreed that while some teachers had been inspirational, others had encouraged them to lower their expectations. They also pointed out that young people who are at the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ in terms of behaviour and perceived ability tend to get more attention, while those towards the middle are overlooked, in ways which might damage their life chances. We also discussed the difference between aspirations and expectations, and the tensions and paradoxes which characterise this topic. With respect to the latter, the panellists discussed the necessity to ‘code switch’ between different environments. They talked about ‘speaking white’ to ‘fit’ within professional environments but also underlined that the very concept that doing so should be considered out of reach for people like them could be construed as racist and classist in itself.


We finished by talking about what the panellists need most from others in terms of support. They noted the benefits of knowing what employers are looking for in terms of getting into a job, receiving recognition and support once they do, and being treated as individuals, while also being provided with space to articulate the experience of feeling excluded or discriminated against. Alek particularly underlined the benefits for recruiters of looking beyond Russell Group universities when appointing new talent.


My own (and indeed many other people’s) research underlines that young people from less advantaged backgrounds must negotiate and manage the tensions outlined here every day. Kanisha, Eden, Melanie and Alek remind us that they do so with extraordinary tenacity and strength, but we should not forget that this can also be a rather exhausting task. Sometimes we can believe that supporting young people to thrive in the workplace and in life is primarily about helping them build their confidence and providing them with opportunities to develop techniques to ‘fit’ and get by. This is important and pragmatic but I want to finish by noting once again the necessity to situate these challenges in their wider context. In particular, the UK has become increasingly unequal in terms of income and wealth and this contributes to steep hierarchies in terms of relative status and social class. I argue that it is incumbent on organisations and individuals to acknowledge and tackle these underlying inequalities, so that the primary burden of change falls less on young people, and more on organisations and society at large.


Dr Louise Ashley is a senior lecturer in organization studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. She specialises in researching the implementation and development of diversity and inclusion programmes in large, multinational professional service firms, with a particular focus on gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background.