Episode 94: Class and Career

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, career and class. Because even if we don’t talk about it…

“It absolutely is clearly a part of how people think about themselves, how people understand eachother and as our study showed, how people get ahead or don’t.”

And having a different background from everyone else at work can leave you feeling isolated…

“The people that I deal with now, they’ve probably never met anyone from where I grew up. They probably would live their whole lives and would never meet anybody like I was when I was a young child.”

Coming up…social mobility is possible, especially with a good education. But what’s it like when your career and your background don’t match?

Julie O’Heir works for an adult education program at a university in the American Midwest. She wrote to me a couple of months ago and said have you ever thought about doing a show on being in the professional world when you come from a working class background? She said a lot of her colleagues had a toolkit for the workplace that she didn’t, because of her upbringing…  

“My mother was a teacher at a Catholic school and my dad worked for a construction company. And most people in the area I grew up in in the Midwest were either police officers or firemen.”

The women were crossing guards, teachers, nurses, or they pieced together part-time jobs around looking after their kids. When Julie’s mother retired, she was earning less than 30 thousand dollars a year.

But Julie and her siblings were able to go to college. And when she got there she found herself surrounded by students who had their own cars, credit cards…

“I had to work my entire time at university and that’s when I found you miss out at college if you have to work. I could not take an unpaid internship, I couldn’t spend an extended period of time volunteering. You know when it came to the end of college and I was trying to figure out what the next steps are I thought it might be hard to get a professional reference because I never had a job where I wasn’t waiting tables or dong service-oriented work.”

AM-T: “Before we go on I want to dial back to what you said about how you grew up because a lot of people I think would say teaching, nursing, being a firefighter or a cop, that those were middle class professions.”

“I definitely understand that perspective. I guess I mean more culturally. Aside from nurses I guess, but most firefighters I knew, police officers, didn’t have college degrees. My mom had a degree from a teaching college, my dad didn’t have a degree – what I mean more is I didn’t know anyone who had developed a profession. I didn’t know any lawyers, doctors, university professors, anyone who was an accountant. People who had gone to school for a specific profession outside of a vocation.”

And she says not coming from that world left her with a knowledge gap. She says she just didn’t realize until she’d been in academia for a while that there was so much invisible stuff involved in having a career – take the idea of professional development…

“Things that are part of your job – or, perhaps a better way of talking about it would be networking. It took me a very long time to understand what networking is and why you would do it. Part of that was, culturally growing up if someone is a police officer you just apply to be a police officer.”

There was none of this business of courting people over drinks in a cacophonous hotel conference room. It took a question from her boss one day to make her realize she was missing something.

“My supervisor and I were at a conference, and we had been there a couple of days and he said ‘what kind of connections are you making?’ And I had no idea what he was talking about. And I thought, oh, we’re just all here talking about the fact we all do the same type of higher education work. It didn’t make sense to me to think oh, these people have been in my profession for a long time, and …I could very much learn things from them in the workplace. Those kind of things didn’t cross my mind.”

Like a lot of people she recoiled from the idea of networking at first.

“It feels very much like self-promotion, and…the reason I say there’s a connection to class is I think when I was much younger perhaps in high school or early days in college I thought it was like you were sucking up to someone, and that went against every cultural norm that I knew. And I’ve always thought that was related to class. Maybe it’s an American thing or maybe it’s a universal thing. But now I know it’s about inviting them into your professional life…but you know, trying to build a vocabulary for your work skills or professional goals, that takes time for everyone, but if you didn’t know about that type of vocabulary then just trying to define everything is much more difficult.”

Sometimes she feels her vocabulary is off. She says she didn’t know talking about money – or the lack of it – wasn’t done in academic circles. But whenever she’s brought money up, she says people go quiet. She doesn’t do it any more.

There are still work occasions when she squirms.

“If it is a professional happy hour, a networking event with a social piece to it, I am very uncomfortable in those situations because I think that…For example, a few months ago I was out with some faculty members at the university and I was the only staff person there. Politics came up and I mentioned how my brother and my brother-in-law, both are in different trade unions, and how those unions were having disagreements about which presidential candidate to back, and the faculty member I was talking to said oh, are they in a teachers’ union? And I said no, one is an insulator, the other is a building engineer. And she said ‘Oh, I’ve never met someone whose union was not a teacher’s union.’”

Julie had grown up with men in unions, men who worked with their hands. And this woman didn’t know anyone who did that kind of thing?

She could feel this weird imposter syndrome swimming over her, that feeling of not belonging, of not being quite up to par.

AM-T: “I mean did she seem amused, bemused? I’m just curious, I mean I wonder how she felt versus about how you felt.”

“I don’t know – I think this is another professional difference. She seemed very good at keeping it a low emotional conversation whereas I wanted to say how do you not know anyone in a union? I was much more interested in her experience. But she just seemed very surprised – like, oh, it’s so interesting that you would know someone like that. And I thought, I think it’s interesting I know all these people who have PhDs now.”

She’s 32 now and she says she is getting more comfortable in this rarified world. And she feels lucky to have had such a good education herself, including graduate school. At the moment a quarter of her salary goes to paying off her student loans. But she says it could be worse.

My next guest has a PhD himself. Daniel Laurison is a professor of sociology at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. Before that, he spent three years at the London School of Economics doing research on class and inequality in the UK.

And I couldn’t do a show about class without talking about Britain.

AM-T: “First of all, before we talk about the study you did with Sam Friedman, you are an American and you plunged into British society – to what extent to you think Britain is still a place where class matters?”

“Oh, I think it absolutely matters in Britain, it matters in the US as well. People say it’s less obvious or less overt here and I think that’s true but it’s clearly a part of how people think about themselves, how people understand eachother and as our study showed, how people get ahead or don’t.”

Daniel and his LSE colleague Sam Friedman did this study on people in high-status professions like law, medicine, and finance – and they looked at their backgrounds.  

“We were interested in the question of how much class origin matters for the success of people who have been what sociologists call upwardly socially mobile – for people who have gotten into high status professional or managerial jobs but who come from working class backgrounds, are they at any disadvantage or once they enter those professions or does class go away? Are they just like everybody else?”

What they found suggests class doesn’t entirely go away. They examined labor force data that showed what these high-status employees’ parents did for a living back when the employees  were 14 – they used that information to determine class origin. Then they looked at what these employees were earning now as adult lawyers, doctors and so on.

“There’s a 17% difference between working class origin people and privileged origin people in these top jobs. When you control for everything you can control for in these models that difference gets smaller, but it’s still about 9 or 10% in annual earnings.”

So people who now worked in high status jobs, but had grown up with less privileged backgrounds - they were earning less than their peers who’d grown up with professional parents. Or as a British newspaper put it when the research was published last year, ‘it pays to be posh at work.’

There’s a gender piece to this too. And remember ‘long range upwardly mobile’ means a person from a household where the parents did low skilled jobs…

“If you just look at women versus women and men versus men, the gaps were about the same, but if you look at long range upwardly mobile women versus men from privileged backgrounds, the gap is about twice as big, right, because they have both a gender pay gap and a class origin pay gap.”

So what Daniel and his co-author call the class ceiling seems to be that bit higher for women. They’re now doing follow-up research and interviews to find out more about why these income gaps exist.

But what about America? He says no one has done an identical study here, but similar studies and books have come to similar conclusions.

AM-T: “What do you think the difference or differences are in attitudes to class in the US versus the UK?”

“I think the big difference is it’s subtler here in the US. We read people’s class when we interact with them but we’re less aware that we’re doing it. And we’re less explicit about it with eachother and with ourselves. In the UK as you well know, you know an awful lot about someone when they open their mouth based on their accent. Their accent ties people to regions and to a fairly large extent as I understand it, ties people to class origins as well. In the US it’s not quite so cut and dried, you know, America more or less from its founding has had a myth of being a pure meritocracy where class doesn’t matter at all. That stems from the fact that we got here and nobody was a noble...so there was some difference in how much class there was. But there have still always been differences in the amount of economic resources people have and cultures they have and all the things that come together to advantage people or disadvantage people.”

Add race, and class acquires another layer of complexity. 

Denise McKenzie is a patent lawyer at an international law firm. She’s based in LA. She’s in her fifties now and she’s been a lawyer for about 20 years. She grew up in Los Angeles too, but in very different circumstances from most of her colleagues.

Denise has a packed schedule so I got her on the phone between meetings.

“I am the first person in my family to go to college. My mom was a teenage mom—she had her first child at 15 and she had me at 17. And my dad was a technician. He worked with engineers. His big thing was getting me into math and science. He wanted me to be a scientist or engineer because those are the people he worked with and admired. So when I was little he’d make flash cards for me to teach me my math facts.”

She worked hard, did well at school and got into UCLA. She commuted an hour and a half each way to the university and back and held a job on top of her studies. She majored in mathematics and electrical engineering.

“And I ended up working at Hughes Aircraft as an engineer in their missile design group.”

Hughes Aircraft was a big defense contractor. Denise had met her dad’s expectations – and her own. She was now an engineer.

AM-T: “So from the get-go when you began in your first career, were there feelings of discomfort, how did it go?”

“Well my feelings of discomfort started when I went to UCLA – I went to an inner city school and that school didn’t really prepare me for what I was getting into, especially not for math and science. So when I went to UCLA I was in my calculus class – and at that time it was between 350 to 400 students in the class. I was so confused in that class…even though I’d been top at my high school…I had done everything at my high school, student council, top grades, I was a cheerleader, I was one of the best people. At UCLA in my calculus class I was so confused I didn’t even know how to ask a question, that’s how confused I was. I felt like a total failure.”

She was overwhelmed. But UCLA offered resources to students from less privileged backgrounds. They put her in touch with a tutor.

“I get a tutor in every class, I worked day and night and actually I didn’t do that well, my first quarter I did very poorly. The school sent me a letter and said get your grades up or you’re not gonna be able to go here. And I was devastated because from my home, from my school I was this best person who was supposed to be successful, and I just really was not prepared.”

But she kept at it, and the work did eventually pay off. She graduated and landed that engineering job. Still, she often felt ill at ease at work. A) she was an African-American woman among many white and Asian men. She says they really didn’t know how to talk to her. But the other thing was she didn’t know how to navigate this new environment. Take her first performance reviews.

“It was just very awkward, I just didn’t know how to handle myself. I didn’t know how to…I mean I should have been selling myself, telling them all the stuff that I achieved, and I didn’t do that. I didn’t do any of that.”

Because she didn’t know she was supposed to. Now it didn’t help that the person reviewing her was a man who wouldn’t even look her in the eye. And that she already felt like the odd one out.

“I just looked very different, right.  There’s no one there like me. And that’s even now, to be quite frank – when people meet me they’re just kind of shocked.”

And for Denise this is where it all gets mixed up – is she being judged on her gender, her background, her race, or all three? She is a true minority in her current workplace too. A black woman among many white men in a highly specialized area of law. She says few lawyers have her background in engineering technology.

But some people can’t seem to get past the surface. She tells the story of one encounter. She was meeting with another lawyer about a case. He was sitting opposite her, and she started to feel self-conscious…

“He kept staring at me and I kept thinking is something wrong with my clothing…I just felt very odd because he kept staring at me. And he said, the judge in our case, she’s just like you. And I didn’t know what he meant…I said, oh, is she an engineer and a lawyer? And he said no, she’s just like you in every way. And he said, she’s black, and I think if we put you on the case maybe you could talk to her because she doesn’t understand technology. And I was just so shocked that he said that and he said you know, she’s in Oakland, (which is an inner city area in California). I was so shocked he said this because he was not saying it in a mean way, he’s not a mean person, this was just what he was thinking. We were talking about very complex technical matters and I realized he was not really listening to what I was saying about the technology, he was focused on what I looked like, and who I was, an African-American woman. I really didn’t know that people focused on that first and almost solely.”

AM-T: “And what did you say in response?”

“Well what I said was I most judges, whether they are African-American or not, don’t understand technology – I said she’s just like every other judge, you know, she doesn’t need me to explain something to her. That’s what I said to him.”

He laughed – perhaps nervously. She’s not sure if he got it. And the incident made her feel so isolated – again.

She says in her world of corporate law virtually everyone she comes into contact with has parents who were white professionals…

“Some of the them the parents were lawyers, you know, doctors, so not just professionals but highly paid professionals, a lot of them went to private high schools and just had a different type of upbringing than I had. They had traveled the world more than I had. So in that situation, when you’re having a conversation, just a regular informal conversation, I felt excluded…not necessarily because they were intentionally excluding me, but because I couldn’t contribute to the conversation, if that makes sense.”

Daniel Laurison says that experience is common…

“Sam Friedman who’s my co-author on a lot of these studies has done a lot of research showing how much people feel out of place when have been long range upwardly mobile and how painful that can be for people, even if they’re simultaneously also happy with the job they’ve got, the career they’ve had, the opportunities to give to their children. A big part of what happens when people have long range social mobility is they end up in places that don’t feel comfortable to them and the norms are different from what they’re used to, the things people chat about are different, and it’s not through any fault of theirs, it’s just that the whole culture is so is dominated by people from privileged backgrounds who tend to have somewhat their own culture.”

“The people that I deal with now, they’ve probably never met anyone from where I grew up. They probably live their whole lives and would never meet anybody like I was when I was a young child. I myself only see people like that when I would look at my family. And it’s because I work a lot, and the world I’m in, it’s like it’s parallel to the world where I grew up in, it just doesn’t cross.”

AM-T: “How does that feel?”

“Well it’s, um…it’s not a good feeling because I often feel like an outsider. I feel like an outsider for a variety of reasons, a lot because I’m African-American, I’m a woman and working in an all- white male career, but then also from the people I grew up with as well. Because I’m different now, I’m different than them, we’ve had completely different experiences, and really it’s hard to relate. I mean my struggles, if I talk about my struggles they seem like nothing compared to someone who maybe can’t put food on the table…right?”

She is close to her family though – despite how different their lives are now. She says her parents have always been eager to understand her new world even if it does seem far removed from theirs. And they’ve always supported her.

Denise met her husband back at UCLA. She says their daughter is having a totally different experience than she did growing up. And Denise says that’s wonderful, but it’s also been unsettling sometimes. 

“My daughter, she goes to private school, so when I was looking for schools for her to go to when she was in kindergarten, we went to the interview, and they wanted her, she’s bright, whatever. And I cried after that meeting because I thought of all the little kids that go to the schools I went to, and I thought, how can they even compete in this world? If you have kids who go to these schools that cost like $25,000 a year for kindergarten, I mean that’s crazy, and then you have kids in the inner city, they don’t even have the books and pencils and desks they need, then how can they compete when it’s time to go to college? How are they going to get into the top schools? Most of them don’t. And for me just that realization, because I’d never seen that. Where my daughter went to school, I didn’t know that existed.”

Her daughter is now in college, studying computer science. Denise is thrilled things will be easier for her as she transitions to the professional world.

Because when she looks back at her own trajectory, she says she thinks of how difficult it was. And still is. 

“I mean this will sound funny but I feel like I wouldn’t advise it – this path that I was on, I wouldn’t advise it. It’s uphill. You have moments of pleasure you have to enjoy and appreciate, but it’s grueling.”

AM-T: “But you did it.”

“Yeah, somehow, by the grace of God. I mean I don’t know, I just think it’s um, it’s so unfair, it’s such an uneven playing field. When people evaluate you, when they look at you they don’t look at all that. They just think that everybody has the same opportunity and everybody doesn’t. To get where I am I worked day, night, weekends, holidays, vacations and birthdays. When my daughter was little she didn’t know when her birthday was, because I had to celebrate her birthday when I had a free moment. But I felt like I had to work like that just to sustain myself.”

AM-T: “You know what you said about lack of opportunity and how could kids in inner city schools possibly ever get to the same level as kids who went to a school like your daughter’s?  Was it your dad, I mean obviously you made this transition, and you’ve pointed out a lot of other people don’t, was it your dad and his coaching and your own intelligence and drive, a combination of those things?”

“Yeah, I think it was my family. My dad, he was like drilling me with the math facts but he also gave me the confidence that I could be like a scientist or engineer, right. Because most women have math phobia, and this is a whole big thing right now, about girls and math and that kind of stuff, well my dad before it was even popular was like, this is what you’re gonna do. So I never, ever doubted that I could do it. And then my family – even my grandmother, because I told you my mother was 15, and we lived next to my grandmother - my whole family just cheered for me, everything I did was just like oh my gosh, she’s gonna be the one that makes it. So I really think it was my family.”

She says her own perseverance played its part too, especially when it looked like she might get kicked out UCLA because she couldn’t keep up.

And even though she said she wouldn’t advise it, this journey through socio-economic layers, by the end of our conversation she’d remembered something a speaker at her high school had told the class back in the late ‘70s…

“This is all he said, he just said never, never, never give up, and I think that’s what I’d say – I know that’s simple but that’s really it - just don’t give up. And I think if you don’t give up you might not reach your goal, but you’ll be much better off than you were before you tried.”

Denise McKenzie. Thanks to her, Julie O’Heir and Daniel Laurison for being my guests on this show.

If you have something to say about the show I’d love to hear from you – you can reach me via the website or post your comment under this episode or on the show’s Facebook page. And I am reading those iTunes reviews so thanks for the ideas you’ve raised there, as well.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. If you’re not already a subscriber please sign up on iTunes or wherever else you get your podcasts – you will never miss an episode again – and tell your friends and colleagues about the show too.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.