The performance of merit: hidden barriers to professional success

Author: Dr Sam Friedman, Bridge Group Fellow

‘A terrible affliction’, was how one disgruntled viewer characterized the Middlesbrough accent of BBC Presenter Steph McGovern after she made her television debut in 2012.  An extreme example, perhaps, but as McGovern revealed in February this year, prejudice toward the way she speaks has flanked her whole career.  ‘People tend to underestimate you when you have a Northern accent’, she explained. ‘I mean there are hell of a lot of women who do a similar job to me who get paid a hell of a lot more…who are a lot posher than me.’

McGovern’s suspicions are not unfounded. In our forthcoming book, The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, Daniel Laurison and I show that even when those from working-class backgrounds make it into Britain’s top professions, they earn on average 16% less than their privileged colleagues.

This class pay gap is exacerbated for women and ethnic minorities, and is concentrated in certain elite fields; finance, law, accountancy and acting all stand out. And, significantly, this class pay gap remains significant even when we adjust for a range of ‘meritocratic’ factors such as educational attainment, experience, training, and hours worked.

The question this raises, of course, is why – a question we have been interrogating over the last three years via 180 interviews and across four case study occupations:  television, accountancy, architecture and acting.

Our results echo McGovern in pointing to the continuing power of accent; many we spoke to from working-class backgrounds described having their accent mocked in the workplace. Here’s an example from one accountant: ‘A manager once asked me whether I could speak ‘properly’ if I wanted to. They actually said that to my face!’

These ‘microaggressions’ were often seen by those staging them as harmless joking. Yet many socially mobile interviewees explained that such instances of snobbery had a ‘drip-drip’ effect on their confidence and, over time, had led to feelings of inferiority or exclusion.

Institutionalized middle-class accents

At the same time, we also found evidence that middle-class accents – particularly what is known as Received Pronunciation (RP) – are subtly institutionalized in many elite occupations. Acting provides a striking example. RP is widely considered the ‘neutral’ intonation of British actors. It is the vocal starting point of classical acting practice and its importance, as one interviewee explained, is constantly ‘hammered into you’ at drama school.

Yet this presents a clear barrier for working-class actors who are perceived as lacking ‘natural’ RP intonation. One actor, who spoke with a broad north-east ‘Geordie’ accent, had experienced the power of RP as a recurring obstacle in his career. He explained that in classical theatre, and particularly in productions of Shakespeare.

The embodiment of class

But while accent is important, this is only one aspect in a wider package of self-presentation – spanning vocabulary, inflection, gesture, posture, dress, taste and etiquette – that make up powerful behavioural codes in elite occupations. These codes look different in different fields. In accountancy, for example, employees are encouraged to project an aura of corporate ‘polish’ – encompassing smart dress, interactional poise, and a general sense of ‘gravitas’. In television, in contrast, this formal, even stuffy, idea of polish is eschewed in favour of what we term ‘studied informality’. This involves casual but hip dress (there was a lot of discussion about the right kind of trainers), a ‘knowing’, often ironic humour, and a level of interpersonal familiarity – hugs and kisses rather than handshakes – not normally associated with the professional workplace.

While these codes may look different, our research suggests that they are similarly connected to class background. This is partly about the history of these occupations, and the legacy of an overwhelmingly privileged (white, male) majority who, over time, have been successful in embedding their own ideas about the ‘right’ way to work. But it is also evident in the testimonies of the socially mobile people we spoke to. These accounts underline the difficulties of fitting in, or faking it, when the culture of work is not made for you – of continually misunderstanding, or failing to master, what one called the ‘the real rules of the game’.

Markers of talent

For those interested in social mobility, the important point about accent and these behavioural codes more generally, is that they are rarely associated with credible measures of skill, intelligence, or ability. Of course, this is not a straightforward issue, particularly if these things are valued by the kinds of clients that elite professionals rely on for business or funding. But it is telling that the majority of our interviewees – speaking within the safe confines of an anonymous interview – readily acknowledged the arbitrary nature of the codes that dominate their own profession. Such codes illustrate how the self-presentational baggage of a privileged class origin is frequently miscrecognised as a marker of a person’s talent or potential.

The ‘performance of merit’

We call this the ‘performance of merit’. Merit is thought to have a fixed nature and be ‘objectively measurable’ and universally understood. But a key theme running through our book is that merit has to be continually and actively demonstrated in the workplace; and others – especially senior decision-makers – have to recognise and be persuaded of its value. In many ways we might see this as akin to a performance; in carrying out job-related tasks one has to activate what might be considered their ‘objective’ stocks of merit – qualifications, experience, expertise – via a particular embodied self-presentation that encompasses dress, accent, language and comportment. The key point, here, is that supposedly objective measures of merit are often actually received, assessed and valued very differently according to how they are performed. Some performances ‘fit’, in other words, while others – like that of ‘Smoggy’ Steph McGovern – do not.