Whilst people from various backgrounds can become excellent leaders, most people in leadership positions in the UK currently seem to be white, male, and middle/upper-class. As per 2019, 34% of UK politicians in Parliament were women and only 65 MPs were people of colour. Similarly, it is no secret that classism influences UK politics and society. In a study conducted by Prospect, people’s self-perceived class influences which party they support, even though the link between party support and occupation have fractured. Thus, political leaders and leadership in various organisations remain more or less limited to the same groups of people.
There are many skills required for good leadership including taking accountability, staying organised, being empathetic and thinking innovatively. None of these tasks are inherently linked to a specific class, gender, race, or age-group. So why are so many leaders recruited from a specific group?
Economic capacity as a barrier
Coming from a relatively class-less society, I didn’t think that the economic standing of my parents would have an effect on what I would be able to achieve. Whilst I am determined not to let my socioeconomic background limit my potential, I would not have imagined that class and economic standing would become more and more visible. To me this highlights a key barrier to progression: those who can rely on their parents or have the economic capacity to save up can travel, relax or volunteer (maybe for an NGO or a political party) during the summer. In contrast, working-class students have to find paid internships or a job to make ends meet - the unpaid internships that can often give access to these global organisations are not a viable option for all. This barrier has already been recognised by various UK MPs who have called for unpaid internships to become illegal, because of their detriment to social mobility.
Who you know
But class isn’t just a question of economics, it is often also a question of networks: who you know, who your family knows, and who your friends are. I have often witnessed my friends be invited to interviews or gain opportunities because they or their parents knew higher-ups within the organisations - or knew someone willing to mentor them in the application process. Whilst I don’t want to question their suitability for those roles, we must recognise that it is automatically a disadvantage to not have access to such people, as you have to create the networks for yourself or seek out the often overwhelmed career services for advice. Whilst graduating from a Russell Group university opens some of these doors, it doesn’t create the same access and thus the organisations majorly pick candidates from similar backgrounds, despite striving to do otherwise.
What comes next and a way forward
Indeed, businesses, political institutions, and NGO’s alike seem to have finally reached the conclusion that having employees that accurately represent society and its stakeholders is good. Having people from different backgrounds and with different experiences is likely to ensure diversity in opinions and thus better solutions and performances, and it is also the right thing to do. They try to have a diverse pool of candidates and encourage applications from certain backgrounds, but as their diversity statistics show, some are more successful than others. Whilst it is a sign of progress that organisations now try to address the barriers faced by people from different backgrounds, if they do not recognise the impact of networks or of the capacity for unpaid labour, I fear that organisations and their leadership will remain mostly white, male and middle/upper-class.
What we need is a recognition of the impact of race, gender, and class on progression, and how privilege or lack thereof can present either barriers or opportunities for individuals to reach their full potential. Indeed, the future is (hopefully) anti-racist, class conscious, anti-ableist, as well as trans and queer inclusive. Some organisations have already recognised this and strive to achieve and present best practise lifting everyone up regardless of barriers to progression. They recognise the skills and perspectives diverse leadership bring to the table and empower them to learn and develop. In my experience, one of these organisations is UpRising whose leadership programmes are open to all, delivered online and strive to increase their participants’ awareness.