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Working-class people missing or hidden from think tanks and charities, research finds

  • 94% of working class people in think tanks and charities say there is a class diversity problem

  • 59% don’t talk about their background at work, or do so only partially

  • Think tanks and charities spearhead response and pledge to improve class diversity and inclusion

Working-class people are missing or hidden in some of the most influential think tanks and anti-poverty charities in the UK, according to new research.

The research, published by charity RECLAIM and part-funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, interviewed 30 people from working class backgrounds in think tanks and anti-poverty charities, and surveyed 277 people with working-class backgrounds who’ve worked in the sector. Respondents ranged from chief executives to people in entry-level roles.

It found that, though there are some people from working class backgrounds in these organisations, they report having difficult experiences at work, struggling to fit into a ‘middle-class’ environment, or feeling that they need to hide their background.

A group of organisations including IPPR, Onward, Save the Children, Green Alliance, The Centre for Global Prosperity, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the Economic Change Unit have spearheaded a response, signing up to a new pledge to monitor and improve class diversity in their organisations.

They have each committed to publishing their ambitions and initial priorities for class diversity, collecting data on class diversity in their teams, and working with other organisations to share knowledge and best practice at least once a year.

The research also found that:

  • Almost all - 94% - of respondents said that class diversity was a problem in think tanks and anti-poverty charities

  • More than half (59%) of working-class people either do not openly talk about their background at work (16%) or only do so partially (43%).

  • Respondents said that if there were more working-class people at all levels of their organisation, it would use different language about people on low incomes (70% agreed), would have different influencing priorities (54% agreed) and would feel less stuffy (50% agreed)

  • Gaps in working-class representation tend to be concentrated in policy, research, communications and fundraising functions, and in senior management and boards. Respondents highlighted this makes it more likely that a think tank or charity’s influencing work will be detached from the reality of some of the issues the organisation works on.

  • Many respondents warned against a false trade-off between taking action on class diversity and other forms of diversity, like race.

  • Few think-tanks and charities collect socio-economic class diversity data, and even fewer publish it. This contrasts with practice in the public and private sectors: several government departments have committed to the collection of class data, as has the GLA, and this is becoming increasingly common amongst large private-sector employers like KPMG.

One survey respondent said:

The research was jointly funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Access, the Foundation for Social Investment.

Roger Harding, the report author, said: “A lot of think tank ink has been spent in recent years talking about the importance of listening to people from working class communities. One simple way to do that would be to employ more of us and make us feel welcome enough to speak about our experiences. Amongst many other things this would help bring an end to conversations about working class people that are full of unhelpful stereotypes.”

“It is both ludicrous and counter-productive that having personal experience of being hard-up makes you less likely to be employed by many anti-poverty charities than someone without that experience. This research is an urgent call for that to change and it’s good to see organisations already pledging action. Tackling the class gap must go hand in hand with equally important work on race, disability, gender and LGBTQI+ inclusion, not least because working class people are disproportionally affected by these forms of discrimination too.”

Becky Bainbridge, Interim CEO at RECLAIM, said: “There’s a huge pool of working class talent ready to be unleashed to work on some of the most important issues facing the country, which is why we picked up so much frustration from the people we spoke to.”

“Making organisations a more welcoming place for working class people isn’t always easy, but it’s doable: we see that in the organisations RECLAIM works with every day. The organisations best at hiring working class people and helping them thrive will do a better job at influencing government. It’s a major step forward that a group of leading think tanks and charities have commited to take action to make their organisations more representative of the UK.”

Courtney Stephenson, Junior Researcher and Demos and Chair at Working Class Wonks, a new network for working-class people in think tanks that developed from this research, said: "As a working class person in the think tank sector, taking part in this research highlighted to me that my own experiences of feeling out of place or finding an ‘us and them’ culture in research were not unique - in fact they were very common. Talking about class often feels taboo in the policy world, and so the true extent of the problem has been somewhat hidden.

"I founded Working Class Wonks to provide a place for working class think tankers to come together, share their experiences, develop a network and advocate for change. Think tanks play a vital role in shaping policies that have a very real impact on people’s lives. If the people creating those policies do not represent the lived experience of the population, how can they hope to be truly effective?"

Adam Hawksbee, Deputy Director at Onward, which has signed up to the commitment to improve class diversity, said: “As our work has shown, working class voters and areas are becoming more important in our politics. But working class experience remains an underserved part of discussions on diversity. We are looking forward to working with this project to attract more people from working class backgrounds into think tank research.”

Victoria Hughes, Programme Lead - Emerging Futures at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “RECLAIM’s research makes clear that UK anti-poverty charities and think tanks have a class diversity and inclusion problem. Organisations don’t collect data on the class diversity of their workforce, people from working class backgrounds struggle to enter the sector and don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about their background when they do.

“The work JRF carries out as an anti-poverty organisation has a disproportionate impact on working class people’s lives. It’s clear we need to embody the work whilst doing the work to end poverty, which is why JRF will be signing RECLAIM’s class diversity pledge along with creating a class diversity action plan. We hope to set an example in the sector, and learn from others who are doing this well, through actively supporting working class people to join JRF and providing an environment where people’s lived experiences are heard and valued.”

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