Press release

New research uncovers 'class pay gap' in Britain's professions

Professional people from working class backgrounds are paid £6,800 less than their colleagues from more affluent backgrounds.


People from working class backgrounds who get a professional job are paid an average of £6,800 (17%) less each year than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds, new research by the Social Mobility Commission reveals today (26 January 2017).

Researchers have unearthed a previously unrecognised ‘class pay gap’ in a ground-breaking new report. Academics from the London School of Economics (LSE) and University College London (UCL) used extensive data from the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) - the largest survey of employment in the UK with over 90,000 respondents - to examine access to the professions and the impact of socio-economic background on earnings.

The report finds that access to Britain’s professions remain dominated by those from more privileged backgrounds. But even when people from working class backgrounds manage to break into a professional career they face an earnings penalty compared to colleagues who come from better-off backgrounds.

Even when they have the same education attainment, role and experience as their more privileged colleagues, the report finds that those from poorer backgrounds are still paid an average of £2,242 (7%) less. Women and ethnic minorities face a ‘double’ disadvantage in earnings.

The report finds that Britain’s traditional professions such as medicine, law, journalism and academia remain dominated by those from advantaged backgrounds - nearly three quarters (73%) of doctors are from professional and managerial backgrounds with less than 6% from working class backgrounds.

Although technical professions such as engineering and many public sector professions like nursing have far more working class entrants, overall the odds of those from a professional or managerial family ending up in a professional or managerial job are 2.5 times higher than the odds for those from less advantaged backgrounds moving to the top.

Even if they get into the professions working class entrants find it harder to get on. The research finds that they do not go on to achieve the same earnings or levels of success. The report found the biggest class pay gaps exist in finance (£13,713), medicine (£10,218) and IT (£4,736).

The report says those from poorer backgrounds may be less likely to ask for pay rises, have less access to networks and work opportunities or, in some cases, exclude themselves from promotion for fear of not ‘fitting in’. Other explanations for the ‘class pay gap’ could include conscious or unconscious discrimination or more subtle employment processes which lead to ‘cultural matching’ in the workplace.

The Rt Hon Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission, said:

This unprecedented research provides powerful new evidence that Britain remains a deeply elitist society.

Too many people from working class backgrounds not only face barriers getting into the professions, but also barriers to getting on. It cannot be right that they face an annual class pay gap of £6,800.

Many professional firms are doing excellent work to open their doors to people from all backgrounds, but this research suggests much more needs to be done to ensure that Britain is a place where everyone has an equal chance of success regardless of where they have come from.

How much you are paid should be determined by your ability not your background. Employers need to take action to end the shocking class earnings penalty. The commission will be sending major employers details of this research and asking them how they intend to close the class pay gap.

Dr Sam Friedman, from the LSE said:

While social mobility represents the norm, not the exception, in contemporary Britain, there is no doubt that strong barriers to opportunity still persist. By capitalising on new socio-economic background questions in the UK Labour Force Survey, we have been able to shine a light on some of the most pressing, but largely unexplored issues in British society today.

In particular, we have found evidence of a powerful and largely unacknowledged pay gap within the professions. There are a number of reasons for such higher educational attainment among the privileged. But even when these factors are taken into account, this gap remains significant.

As well as examining social mobility in the top echelons of British society, the report also looks at rates of intergenerational worklessness. It concludes that there is no evidence of generations of families never working. But it finds that those from workless households are 15% to 18% less likely to work.

Dr Lindsey Macmillan, from the UCL added:

While it is important to look at the experience of those in the professions, it is also important to understand wider issues with access into the workplace. We examined the experience of households with low levels of work and have found that there is no evidence of generations of families never working. The biggest risk to ending up workless as an adult is living in a high- unemployment area and poor health.

The report also calls for more questions on background to be included in the LFS to enrich understanding of social mobility in the UK.

Notes for editors

  1. The Social Mobility Commission is an advisory, non-departmental public body established under the Life Chances Act 2010 as modified by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. It has a duty to assess progress in improving social mobility in the United Kingdom and to promote social mobility in England. It currently consists of 4 commissioners and is supported by a small secretariat.

  2. The commission board currently comprises:
    • Alan Milburn (chair)
    • Baroness Gillian Shephard (deputy chair)
    • Paul Gregg, Professor of Economic and Social Policy, University of Bath
    • David Johnston, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation
  3. The functions of the commission include:
    • monitoring progress on improving social mobility
    • providing published advice to ministers on matters relating to social mobility
    • undertaking social mobility advocacy.
  4. Britain’s top businesses will be ranked for the first time on how open they are to accessing talent from all backgrounds, under a joint initiative by the Social Mobility Foundation and the Social Mobility Commission. The Social Mobility Employers’ Index gives firms the opportunity to showcase real progress they are making towards improving social mobility by ensuring they recruit the best people for the job - regardless of their social background.

  5. For further information, please contact Kirsty Walker at the Social Mobility Commission by:
Published 26 January 2017