Opinion: Class can’t be forgotten in the battle for representation

Social anthropologist, Dawn Walter, thinks Silicon Gorge can be a place to cross the class bridge
24th September 2018

“The bridge that divides these two worlds is where I wait, patiently trying to convince the gatekeepers to let me cross. Rather innocently, I’d always believed that through talent and hard work I’d earn my place on that other side. Yet as others passed me by, I watch and wonder…what is it that they have that I don’t?” – Wally Jiagoo

Tech is notorious for the shockingly small number of women who work in its hallowed halls. We all know the stats. But what about social class? While the middle classes might believe that class no longer matters, that social mobility is possible, in the words of Richard Hoggart, “Each decade we shiftily declare we have buried class [yet] each decade the coffin stays empty”. Indeed, having come back to the country of my birth after twenty years overseas, I can confidently say: yup, England is still as class conscious as it ever was.

As a social anthropologist, I’m acutely aware of class, of course. Social class is status differentiation: how one social group marks itself as different from another. But class isn’t simply about how much you earn, the car you drive, or the house you live in. Social class is judged in incredibly subtle and complex ways: the clothes you wear, the words you use and how you pronounce them, where you shop, what you eat, and so on. It is these subtle distinctions which forever mark you as being of a particular class. Like the stereotypical working-class lad driving a black BMW, sporting a Rolex and with a Sarf London accent, he hasn’t quite smoothed. As Lynsey Hanley explains, “Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other, where you have to rescind your old passport, [and] learn a new language”.

Class is a way to keep people in their place. It holds people back, keeps them (or tries very hard to) at the bottom of the social ladder. Sadly, social class “still largely determines the type and quality of education we receive”, making it that much harder for people from working-class backgrounds to go to university, for example. And even once at university, working-class students may feel that they don’t belong, that they aren’t good enough. It’s a discomfort expressed by some tertiary students I interviewed for a small research project. Because of a lack of socialisation during childhood, these students, who were from non-tertiary-trained families, felt that university was not for them, not for “the likes of us”, and not an automatic post-school route in the way it is for students from university-educated families who do not really choose at all. (These students have always assumed that they will attend university, always expected they would, and don’t really pay much attention to the actual decision.) One of the negative, hidden effects of class is the lack of self-belief which is derived from “an acute sense of how little social trust or esteem is placed in you as an individual, a feeling that is absorbed and then expressed in low self-confidence”.

It’s why initiatives like TechSpark’s SHIFT programme are so important and why recruitment companies like Applied and SR2, which are striving to get more people from underrepresented groups into tech, should be wholeheartedly supported. The South West, affectionately named Silicon Gorge, is rightly proud of its reputation as a hotbed of hi-tech. It’s incredibly exciting to live here but let’s not overlook the bright, talented people who are on the other side of that metaphorical bridge, waiting for the tech gatekeepers to let them cross. Because to “ignore or make class invisible is to abdicate responsibility (through privilege) from the effects it produces. To think that class does not matter is only a prerogative of those unaffected by the deprivations and exclusions it produces”. Let’s make Silicon Gorge a place where there are opportunities for brilliant people from all walks of life, where the gatekeepers are willing to take a chance on someone, to give them a leg-up. Because in the words of Jiagoo again, “the longer you wait at that bridge to pass, the harder it is to not internalize that maybe you’re just not good enough”. I don’t know about you but that breaks my heart.