Remote working will exacerbate inequality

‘Cultural capital provides a gloss and a shield of confidence to those gifted with it. As home working becomes a permanent feature of the workplace, the opportunities for working class and ethnically diverse entrants to gain it will be fewer’

Angela Ritch

The professional world is settling into another new-new-normal; pivoting swiftly back to a “work-from-home” model, now forecast to last well into 2021. Forty-six per cent of workers are thought to be working primarily from home, a huge increase on the pre-Covid norm of 7 per cent. As one-third of companies prepare to abandon their expensive offices permanently, the economic doom-mongers have already risen, decrying the loss of sandwich shops, bars and shopping hubs.

As a social scientist and educator, somewhat prone to doom myself, I have been exploring the risks of the work-from-home phenomenon for social mobility across some of the UK’s most influential employment sectors. The question I’m asking is if this really is bad news for young, diverse people, such as those I teach.

In education we talk about “cultural capital”—the experiences, connections and language codes (vocabulary and accent) which give the wealthy an advantage in education and then more widely in their professional lives. Cultural capital provides a gloss and a shield of confidence to those gifted with it. My worry is that as home working becomes a permanent feature of the workplace, the opportunities for working class and ethnically diverse entrants to watch and learn the culture of their workplace, and catch up with their better-off peers, will be fewer, and that may act as a social brake on their ambitions.

Dean Woods, a human resources director in the car industry, agrees: “To push yourself forward right now takes a huge dose of self-confidence. There’s a real risk that sheer privilege will be rewarded.” He describes how his company, responding to lockdown, quickly developed remote management tools for plants and processes based on simple metrics of output and productivity. Development of technical skills continues apace but he’s worried about “softer” skills getting lost in the new normal. It’s easy to train people at arm’s length about what to do, he explains, but teaching them how to be is a different matter. “How to be” neatly encapsulates that cultural fit that worries me.

Of course, some roles can be developed perfectly adequately remotely but in management and in some of the most important and influential professions, such as—for example—law and communications, “how to be” is as intrinsic to success as what to do. I describe these jobs as “intuitive”; where outcomes are reliant on our ability to respond to people, information, change and situations. It is in these intuitive professions that minorities and under-represented groups may be particularly disadvantaged in breaking through.

One important intuitive profession is journalism. According to Dorothy Byrne, editor at large at Channel 4, journalism ought to be diverse, representing all facets of the audience in terms of gender, sexuality, disability and ethnicity. She says: “If your newsroom is not diverse, you will get the news wrong.” The BBC lent her argument painful support when they haplessly used footage of LeBron James when reporting the death of another black man, Kobe Bryant. 

There is much work to be done. At the top of the profession, a Reuters survey finds no non-white top editors in either the top 10 print outlets or the online news offerings (in the UK). Furthermore, according to Marverine Duffy, broadcaster and lecturer at the Birmingham School of Media, many young, black journalists leave the professions due to “cliquey” newsrooms and a “culture of fear”. George Pitcher, journalist and visiting fellow at LSE, writes that moves towards gender parity in the newsroom have “ground to a halt” and the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ diversity report points to a recruitment process which favours middle-class entrants.

In a working-from-home world, a world without the opportunity to watch, learn or even shine unexpectedly in a meeting or exchange ideas at the fabled water-cooler, it’s even harder to imagine how ambitious, talented people already battling stereotypes will cut through. A failure to recognise the non-linear, non-traditional education and career pathways of many black, female and working-class people was already locking them out of the profession; Emma Burnell, a talented and well-qualified political writer in her forties trying to build a second career in mainstream journalism, tells me that attitudes are depressing. “There are young ingenues and grizzled hacks; if you don’t fit the stereotypes, you are virtually invisible,” she says. And if you can’t even work in an office, you’re less likely than ever to be seen.

PR and marketing industry insiders tell similar stories. The profession admits to being “overwhelmingly white, middle class and male” at its management levels, according to a Marketing Week survey, and it acknowledges that this is a problem. It is also a firmly intuitive industry. Sue Appleby, a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (and a leading light of its mentoring schemes), explains that there is simply no better career development than what used to be called “sitting next to Nellie”—learning how to do a job by watching someone who is already skilled actually doing it. Allowing young people to absorb the culture, bearing and confidence of the best, most established people in the business. She worries that women and working-class entrants to the professions may lose opportunities to develop. Mentoring schemes can go some way to bridging the gap but she’s clear that alone, they will not fill the gap left by direct co-working across the experience spectrum. “This will be bad for diversity,” she says.

In researching this piece, I had expected to find that technology and new ways of working would have a positive impact on how we work and the ease with which people can step forward and engage. I imagined that online meetings would be an opportunity for change, that at least the virtual “space” would be shared more equitably. But here, Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, joins the doom party. Focusing on gender equality, she says “everything that we think is going to be an equaliser turns out not to be”. Her analysis shows that in the online workplace, men continue to take more time, space and approval for themselves, suggesting that cultural change has not followed the technological shift and opportunities for wider inclusion across the board are being missed.

Leaders and managers now have an opportunity, probably an imperative, to rethink their structures, systems and people. The issues I have outlined suggest a need for a quick glance from the bottom-up, with an eye on structured mentoring, training, development and online-etiquette that is designed to bring out the best in our diverse talent.

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