Articles - 20th August 2019

Does your background affect your freelance career?

Words by Laura O'Donnell
Illustration by Alice Yu Deng

There have been numerous studies on the effects of a person’s upbringing – class, education, privilege – on career success, with many reports drawing a similar, unsurprising conclusion: that someone born into privilege is likely to fare better than someone brought up with less. 

Does the same ‘class divide’ and its implications exist for those who are self-employed? Much of the research on the impact of upbringing focuses on traditional employed roles that are found to favour the ‘elite’ and restrict the progress of the working classes. Do those who go it alone free themselves of these confines? Or are there other restrictions in place for freelancers who start out ‘less privileged’?


Prestigious jobs and ‘highbrow banter’

In their 2019 book, The Class Ceiling, sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison examine the impact of class on career progress within several industries. They found that, even when those from working-class backgrounds make it into top universities and subsequently into prestigious jobs, they earn 16% less on average than colleagues from privileged backgrounds. This translates into a £7,000 pay shortfall.

My own background is working-class. I was brought up comfortably but attended a poor secondary school, before making it (out alive) to Leeds University and moving to London for a PR career in my 20s. I became self-employed six or seven years later. 

I wasn’t paid enough in my 20s; certainly, when I moved to London with three years in-house experience, I accepted a low salary for my first agency job. I felt lucky and grateful that they’d employed me, and intimidated by my new, highly assured colleagues. 

Many of my new colleagues came from wealthy backgrounds and their confidence unsettled me, because I lacked it myself. A Guardian review of The Class Ceiling identifies this assuredness as a true marker of the privileged. It is a specific brand of ‘highbrow banter’ and presence, as witnessed in a meeting at a TV production company which is one of several companies used as a case study in the book.

As reviewer Lynsey Hanley argues, “It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well-resourced [and] that you have money to fall back on….[It is the]…wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and…the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle [that] are the real currency of the professional elite.”

I first encountered this particular currency myself at university, where I felt awed by my posher peers’ ability to assert their opinions and ‘talk themselves up’, as I saw it. I was aware of lacking those same qualities, a lack which, if I’m honest, I felt throughout my career and into self-employment.

Yet I don’t think this ‘lack’ – whether perceived or real – can be attributed solely to class.


Shying away from confidence – a class thing, or a gender thing?

Even after I started up my own freelance PR consultancy, with a wealth of experience in London and Sydney agencies under my belt, I was often unconfident; that feeling of lack still lurked.

Also conscious of having a class-related chip on my shoulder, I wondered if I should have been able to shrug it off more easily. Author Tara Mohr would assert that my perceived lack is unsurprising, but that it isn’t just class-related, it’s about gender, too.   

In Playing Big, Mohr says that women often struggle more than men to “blaze a bright trail in their careers” because girls are conditioned against displaying confidence, asserting opinions and self-promotion. High levels of confidence – the type needed to engage in the type of ‘highbrow banter’ identified by Friedman and Laurison – is seen as negative, and I think this is particularly true in rough schools. 

I remember being called ‘a swot’ and ‘fussy’ at school, whenever my high performance in class was drawn attention to, so I kept my head down. I followed the rules; I did the work and moved onto the next task. Self-promotion and the celebration of success – which can be so closely tied to confidence and self-esteem – wasn’t an option.

For boys, even working-class boys, it is different. While they’re not necessarily encouraged to ‘show off’ either, there is less expectation of them to abide by certain rules. Boys are much less likely to be told to be good – when ‘good’ means being quiet and keeping your head below the parapet.

Within the working-class culture of the city I grew up in, I used to assume that the qualities of being self-effacing and self-deprecating – the opposite of the assuredness of the elite – were widely celebrated, whereas being highly self-confident was not. I also thought that this view was gender-neutral. Actually, now, I think when working-class men are very confident it is ‘just how they are’, whereas very self-assured women are viewed as ‘too much’. 

Additionally, if working-class males are criticised, or feel any effects of having or being ‘less’ regarding their class, I believe they’re unlikely to dwell on it to the extent to which working-class women might. Often, they just get on with it.


“You just need to go out and graft”

In her 2019 book How To Fail, Elizabeth Day highlights a scientific explanation for women being more likely than men to dwell on mistakes and past situations – such as how I was taught at school not to self-promote or be ‘over-confident’, for example. She outlines how the brain’s fear centres that help process emotional memory and respond to stressful situations “have been shown to be activated more easily…in women than in men.” The part of the brain that helps recognise errors and consider options is also larger in women, hence a tendency for women to ‘ruminate’.

This might explain why I still often cringe at the thought of self-promotion and deliberate over work decisions, whereas many self-employed men I know tend not to over-think; they are focused simply on ‘graft’. There is little concern over whether they are more or less confident, or are achieving more or less than someone more privileged than them.

Tom Stevens, a freelance graphic designer, grew up in a single-parent family, describing his mum as a ‘grafter’ who worked several low-paid jobs to raise him and his sisters. He feels that his background has impacted him only positively. “We were always encouraged to try our hardest and were brought up with the mindset that we can achieve whatever we want.”

Paul Baggott, an independent mortgage broker, believes that his working-class background has had no bearing on his success. He says that ‘it has never crossed his mind’ that class, or indeed gender, might make a difference to business. “You can’t buy drive – and that is what you need when you are self-employed. You can have all the money and contacts in the world, but if you are not prepared to go out and graft then it really means nothing.”

The gender-based differences highlighted by Mohr and Day also seem to be apparent in the sheer volume of career coaching services that exist, promising to help individuals gain self-belief and ditch the self-doubt that might be affecting their careers and/or their ambitions of self-employment. The vast majority of these businesses are aimed at women.  

To Tom and Paul, self-employment is straightforward: work hard, gain rewards – regardless of class, gender or anything else. 


“Double disadvantage” at play

While admirable, this ‘hard work prevails’ argument, in the above examples at least, is put forward from a place of white male privilege. It runs the risk of dismissing the very real career discrimination suffered by countless individuals, whether based on class, gender, disability, ethnicity or other.

Regardless of the internal battles of an individual when it comes to confidence, skills and performance, there are various external career barriers that exist that can be very difficult, if not impossible, for some to overcome.

A recent report by the government’s social mobility commission, The State of the Nation 2018 – 2019, revealed almost identical findings to those of The Class Ceiling, stating that professionals from working-class backgrounds earn an average of 17% less than more privileged colleagues. The report also highlighted what it terms the “double disadvantages” of class, disability, ethnicity and gender. It found that one in five people with disabilities from working-class backgrounds were found to enter professional occupations, and that women from working-class backgrounds within those professions are paid 35% less than privileged male peers.

I’m aware of my own privilege as a white, able-bodied person. And I’m aware that giving all ‘disadvantages’ equal weighting, as the “double disadvantages” phrasing appears to, is problematic, as is ignoring the sliding scale of privilege that a singular ‘working-class’ label encompasses. Yet I fully agree with the report in that we cannot talk about ‘class’ separately to additional disadvantages. 


The power of mindset and reframing?

Of course, it is not to say that all working-class women have the same experiences and are of the same viewpoint. Kerry Connor is an illustrator who runs her own business, Paper Joy, and believes that she has never been held back by her gender. While she admits that she would be more successful with family wealth, “that is not to say that it’s not possible to work hard and be successful without financial backing.”

Regarding self-promotion, Kerry says: “I’m not shy about what I’ve achieved; I just feel a vulgarity to talking about my own success.”

Arguably, the majority of men, regardless of background, would not give a second thought to the ‘vulgarity’ of discussing their achievements. 

While not discounting the very real discrimination encountered by those who are disadvantaged, and acknowledging that it’s the type of ‘American Dream’ argument that has been tainted by a certain individual at the helm of the US, many women – myself included – could perhaps benefit from less ‘rumination’ and more of a focused ‘graft’ mindset that can be of real benefit when self-employed.

On the other hand, I believe that bringing less brash confidence and ‘highbrow banter’, and more empathy and vulnerability to a self-employed business can be of benefit too. Perhaps any feelings of ‘lack’, like the ones I had, could instead be reframed. Rather than ‘lack’, it is having different experiences and skills. The stats might paint a bleak, fatalistic picture regarding class and success, but for many, self-employment allows career stories to be rewritten. 

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