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Social class: Germany's forgotten career hurdle

Insa Wrede
May 31, 2022

Today many German companies support diversity in the workplace and are making efforts to create better opportunities for women and people of color. But socioeconomic background is a factor that often goes overlooked.

A young person wearing a hoodie sitting on grass with their back to the camera
Workplace discrimination due to socioeconomic background can be harder to recognize than sexism or racismImage: Thomas Eisenhuth/ZB/dpa/picture alliance

In Germany, all doors are open to you if you work hard and do a good job.

It's a nice idea, but unfortunately one that doesn't fully reflect reality. "As long as you come from the right social class," might be important to add. Talent and commitment often aren't enough on their own. A potential employee would also have to understand the hidden codes of the company elite. That includes knowing how to behave, which clothes to wear, the right hobbies to have and how to communicate such that doors to the executive floor open.

In other words, socioeconomic background plays a key role in determining which academic and professional opportunities are available in Germany — and how much discrimination a person will face in their career.  

Discrimination starts early in Germany. "More than 80% of children whose parents went to university go to 'Gymnasium,'" said Konstantina Vassiliou-Enz, referring to the most advanced type of German secondary schools, usually a precursor to university. "For children from families with less formal education, it's not even half." Vassiliou-Enz is a journalist and co-founder of the Diversity Kartell consultancy, which campaigns for more diversity in the media.

A child's educational path often correlates to that of their parents. For example, 79 out of 100 school children with college-educated parents will go on to study at a university, compared with just 27 out of 100 whose parents did not attend university.

Sailboats at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020
In a US study, fictitious job seekers with elite hobbies like sailing or polo were more likely to be invited to an interviewImage: Carlos Barria/REUTERS

The many sides of social background

Education is just one example of how social background can influence your future. A family's socioeconomic position also plays a role. Do the parents have assets? What kind of jobs do they have? Exacerbating the problem, people born into a lower social class are often discriminated against for other reasons, for example, if they have families who recently migrated to Germany.

"The income and educational level of the parents are particularly decisive for educational success in Germany, and children with a migration background, for example, are more likely to come from low-income families," explained Vassiliou-Enz.

Infographic: core dimensions of diversity

A long journey to the top

Even for those who do make it to the top, the very decision to invest in their own education isn't an easy one. People who grew up in precarious financial situations often can't count on support from their parents if they run into financial problems, Vassiliou-Enz said. Sometimes, they're the ones supporting their parents.

This means not everyone can afford to do unpaid internships, for example. Those from privileged social classes also often have better professional connections, putting them in a better position to land these coveted internships in the first place. People who choose to study also have to consider whether they're ready to take on student debt. This is a more difficult decision for people with a lower socioeconomic background.

Put simply: "People from poor families have to take disproportionately more risks and do more to move up than those born into the middle class or college-educated middle class," says Vassiliou-Enz, who herself grew up in what she calls a poor family. "I didn't want to pay to go to college," she recalled. Growing up in a family that was short on money, she said, she wanted to earn her own money first, rather than racking up student debt.

Helping others climb the ladder

"In my own case, it was because my parents had been unemployed for very many years, since the mid-1990s, to be exact," Natalya Nepomnyashcha told DW. "Of course, this left them with no self-confidence at all. And that gets passed on to the children, who also feel they might not be able to achieve that much."

Nepomnyashcha did, in fact, make it to the top of the career ladder. But it wasn't a straight path. Her parents had emigrated to Germany from Ukraine, and she grew up in a marginalized area in Bavaria.

She managed to move out of the "Hauptschule," a type of vocational secondary school in Germany, to the "Realschule," a step below Gymnasium. Despite her good grades, however, she was not accepted at the Gymnasium. After graduating from secondary school, she completed vocational training and a master's degree in the United Kingdom.

Today, Nepomnyashcha works for a renowned management consulting firm and, on the side, founded the organization Netzwerk Chancen, which helps young people from lower social classes advance their careers.

"It's absolutely fundamental to first let go of what you have been told: That you're not good enough, that you'll never have a good job," she said. "It's important to realize what your talents are, what your strengths are, what jobs you enjoy."

Netzwerk Chancen supports young people from challenging social backgrounds to navigate every step of their career path by offering free coaching, workshops, mentoring and help finding work.

Natalya Nepomnyashcha
Social background is an important aspect of workplace diversity, says Netzwerk Chancen's Natalya NepomnyashchaImage: Netzwerk Chancen

Social diversity pays off

To prevent discrimination on the basis of social origin, it's necessary to do more than support those who are affected; obstacles also need to be removed. Most people probably don't feel that they discriminate against others from a different social milieu. However, studies show that people tend to favor those who are similar to themselves — a phenomenon known as unconscious bias.

Discrimination based on social class can be harder to recognize than discrimination due to age, skin color or if they or their parents migrated to Germany, for example. That makes it all the more important that people in educational institutions and human resource departments are trained to recognize bias and critically examine their own actions.

This starts, for example, with job advertisements, Nepomnyashcha pointed out. Her organization recommends that job postings pay less attention to applicants' qualifications on paper and more to their actual competencies, since many socially disadvantaged job candidates often haven't been to top universities or don't necessarily have excellent grades. They can still be talented nonetheless, she emphasized.

A person holding a pen against a resume
Half of managers have observed discrimination against workers due to social background, a study from Charta der Vielfalt showedImage: Andrey Popov/PantherMedia/picture alliance

German media organizations are also considered to be relatively homogeneous and lacking in diversity on this level. Most newsrooms are staffed by people with college degrees.

"But that is now changing in some media houses," Vassiliou-Enz said. Hessischer Rundfunk and SWR, two regional German broadcasters, no longer require a university degree to be considered for their journalism traineeships. They now also accept vocational training.

Yet even when the topic is uncomfortable, it pays for companies to focus on diversity: According to a study by management consulting firm McKinsey, 50% of the projected skilled labor shortage in Germany could be remedied if companies embrace a more diverse workforce.

This article was originally written in German.