Social class: forgotten career obstacle in Germany | Business | Economic and financial news from a German perspective | DW


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

It’s a good idea, but unfortunately it doesn’t fully reflect reality. “As long as you belong to the right social class”, might be important to add. Talent and commitment alone are often not enough. A potential employee should also understand the hidden codes of the corporate elite. This includes knowing how to behave, what clothes to wear, good hobbies to have, and how to communicate so that the doors to the executive floor open.

In other words, socio-economic background plays a key role in determining the academic and professional opportunities available in Germany – and the degree of 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 precursors to university. “For children from families with less education, it’s not even half.” Vassiliou-Enz is a journalist and co-founder of the Diversity Kartell council, which campaigns for more diversity in the media.

A child’s school career is often correlated with that of his or her parents. For example, 79 out of 100 schoolchildren whose parents have a college education will continue their studies at a university, compared to only 27 out of 100 whose parents did not attend university.

In a US study, fictional job seekers with elite hobbies like sailing or polo were more likely to be interviewed

The many facets of the social environment

Education is just one example of how social background can influence your future. The socio-economic position of a family also plays a role. Do the parents have property? What kind of jobs do they have? To compound the problem, people born into a lower social class are often discriminated against for other reasons, for example if they have families who have recently emigrated to Germany.

“Parents’ income and level of education are particularly decisive for educational success in Germany, and children with a migrant background, for example, are more likely to come from low-income families,” explained Vassiliou. -Enz.

Infographic: fundamental dimensions of diversity

A long journey to the top

Even for those who make it to the top, the very decision to invest in their own education is not easy. People who grew up in precarious financial situations often cannot count on their parents’ support if they run into financial problems, Vassiliou-Enz said. Sometimes they are the ones supporting their parents.

This means that not everyone can afford to do unpaid internships, for example. People from privileged social classes also often have better professional connections, which puts them in a better position to land those coveted internships in the first place. People who choose to study must also ask themselves if they are ready to take on debt. It is a more difficult decision for people from a lower socio-economic background.

Simply put: “People from poor families have to take a lot more risks and do more to get ahead than those who were born into the middle class or educated middle class,” says Vassiliou-Enz, who herself grew up in what she calls a poor neighborhood. family. “I didn’t want to pay to go to college,” she recalls. Growing up in a cash-strapped family, she says, she wanted to earn her own money first, rather than running up student debt.

Help others climb the ladder

“In my case, it was because my parents had been unemployed for many, many years, since the mid-1990s, to be exact,” Natalya Nepomnyashcha told DW. “Of course, that left them with no confidence whatsoever. And that trickles down to the kids, who also feel like they might not be able to accomplish as much.”

Nepomnyashcha actually reached the top of the career ladder. But it was not a straight path. Her parents had emigrated from Ukraine to Germany and she grew up in a marginalized region of Bavaria.

She managed to leave the “Hauptschule”, a type of vocational secondary school in Germany, for the “Realschule”, a rung below the Gymnasium. Despite her good grades, however, she was not accepted into the Gymnasium. After graduating from high school, she pursued vocational training and a master’s degree in the UK.

Today, Nepomnyashcha works for a well-known management consulting firm and, next to it, founded the organization Netzwerk Chancenwhich helps young people from underprivileged social classes to progress in their careers.

“It’s absolutely fundamental to start by letting go of what you’ve been told: that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never get a good job,” she said. “It’s important to realize what your talents are, what your strengths are, what jobs you enjoy.”

Netzwerk Chancen helps young people from difficult social backgrounds navigate every step of their career path by offering free coaching, workshops, mentoring and job search assistance.

Natalya Nepomnyashcha

Social origin is an important aspect of diversity in the workplace, says Natalya Nepomnyashcha of Netzwerk Chancen

Social diversity pays off

Preventing discrimination on the basis of social origin requires more than supporting those affected; obstacles must also be removed. Most people probably don’t feel like they discriminate against others from a different social background. However, studies show that people tend to favor those who are like them – a phenomenon known as unconscious bias.

Discrimination based on social class can be more difficult to recognize than discrimination based on age, skin color or whether they or their parents have emigrated to Germany, for example. It is therefore all the more important that members of educational institutions and human resources departments are trained to recognize biases and critically examine their own actions.

It starts, for example, with job offers, Nepomnyashcha pointed out. His organization recommends that job postings pay less attention to applicants’ qualifications on paper and more to their actual skills, as many socially disadvantaged applicants often haven’t been to top universities or don’t necessarily have a background. excellent grades. They can still be talented, however, she pointed out.

A person holding a pen against a resume

Half of managers have observed discrimination against workers because of their social origin, according to a study by Charta der Vielfalt

German media are also seen as relatively homogeneous and lacking in diversity at this level. Most newsrooms are staffed by people with college degrees.

“But that is changing in some media houses,” Vassiliou-Enz said. Hessischer Rundfunk and SWR, two German regional broadcasters, no longer need a university degree to be considered for their journalism internships. Now they 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 consultancy McKinsey, 50% of Germany’s predicted skill shortage could be solved if companies adopted a more diverse workforce.

This article was originally written in German.

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