Classics and the Unprotected Characteristic: Towards a Network of Working-Class Classicists

Lilah Grace Canevaro and Mirko Canevaro, University of Edinburgh


Class is not listed as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. Class is not necessarily visible, and it is not always talked about. But class plays a crucial role in both access to university and the university experience. The class divide is particularly evident in Classics. And it is particularly evident now, when ‘Classics poverty’ in state schools is becoming more and more critical, and trends towards increased university access for working-class students have stalled and in some instances even reversed, especially in elite institutions which still offer degree programmes in Classics. Widening participation and outreach initiatives seek to address the class imbalance in university admissions, but what happens when working-class students get to university? What do working-class postgraduates experience? How do working-class academics fare? Underrepresentation, lack of fit, imposter syndrome, being caught between two worlds, a sizeable class pay gap, even self-elimination from the discipline. Working-class origins affect not just getting in but also getting on.

The 2020 CUCD report on Equality and Diversity in Classics shows that more work needs to be done on challenging class bias. On creating more networks of support between under-represented groups. But how do we bring working-class classicists together, when supposedly ‘we’re all middle class anyway’ as soon as we enter the hallowed halls of university? This line of argument – one that many of us have heard repeatedly – is in fact one of the most insidious ways in which working-class Classicists are assimilated or misrecognised. Because it is not just about where you are; it is about where you come from. Your class origins cast a long shadow, not just in terms of your chances of getting into elite universities and then into elite professions like academia, but also in terms of how you fare once you get there.

When working-class students do get to university, do come to study Classics, they find an institutional ethos that kicks them back. And because they don’t find many working-class academics (both because there aren’t many, and because those that are there aren’t carrying their card) they feel alone, estranged, with no one to fight their corner (see Diane Reay 2017, chapters 5 and 6). Geraldine Van Bueren, Professor of international human rights law at Queen Mary University London and founder of the Association of Working-Class Academics, argues that it is essential for working-class students to have role models to make them feel they belong at university. In order for widening-participation initiatives really to be successful, these students need to see success stories, to find mentors, to relate to someone and have their own circumstances understood.

And the struggle doesn’t end there: for those that do go on to postgraduate study and embark on academic careers in the discipline, the barriers are many (see Teresa Crew 2020 and Carole Binns 2019). There’s the lack of financial resources to navigate precarious contracts (no ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’). There’s the imposter syndrome and a nagging feeling of not fitting in. There are the demands to ‘tone it down’. There’s the lack of role models and mentors from a similar class background. And there’s the sense of social displacement and estrangement that comes with our new lives. We no longer fit in where we came from, yet do not quite belong where we have arrived. This is the price of the ticket of so-called social mobility. The result of all this is that working-class Classicists often fare far worse than middle-class colleagues even when they become professional, academic Classicists. Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison, in their 2019 book The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged, demonstrate that there is in fact solid evidence for a very sizeable class pay gap (some 16%) in the elite professions (Friedman/Laurison 2019:21), including academia: ‘the class pay gap – at its most extreme, at least – is as large as or larger than the gender and racial-ethnic pay gaps’. [1]

So we need to talk about class. We need to make class visible. And we need to build a discipline in which class assimilation, ‘leaning in’, is not the only way for working-class Classicists to get on. In which they are welcomed, acknowledged and celebrated, rather than made to feel like outsiders in need of being ‘civilised’.

And here’s the sticking point: as Van Bueren has noted, while many kinds of diversity are now celebrated in academia, there is no equivalent celebration of working-class intellectuals. Why is this the case? Why do we not talk about class, and why do we not talk about it alongside the protected characteristics? As Friedman and Laurison have shown, an intersectional lens that acknowledges the importance of class is key also when looking at gender, race and ethnicity. Working-class women are at a far greater disadvantage than middle-class women, for instance.[2] Working-class black women are at a triple disadvantage.[3] The EDI agenda needs to look at the whole picture – and it can’t do that until we have class firmly on that agenda.

These are some of the reasons why we are setting up a network of solidarity and support for working-class Classicists. School teachers, students and academic staff will be represented, and we understand Classics in its broadest sense (including Classical Studies, Ancient History, Classical Archaeology and all kinds of joint programmes). The focus of the network will be on mutual encouragement and practical support, as well as on advocacy to make class central to the debate on equality, diversity and inclusion in our discipline. We envisage a mentoring programme, an annual meeting, financial resources available for working-class Classicists. The first step towards establishing this network will be a series of workshops. We encourage working-class Classicists in particular to attend, but the events are open to anyone interested in class. The focus will be on things we can do to make the working-class Classicist experience better now as well as on ideas for future change.

This first workshop will focus on the Scottish context, the next on the UK more generally. There will be a series of short presentations from academics and students on topics such as definition and self-definition, recent publications on class, the available data, and personal experience stories. But most of the workshop will be given over to discussion, with working-class Classicists encouraged to talk about their experience, the challenges they have encountered, their perspectives and their ‘war stories’. Our aim is to forge relationships grounded in a characteristic that really needs protecting.

Find more about the Network of Working-Class Classicists here: https://www.ed.ac.uk/history-classics-archaeology/news-events/events/working-class-classics-a-conversation


[1] Friedman/Laurison 2019:49. Note that the class pay gap encompasses unequal pay for equal work and inequality of income between staff at the same grade.

[2] Friedman/Laurison 2019:50 ‘working-class women are at a double disadvantage – they earn on average £7,500 less per year than privileged-origin women, who in turn earn £11,500 less than privileged-origin men’.

[3] Friedman/Laurison 2019:52 ‘Black British working-class women, for example, have average earnings in top jobs that are £20,000 less per year than those of privileged-origin white men’.


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