Who: Doctor of philosophy and English, 39, earning £32,000
What: With working-class prejudice still prevalent in so-called elite professions, this is how one woman took a stand
Where I come from in the Black Country, saying you wanted to get a degree when you grow up was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut. I didn’t know a single person with one, my parents left school without any qualifications, and I was very much expected to do the same.
My primary school was the lowest rated by Ofsted. I remember letters being sent home saying it was set to close because there wasn’t enough paper. At home life was similar, and my brother and I often went to class hungry because there was no food in the cupboards. I didn’t let any of that put me off, though. I’d always loved reading, and excelled in all subjects. I was a classic high achiever in secondary school and went on to ace my A levels.
I’d already made my dreams come true when I started studying at university for that degree. I’d never imagined that, after winning multiple awards for my work, being published in academic journals on philosophy, women’s rights, art and English, I’d get the funding to do a master’s and, eventually, a PhD. When the opportunity arose to join a team at one of the most prestigious Russell Group universities in the country, I leapt at it. It was only when I started working with other academic elites that I realised how much I stood out.
I first started to notice that being from a working-class background marked me out as different in meetings. Some of the academics, who were from quite privileged families, would joke that they couldn’t understand my accent. More often than not, though, I’d get ignored completely when trying to have an input or give feedback.
Once, we had a meeting in a pub after a big conference. One of the academics went round every person in the group asking what their PhD was in, but skipped past me. He just assumed I didn’t have one. That seems pretty minor, but when these little things are so constant and undermining, they build up and really shake your confidence.
Things took a turn when I’d had to ask our secretary to book a hotel room for me ahead of a conference. All the other academics had really nice places, and she booked me into a dirty little room with a broken mirror and a tiny single bed. I was mortified. This happened routinely when we were travelling until I decided I had to start standing up for myself.
I just started to “out” myself as working class in meetings, when we met with project groups and whenever I felt I was being spoken down to or cast aside, or if jokes were being made about my background. I shouldn’t have had to do this, but it gave me a sense of empowerment to own it – and own my financial situation too.
I told my senior colleague that my treatment made me feel demoralised and singled out. They were incredibly embarrassed about it. The prejudice came so naturally, they hadn’t even noticed they were doing it. It didn’t always work, and some people did snap at me, but I learned to ignore that.
People often ask me if all this gave me imposter syndrome. But I own what I have achieved, and I own it despite working-class prejudice. There is nobody that can go and tell you to do something else. You can just shut that noise out. Don’t let other people dictate who you are.
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