Social background: Germany's forgotten career hurdle
Berlin, May 31: 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 reflect reality." As long as you come from the right social class" should be tacked onto that. Talent and commitment often aren't enough on their own. You also have to understand the hidden codes of the elite. That means knowing how to behave, what clothes to wear, the right hobbies to have and how to communicate in the right way to make the doors to the executive floor open up. In other words, socioeconomic background plays a key role in determining which academic and professional opportunities are available to you in Germany — and how much discrimination you'll face in your career.
Discrimination starts early in Germany. "More than 80% of children whose parents went to university go to Gymnasium," says 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 a 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 go to university.
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? Making matters worse, people born into a lower social class are often discriminated against for other reasons, like if they have a migrant background.
"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.
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 highly sought-after 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 study and rack up debt.
A social climber taking others with her
"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 from Ukraine to Germany. Nepomnyashcha 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, has 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 or someone has been told, that you're not good enough, that you'll never have a good job," she says today, speaking from her own experience. "It's important to realize what your talents are, what your strengths are, what jobs you enjoy." Netzwerk Chancen supports young people from difficult social backgrounds navigate every step of their career path by offering with free coaching, workshops, mentoring and help finding work.
More social diversity in companies
To prevent discrimination based on social origin, it's necessary to do more than support those who are affected. Obstacles also need to be removed, to begin with. Most people probably don't feel they discriminate against people from a different social milieu. However, studies show that people have a tendency to favor those who are similar to themselves, a phenomenon known as unconscious bias.
Discrimination on the basis of social class can be harder to recognize than discrimination due to age, skin color or migration background, for example. That makes it all the more important that people in educational institutions and human resource departments are trained to think about this aspect and to critically examine their own actions.
This starts, for example, with job advertisements, says Nepomnyashcha. 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, she says. They can still be talented nonetheless, she emphasizes.
The German media is also considered to be relatively homogeneous and lacking in diversity on this level. Most newsrooms are staffed by people with college degrees.
"But now that is changing in some media houses," Vassiliou-Enz said. Hessischer Rundfunk and SWR, two regional broadcasters in Germany, no longer require a university degree to be considered for their journalism traineeships. Now they also accept vocational training.
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 taken care of if companies embraced a more diverse workforce.
This article was originally published in German.