Social background: Germany’s forgotten career barrier | 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 an idea that does not reflect reality. “As long as you come from the right social class” should be added to that. Talent and commitment alone are often not enough. It is also necessary to understand the hidden codes of the elite. This means knowing how to behave, what clothes to wear, the right hobbies to have, and how to communicate in the right way to open the doors to the executive floor. In other words, socio-economic background plays a key role in determining the academic and professional opportunities available to you in Germany – and the degree of discrimination you will 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 less educated families, it is not even half.” Vassiliou -Enz is a journalist and founder of the firm Diversity Kartell, 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 go on to university, compared to only 27 out of 100 whose parents did not go to college.

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? Worse still, people born into a lower social class are often discriminated against for other reasons, for example if they are of immigrant background.

“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 highly sought-after 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 studying and going into debt.

A social climber taking others with her

“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 at all. And that carries over 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. His parents had emigrated from Ukraine to Germany. Nepomnyashcha grew up in a marginalized area of ​​Bavaria.

She managed to leave the Hauptschulea type of vocational secondary school in Germany, at the Realschuleone step below 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 renowned management consulting firm and, in parallel, founded the organization Netzwerk Chancen, which helps young people from disadvantaged social classes to advance their careers.

“It’s absolutely fundamental to start by letting go of what you or someone else has been told that you’re not good enough, that you’ll never get a good job,” she says today. today, speaking from his own experience. “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

More social diversity in companies

Preventing discrimination based on social origin requires more than supporting those affected. Obstacles must also be removed, to begin with. Most people probably don’t feel like they discriminate against people 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 migration background, for example. It is therefore all the more important that people in educational institutions and human resources departments are trained to reflect on this aspect and to take a critical look at their own actions.

It starts, for example, with job offers, says Nepomnyashcha. 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, she said. They can still be talented, she points out.


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

The German media are also considered to be relatively homogeneous and not very diversified at 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 need a university degree to be considered for their journalism internships. Now they also accept vocational training.

Even when the subject is uncomfortable, it pays companies to focus on diversity: According to a study by management consultancy McKinsey, 50% of Germany’s predicted shortage of skilled labor could be solved if businesses were embracing a more diverse workforce.

This article was originally published in German.

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