People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain

In this episode I talk to barrister and author Hashi Mohamed about his book ‘People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain’. We also cover other fascinating topics including privilege, social mobility and the cost of code-switching in the workplace.

This week’s guest on The Inclusive Growth Show is Hashi Mohamed. We met at an event that one of my clients organised, where we were co-panellists. Hashi is a barrister. He is a broadcaster and an author. He was born in Nairobi, Kenya, and then he moved to the UK when he was nine years old. His first book is called, ‘People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain’. In his book, he uses his own personal experiences as a blueprint to unpack the realities of living as a refugee in Britain, and the unwritten rules of British society.

I was grateful to Hashi for giving up his time to speak to me but before we got into the interview itself, I asked Hashi to introduce himself a little bit more.

‘I am Hashi Mohamed. In addition to everything in the introduction, I’m a planning lawyer practicing in London, working on various aspects to do with trying to build houses, infrastructure projects, and trying to improve our townscape, cities and villages across the country.

I also write regularly for major newspapers and media outlets, and I’ve also published, of course, not only the book mentioned but also a recent book called, ‘A Home of One’s Own: Why the Housing Crisis Matters’. So that’s me, and I’m very happy to be here discussing Inclusive Growth and other aspects today.’

Hashi arrived in the UK aged nine. I asked him to share his personal experience and how privilege has impacted on his upbringing.

‘Thank you very much for that very thoughtful question, Toby. I came to the UK as a nine-year-old boy who had just lost his father because my father had died in a car crash. We came to the UK without my mum in that early wave of Somalis who came as refugees. In a way, there wasn’t much privilege in the way that we started out. We came to Britain without any English, without any understanding of the culture, without any understanding of how things work. It was an incredibly difficult starting point. I suppose one way of looking at it would have been to say there was zero privilege at that point. Another way of looking at it was at least we got out safe and at least we were healthy and we were still alive. There was still an opportunity to try and re-make our lives. So, in that sense, I guess I could say I was privileged, but not in the way that we might understand privilege as a whole.’

My next question to Hashi was to find out how he defines socio-economic status and how is this compounded by ethnicity.

‘I think for me, socio-economic status can be a range of things, but predominantly it’s really about how it relates to social mobility. What I mean by that is social mobility in relative terms. It’s about how well you do in comparison to your parents and how well have you travelled compared to where your parents might have been. Your parents might have done menial jobs or working-class jobs, or jobs that are not professional, and then you go on to become a professional, a barrister, a doctor, or one of the other professional classes. So, in that sense, your socio-economic status changes, it doesn’t necessarily mean your class changes, but your income changes, how society perceives you changes and so on. But if we look at that in terms of ethnicity, you are less likely to be in the top professions, if you are of a particular race or background, because of your socio-economic status to start with. If you’re growing up on free school meals, if you’re growing up on benefits, if you’re growing up in a relatively deprived place, the likelihood of that being compounded by your race or your class is massive. I think that’s part of the conversations that we need to have about what it means to make it in modern Britain.’

In his book, Hashi writes about ‘concerted cultivation’. I asked him to tell me more about this and the impact of different backgrounds on parenting styles as well as what that means for an individual’s career.

‘I think what I talk about in terms of the idea of concerted cultivation is that if you are from a working-class background, as compared to somebody who might be from a middle-class or upper-middle-class background, and for example, your parents are professionals as opposed to your parents not being professional workers, it means that as a child a lot of things are passed down to you. Whether it’s a mindset, whether it’s a way of doing things, whether it’s how you speak and how you might cultivate relationships and how you might relate to other people, that makes a massive difference to your trajectory. So, for me, when I talk about social inequalities, we can’t understand that only via the education system. Social inequalities must be understood from all angles, including how cultural cultivation, connections, social and cultural capital can make a massive difference in how far you go and how well you do and what that looks like.’

In his book, Hashi writes about privilege a lot. Hashi writes, We live in a society where the single greatest indicator of what your job will be is the job of your parents, where power and privilege are concentrated among the 7% of the population who were privately educated, where if your name sounds Black or Asian, you’ll need to send out twice as many job applications as your White neighbours”. That’s a profound statement.

And according to a survey of 5000 people conducted in 2018 by the Social Mobility Barometer, over half of us think that central government should be doing more on social mobility, and 36% think that employers should be doing more. I asked Hashi, ‘What are some of the biggest challenges organisations face when trying to address class and privilege within the workplace?’

‘Some of the biggest challenges that organisations might face relate to how they understand the society in which they’re meeting. We cannot expect an organisation to transform overnight how they recruit, the people they recruit, from where they recruit and how all of that relates to one another. Ultimately, any professional organisation still has to function in a world that is profoundly unequal. They still have to function in an environment that’s profoundly skewed in favour of some people in society than others. So, we always have to be very careful about just simply expecting that they will be able to resolve the issues of society overnight. That’s part of the big challenges that I think organisations struggle with when they are trying to address the issues of class and privilege.’

I was interested to hear how Hashi thought organisations should go about creating a more equitable workplace for people from different socio-economic backgrounds.

‘I think there are various ways they can do that. I think they need to be alert to, as I said, the inequalities and the issues that exist in society. They need to re-adjust their work practices, their recruitment practices, and their HR policies, to be able to understand. It’s not to make special pleading or not to make the recruitment process less rigorous for certain people simply because they belong to a particular class or race or gender, but they need to adjust it in a way that understands that all these people are not turning up at your boardrooms and at interview equal. I think that’s important.

I think addressing any unconscious bias is quite important, understanding that we are a profoundly prejudiced society, not just in terms of any particular sort of conscious bias, but unconscious bias in the sense that we all are prejudiced. I am prejudiced. You are prejudiced. People listening to this are prejudiced in some ways, whatever that might be. But the real level of consciousness that allows people to get to a different level of understanding society best is those who understand that and then deal with that. They address it and do not hide from it and pretend it doesn’t exist. And then of course, you’ve got to have mentoring systems internally and externally that help people learn about how best to improve their own circumstances and how to help their colleagues understand things better.

So, there are so many different things to do, but the most important one I would add to all of that is, organisations need to understand this is a marathon. It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. It will take time. There will be false starts. It will be two steps forward, three steps back. But we’ll get there. You’ve just got to keep going.’

I was glad Hashi mentioned prejudice because when I was working at the BBC, and I did unconscious bias training for the first time, I found out that I was mildly biased against disabled people. It was quite shocking for me because I was born with my disability and I hang out with loads of disabled people. Yet I’ve got this bias, and when I spoke to a psychologist about it, she explained to me that it was because of the society that I’ve grown up in. It’s a society that is ableist. It’s a society that’s been designed by largely non-disabled people. And of course, it’s been through social conditioning. So, in the films that I’ve watched, the role models were in society high up in business and politics and things like that, I’ve adopted these biases.

Hashi agreed that it is a normal human thing to do adding, ‘It happens to all of us, but it takes a different level of consciousness, like I said, and a profound understanding of who you are to come to terms with the notion that you understand that.’

My next question to Hashi was ‘What do you believe individuals could do to advocate for more equitable workplaces and challenge class and privilege within their own organisation?’

‘I think this is important. I can’t speak for anyone else, but individuals like me, for example, if I’ve made it, so-called, made it in the professions and I’m now sitting at the table whereby I am supposedly a barrister in the professional context. So, I am working in a particularly well-sought-after elitist profession. I should be able to stand up and say, “I’ve made it, but here are all the challenges that I faced and here are the ways in which we can overcome that”.

It’s not enough for me to just simply sit there and say, “I’ve made it. Everyone else can make it, if only they’re just willing to work hard enough”, that’s just not how society works. So, I think the most important thing that individuals can do to advocate for a more equitable workplace is to speak the truth, to address the issues in the most inclusive way. You don’t want to alienate people, but challenge, raise the issues and speak your truth in terms of how you’ve come to your place without it being a simplistic answer of just saying, “I’ve made it, so can you, it’s all fine”.’

It’s well understood that social class is often correlated with earnings and career progression. The more money that you come from the better positioned you’re likely to be. According to the UK Social Mobility Commission, those from working-class backgrounds are still paid £2,242 less than more privileged colleagues. Women and ethnic minority people and those working in finance, medicine and IT are especially hurt by this disparity. In the UK, in the Civil Service, only 18% of senior staff come from low socio-economic backgrounds. The gulf has widened since the 1960s, but even getting on the radar isn’t enough because of persistent biases and the lack of support structures. In job sectors as diverse as law and theatre, the few working-class people who do get their foot in the door are often isolated. One crucial way to address this class gap is to understand how socio-economically diverse a company’s workforce is. I asked Hashi why he thinks more companies don’t do it.

‘I like to always think positively about why certain organisations don’t do certain things. Right? I’m always very positive to be able to say, actually, if somebody is not addressing an issue, it isn’t necessarily because of a nefarious or calculated negative reason. I tend to think it’s three parts really. I tend to think that organisations don’t do it because they don’t know how. And that’s why I think the work that you do Toby, to try and raise awareness to do the training for organisations is so important. So, I think sometimes they just don’t know how to do it.

Secondly, I think a lot of organisations could be cynical. They’re looking for quick wins. They just want to say, “We’ve hired a few Black people. We’ve hired a few disabled people. We’ve hired a couple of women. It’s all fine now. What’s the problem? There’s nothing to see here. Keep it moving kind of thing”. And I think that’s the laziness that also holds back a lot of these organisations. And then thirdly, I think there’s also an element of really not having the kind of wisdom to know that this will take a long time, that you need outside help, that you should be focused on certain ways, even despite your internal organisations, different priorities, but perhaps the most important aspect of all of this put together is the simple point that once you get to a stage where you are seriously addressing this issue of pay disparity of diversity issues, of becoming a more inclusive society.
The proof is in the pudding. There’s plenty of research that’s been done by McKinsey and The Bridge Group and others that shows if you are a much more diverse workforce, a more inclusive workforce, you will do better. You will make more money. You will attract better talent. You will be a pioneer and you will go on to do amazing things. And I think that is the critical part for me. Organisations need to understand that having a more socio-economically diverse workforce is in their best interest.’

I totally agree with Hashi, and that’s why I wrote my book, ‘Inclusive Growth’. I wanted to reframe diversity and inclusion for organisations because if they get it right, it will help that organisation grow and thrive, and ultimately make an impact in the world.

The three things that Hashi raised resonated with me. A lot of organisations that I talk to just don’t know how to go about this. They don’t know where to begin and there is a lot of cynicism which I think translates to some people feeling like organisations or senior leaders in a business are just trying to tick a box.

I think the other element is there’s quite a lot of fear. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and they don’t want to cause offence. They don’t want to look daft. And as senior leaders, they’re not necessarily showing vulnerability by potentially looking a bit stupid by saying the wrong thing.

We moved the discussion on to talk about measuring the class gap within organisations. KPMG and PWC are striving to diversify the class background of their UK employees. PWC uses the age 14 metric and has a class pay gap greater than its gender pay gap or ethnicity pay gap although the disability pay gap is greater still. KPMG considers an employee to be working class if their parents had a routine of manual job. Is not a perfect measure, jobs do change. Another way to assess class is by asking people about their parents’ level of education, which is more stable and easier to remember. I asked Hashi for his thoughts on the ways organisations could measure their class gaps and boost representation.

‘I think there are various ways you could do that. What you want to do is to be able to give people the opportunity to be able to be proud of the background they’ve come from and what they bring to an organisation. But what you don’t want is them to feel as if like they’re the token working-class kid, or the token Black guy, or the token woman. So, for me, how you do it is just as important as what you end up doing.

Sometimes you could do it anonymously, some people want to be upfront and tell their story, in which case respond to that. And then sometimes people can be asked about their parent’s level of education, but they might be proud of sharing that with you, but some of them might not be so proud and might be quite squeamish about sharing that. So, the key here is meeting your workforce and meeting the individuals that work within your organisation at their level. What they want to do and what they want to say and how they want to say it. And I think once you’re aware of that and alert to that, it can come together in a profound way. So, I think it’s about measuring what you want, speaking to your colleagues, finding out what they are comfortable with, and then pursuing that on that basis.’

My team and I do a lot of diversity and inclusion surveys with our clients, and we capture lots of diversity demographic data, and we do ask questions about social mobility. Currently, we mostly follow the guidance that was created by the UK government in consultation with industry, so we do ask about parents’ occupations, we do ask about the level of education, and we ask whether people were entitled to free school meals. But what we’ve learned is that it’s important that you let people know why you’re collecting this data and why it’s important. In the UK, we’ve got some of the worst levels of social mobility despite being one of the richest nations in the world. So, we have to let people know that we are addressing societal inequality and that’s why we’re asking this question.

Hashi agreed. ‘That’s so important. And how you then use that data, what it helps to inform, how you then learn from that and how you then build on that. All of those are critical.’

For the final part of our interview, I talked to Hashi about code-switching. This is something that I’ve done myself as a disabled person and as a gay man. In Hashi’s book, he explores language and the idea that people from disadvantaged backgrounds learn to code-switch as we’re often judged, not only on what we say but how we say it. But first of we went back to basics and I asked Hashi, ‘What is code-switching?’

Code-switching is simply changing how you communicate based on the environment in which you are communicating at that very moment. So, it might be if you are around a lot of young people, you might switch to slightly more slang, slightly more street, slightly more informal language. If you are in a workplace environment that is highly professional, in which people are expecting you to communicate in relatively formal language without dropping your vowels and without necessarily sort of picking particularly complicated words, but also using quite precise words, that is the switch that you need to make in the code of language that you are using.

Now, this cannot be artificial or indeed contrived or based on an approach that’s what I might call either artificial or fake. Code-switching is just simply a way of adjusting your language based on the environment in which you find yourself and based on what you’re trying to achieve.’

One example of code-switching that stands out for me is women changing their tone or cracking lewd jokes to be part of the boys’ club. And that’s something that resonated with me because I’m working with a client at the moment within the engineering sector. It’s a very male-orientated organisation and not many women work in the business. When we did the survey, there was a comment that came out about this kind of behaviour going on in a team that actually had several women working in it. I asked Hashi if he could share a few more examples of what code-switching might look like in an office environment and the corporate environment.

‘There are various ways of looking at code-switching. It can be about the grammar, the language, the syntax and the behaviour of what we might call the dominant culture. Another way of looking at it might be a group of men who get together and want to talk about football and rugby. Immediately that would exclude people who are not interested in those sports.

If we are there to discuss a legal issue, for example, and that legal issue is something that everyone can speak to, male, female, wherever class you’re from because that’s what has brought us together, what excludes people is another level of commonality that isn’t specific or general to everyone. So, if you’re sitting there and it turns out that the people you’re talking to happen to also be not only your colleagues, but they also happen to be supporters and lovers of football, the moment they start discussing that, you will start excluding people around that area. That’s where often we talk about the boys’ club, the football world that then excludes certain people. One example, that stood out for me was women changing their tone or cracking lewd jokes to be part of the boys’ club. And that’s something that resonated with me because I’m working with a client at the moment within the engineering sector. It’s a very male-orientated organisation and not many women work in the business. When we did the survey, there was a comment that came out about this kind of behaviour going on in a team that actually had a few female women working in it than the other teams. That’s an example I think that I can think of immediately.

I wondered if there is a cost for code-switching whether that’s for individuals, organisations, or whole teams.

‘I think I’m quite torn on this. I have come across young ladies who often talk about having to change their hairstyles, so Black girls might have to change their hairstyles to be able to fit in a particular corporate environment and so on. And what is the cost? Well, I’m quite torn on what is the cost in the sense that I often think to myself, “Well, this is what the dominant culture looks like… ” On the one hand, in my heart, I’m thinking to myself, “This is what the dominant culture looks like, I’m not part of the dominant culture, I need to adjust to get on, I need to adjust without thinking that the dominant culture needs to adjust itself for me”. So, that’s instinctively how I’ve approached it.

But equally, I can understand the other side of the argument, which is an incredibly powerful side of the argument, which says, “Well, hang on, it’s not fair that somebody should have to change their hairstyle, the way that they speak, the way that they communicate, the way that they behave, the fact that they have to show some interest in the football from the previous weekend”. All of these things, that’s just not fair, because that person should be able to just rely on the competence of the job that they are there to do without necessarily having to take an interest in something they don’t have an interest in simply to fit in.

So, I can see the two sides, and what is the cost? Well, the cost may well be it means that people are not being themselves, that people are struggling to fully adjust or fully be who they are, and so on and so forth. That’s the bit that I struggle with, because it might be leading to a cost that we’re not fully up to speed with or understand.’

I think one of the costs that I’ve come across is that people become disengaged. They are not able to do their best work, and they might even leave the organisation. I remember when I was working with a FinTech organization, and I was working with a guy who told me he considered himself to come from a working-class background, and he found it very difficult going into the office where a lot of his colleagues were talking about going on skiing holidays. He had never been skiing in his life, and he just felt excluded by that. We also talked about intersectionality since was also a gay man. He spoke about how conversations in the office were about what people did at the weekend with their kids, and he was a young guy, he didn’t have a family of his own, and he also found that quite difficult and also, I think in his same-sex relationship, he wasn’t really planning on having kids anyway. But he found that it was like the intersectionality of skiing, holidays and what you did at the weekend with your kids was quite exclusionary for him.

Hashi responded, ‘I can definitely see that. What I might say in terms of just as a gentle potential pushback, maybe not a pushback, maybe it’s obvious, but I remember I used to hear people saying, “Oh, I’m going skiing, I’m going to do this, that, and the other”. My immediate reaction used to be not one of, “Oh my God, I feel excluded and I need to learn how to ski”. I just genuinely thought, My God, I can’t think of anything worse than being in an incredibly cold place and falling in the snow. As a very, very tall person, the bigger they come, the harder we fall, and the potential of having to basically spend a whole week going down these slopes and being knackered and then just getting drunk, every night I cannot think of anything worse. So, my immediate reaction is, I pity you guys, but equally, it’s different in my environment as a barrister. Much of it is about self-employment and so much of it is about how well I do in the courtroom that gets you your clients, but in the FinTech world, or in the finance world, or other particular professions, actually, a lot of what happens in these skiing holidays can lead to a great deal of bonding, that could also lead to you becoming promoted. It leads to you doing well in that particular job because you happen to have a very late-night conversation over whisky with somebody that then leads to you being promoted. So, I can see how exclusionary it can be, but what I would always say to people is, be confident enough to just be like, if you don’t like it say so, don’t be afraid of saying so, because I do, I always have done.’

I do have a funny skiing story actually. When I worked for Accenture, we were working on a big client project and the senior manager wanted to take the whole project team away on a skiing holiday, and I was like, “But I’m in a wheelchair. How on earth can I go skiing?” To their credit, they were really inclusive because they said, “Come along, we will make it work.”

Anyway, we got Switzerland, and then one of my colleagues, he was a really good skier and was going off on the black run, I think it’s the black runs the advanced runs. He came back and said, “I’ve just come across this ski school for disabled people.” I said, “Really? Does such a thing exist? And he was like, “Yes, it’s up on the mountain”. They’ve got these kinds of toboggans that you sit in, like a seat on skis basically. He asked me, “Do you want to go skiing?”
And I did. I honestly did not know that disabled skiing was a thing.

I haven’t been skiing since. Although I live in Manchester now, and my physio has told me that there’s an indoor skiing centre in Manchester, and they’ve got the same equipment, so I’m going to go. I’m not a fan of the cold either, actually, I hate the cold. So, I think it’s quite a good solution to go to an indoor ski centre in Manchester.

Hashi reflected that it’s about doing what you enjoy, saying, I hate rugby, it seems pointless. I respect people who do like it, but I’d say take me to watch football games or other sports. I like cricket, but rugby, I’m just like, “No, no, no, thank you”. Just go with what you feel you enjoy rather than what you think will get you further, because some people like it. Organise your own events and do things that people might not necessarily be up to. I love going to the theatre. I love doing certain activities. If you don’t like what they’re organising, you organise something yourself and invite people. Something they’ve never done before. Be brave.’

It was time to pose the question that I ask everybody when they come on the podcast, so I asked Hashi, ‘What does inclusive growth mean to you?’

‘Inclusive growth means to me, the opportunity and the environment that allows for as many people to succeed as possible without judgment, without fear, and without excluding others. Every organisation has the potential to grow exponentially if only it’s prepared to take real risks and push people to do well and aim high. That’s what inclusive growth means to me.’

Copies of Hashi Mohamed’s book ‘People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain’ are available in all good book stores. The book is also available on Audible, narrated by Hashi himself. Extracts are also available on the BBC Sounds app from Book of the Week on Radio 4. Finally, you can also follow Hashi on Twitter and LinkedIn.

People Like Us: What it Takes to Make it in Modern Britain - Mildon