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School of Business and Management

Class over race and gender: ‘Class ceiling’ and fickle nature of British political leadership

Dr Katarina Zajacova

An image of a glass ceiling

After two years of the Global pandemic, you were probably hoping you never have to read another article or blog starting with the phrase, ‘In these unprecedented times…’ However, while the expression has become a cliché, the amount, and the speed of change in the current British Government over the last few months can certainly be described as ‘unprecedented’.

I started thinking about the role of diversity in British political leadership during the Conservative leadership contest at the end of the summer when Liz Truss formed her Cabinet at the beginning of September 2022. However, the passing of the late Queen, Elizabeth II, reverted the attention from the newly appointed Prime Minister (PM) and Liz Truss’s premiership was put on hold during the time of national mourning.

Even before the new (Truss’s) cabinet was announced, the Conservative leadership contest itself, was extremely interesting from the Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) perspective. It can be argued that the contest itself was a small victory of diversity. After all, the two top candidates battling for the highest job in the country were a woman and a man of Asian descent. As a researcher of race and gender of many years and someone with a keen interest in diversity and equality, I, alongside many others in the field, paid careful attention to what was going on. We were asking ourselves: ‘Will it be race, or will it be gender that will come victorious? Discussions with colleagues and students were thriving.

Despite securing a win, it is important not to underestimate the role of sexism which also surrounded the original leadership contest between Truss and Sunak. There were numerous gendered remarks about Liz Truss in the media at the time, mostly harsh critiques of her ‘gaffes’ and her verbal communication. Interestingly, in comparison to those produced by her male predecessor (Johnson) – who was mostly seen at the start of his premierships as entertaining, funny and ‘very British’. In line with the media’s coverage of Truss, the general public’s focus also continued to turn to many irrelevant aspects of her conduct. In fact, even on Monday, the eve of her becoming the 3rd British female Prime Minister, I heard a woman in my local GP surgery sharing her views about Truss: ‘…but at least they sorted out her hair…did you notice that during the campaign her hair got better!’.  I couldn’t help thinking that whether it was Teresa May’s handbag, or her shoes, women’s appearance always gets talked about, no matter what role they hold or indeed how competent they are. Leave aside the irony of talking about Truss’s hair given her predecessor.  Even though the contest for the new British Prime Minister may have been won, the scale of the challenge ahead of Liz Truss as the new PM, and her newly appointed cabinet was on the forefront of everyone’s mind. And little did we know that this small ‘victory’ of gender would last less than two months. Liz Truss resigned on the 22nd October 2022 and made history by becoming the UK’s shortest serving PM. So, understandably, people immediately questioned whether this was an example of success.

There will always be those that point out that ‘us’, the diversity and equality folk, focus too much on discrimination. Given that such diverse candidates were contending for the leadership of the Conservative party, isn’t the real issue just about competence? We hear the language of competence again and again and supposedly the contest was not about anything else., even though the value of competence was seriously damaged by Truss’s predecessor, Boris Johnson. Nonetheless, the notion of meritocracy can clearly be traced to the classical liberal values that echoed through the language of Margaret Thatcher and the New Right political movement of the 1980s with its slogan suggesting that: ‘if you are capable, smart and hardworking, you will make it...’

On the other side, there was us, the diversity ‘brigade’, focusing on the inequality aspect of this contest and looking closely at what matters more – is it race? Or is it gender? Given that back then (in September 2022) Rishi Sunak, was falling behind in this contest, people were asking why. Although these complex issues like race and gender are never easily comparable, it is still undeniable that racism continues to be an issue in today’s Britain (Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 2021). Race was one of the key factors in the Conservative leadership contest and for me it was obvious why Rishi Sunak was not ahead of Liz Truss. Despite his ‘alleged’ superiority in competence, Britain was not quite ready for its ‘Obama moment’, even though the public changed its mind just a few weeks later. I count myself amongst supporters of that view, aligning with the opinion of Dr Prakash Shah that racism was playing a big role in this contest (Shah, 2022). However, given that Rishi Sunak is now the PM, the tone and the focus of the race discussion somewhat turned a corner. The focus seems to have returned to the idea of competence, which is frequently associated with traditional male leadership.

So, if we learn anything at all from these events, it is that the nature of politics is very fickle. Although in the last few months we have managed to have a female Prime Minister succeeded by the first ever Prime Minister of Asian descent, what has been largely overlooked in this debate is the question of social class. As I pause and look closely at what dimensions of diversity were represented in Truss and Sunak’s cabinets, the obvious strikes me. Liz Truss’s cabinet had the highest proportion of privately educated ministers of any cabinet in four decades and Rishi Sunak’s - the second highest (Ward, 2022). It seems that, albeit less visible, social class appears to matter more than some other, now more widely discussed, aspects of diversity like gender and race. Sunak’s and Truss’ new cabinets may be good examples of gender and race diversity, but when such a significant number of its members come from privately educated backgrounds, we must question their legitimacy and genuine ability to represent the nation. And so there it is, class seems to find it harder to get through that ‘glass ceiling’, which is why some prefer to call it the ‘class ceiling’ (Friedman & Laurison, 2019) – the phenomenon that continues to be inherently prevalent in British political leadership.


Dr Katarina Zajacova

Associate Teaching Fellow

School of Business and Management

Queen Mary, University of London


Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. (2021). Commission on Race and Disparities in the UK: The Report. Cabinet Office, Government UK. Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, 2021

Friedman, S., & Laurison, D. (2019). The class ceiling: Why it pays to be privileged (1st ed.). Bristol University Press.

Shah, P. (2002). Shashi Tharoor is Right About British Racism, But Wrong in Comparing Rishi Sunak With Sonia Gandhi.  Shashi Tharoor is Right About British Racism, But Wrong in Comparing Rishi Sunak with Sonia Gandhi (

Ward, A. (2022). Parliament and government have a class problem, LSE Blog.  Parliament and government have a class problem | British Politics and Policy at LSE



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