15 June, 2023

Moving the Dial on Social Mobility: Barriers, Opportunities and Expert Advice

Despite the furore surrounding social injustices and socio-economic inequalities that were laid bare during the pandemic, bias on the grounds of class in this country is alive and well. From the cut of your jib, to the way you speak, even a regional accent – discrimination against individuals from working class backgrounds is rife.


Last month, a report published by the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the disproportionate impact of COVID lockdowns on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, which it says wiped out a decade of progress in reducing the gap in attainment between them and their peers from more privileged backgrounds. Worryingly, the Department for Education has warned that it could take a decade or more to return the disadvantage gap to pre-pandemic levels.


“People think it’s an education issue,” says Sarah Atkinson, Chief Executive of the Social Mobility Foundation, a charity that offers programmes of support to make practical improvements in social mobility for young people. “But we’re never going to change the systems that hold young people back if we don’t change the way that progression and opportunities in careers work, because these things are all part of the same system.”


The class pay gap – the earning differential that can only be ascribed to things associated with socio economic background - is a case in point, Atkinson says. “Across professional roles, filtering out as far as is possible things like educational differences, the class pay gap is almost £7,000 in the UK. In some sectors, it's twice that and if you're a woman from a working-class background, it's significantly more.”


More recently, social mobility has morphed from a niche HR issue to a board-level talking point. But while the social diversity of job candidates at an entry level may have benefitted, the same cannot be said of more senior roles. Bridge Group research found that within financial services, 47% of employees come from professional backgrounds, using the recognised definition of parental occupation at 14. At senior leader levels that rises to 89%. Employees from working class backgrounds progress 25% slower than their peers with zero link to job performance.


Sophie Hulm is CEO of Progress Together, a not-for-profit, membership body supporting financial services employers with the social mobility agenda. “Financial services firms are spending a huge amount of time and resource investing in diversifying the graduate intake and outreach to schools, but that talent is not moving up the pipeline if they're from a working-class background,” Hulm says. “Historically, there's been lots of talk about financial services being meritocratic. And now we have the evidence to say, actually, there are barriers in place here.”


Hulm’s goal is that senior levels mirror the rest of the workforce. “We're not making the most of the high-performing talent that we've worked so hard to get in at the bottom.” Green Park CEO Raj Tulsiani agrees: “It's a ludicrous assumption that if you add something at mass on the bottom in 20 years’ time, it'll turn up at the top.”


As the war for talent rages on, discounting individuals on the basis of their socio-economic background leaves you fishing from a much smaller pool of candidates, but there are also staff engagement and retention implications to simply paying lip service to social mobility.


“The Gen Z and millennial workforce increasingly want organisations to take a whole person approach to diversity and inclusion,” Atkinson says. “They expect businesses to be places that are inclusive and where progression is fair.”


It's time to challenge outdated stereotypes of what success looks like, Atkinson says. “People will talk about polish and a way of speaking but that's not really describing someone who is especially talented. That's describing someone who's come from a particular background. But because it's what we're expecting, when we get a choice, we prefer those people. And so they become more successful.”


Equally, networks and senior sponsorship are often built on affinity, shared interest, shared background and, let’s face it, good old-fashioned nepotism – the kind of support that can turbocharge your career. Whereas someone without that network, without that affinity, who is different, just won’t be afforded the same fast track opportunities.


Consequently, a focus on fixing the people has prevailed. “For too long, we've talked about how we build confidence in people from working-class backgrounds, and how we give them polish,” Hulm says.


Social mobility progress hinges on redefining talent and addressing flawed and often opaque processes linked to promotion and retention, Hulm says: “It's human nature for individuals to support others that remind them of themselves when they were younger. So how do we develop transparent processes to override that instinct?


“It's the same for promotions and work allocation. Who's getting the juicy, visible projects that get you seen by the right people? Is it a tap on the shoulder through connections and networks or are there fair and transparent processes to ensure that the visible profile-raising work is allocated on the broadest basis?”


Understanding your baseline is key to charting a path to success and yet data remains one of the biggest hurdles, much to Hulm’s frustration. “That conversation needs to move on now. This is not about making individual promotion decisions based on socio-economic background. It's about spotting patterns of bias so that we can ensure transparency and fairness across the organisation to build a culture that's inclusive.”


Given the many and varied lived experiences of employees, it’s clear there's no one size fits all, Hulm warns. “Don't make decisions until you know what the evidence says. Data is key but it's a means to an end, not an end in itself.”


However, it’s important not to go about this in a darkened room, Hulm says. “Speak to others that are doing this well. KPMG, for example, has been collecting data for a number of years, they track what makes an impact and produce a social mobility report in November. Santander has set a target of 35% of senior leaders to be from working class backgrounds by 2030. That's why we've set up Progress Together - to facilitate those shared conversations.”


Tulsiani is concerned that the low social diversity among decisionmakers can result in flawed strategies. “It's really important that we don't create things that seem sensible in oak panelled offices on Pall Mall, but don't make any sense in Nottingham, Bradford or Stoke, or parts of the country where there is an increasing poverty of aspiration.” A critical and independent view on what you’re doing is key, he says. “Marking your own homework remains road to hubris.”


While some headhunters over the last 3 years may have paid lip service to the concept of diversity in all its forms, applying tried, tested but failed strategies is pointless, Tulsiani warns. “The reality is that to increase diversity, you must do things differently. If the recruiter doesn't have expertise, network, track record, differentiated processes and different experiences in their people, you might as well do it yourself itself or let your HR team be responsible for direct hiring your way to representation levels that reflect the UK’s changing demographic.”


Moving the dial on social mobility at all levels of an organisation is very much a business and change management challenge, Tulsiani says. But investments made in successful strategies will more than pay dividends. “The output of incremental increases in intersectional inclusion should be improved productivity, better retention of talent and increased awareness and brand advocacy.”


At the same time, Tulsiani says social mobility could potentially be a “strengthening glue” for intersectionality, thanks to the crossover with protected characteristics including gender and race, and help organisations move their organisations forward to a more inclusive and productive future.


“However, if you treat it as a charity gig, no one will thank you because no one’s lived experience will have changed,” Tulsiani adds. “Increasingly, what we're seeing with board thinking is that the ‘S’ in ESG is about sustainability of people. And social mobility is a very important part of that machine.”


If you’d like to move the dial further in your organisation, Green Park can help. Please get in touch here or contact info@green-park.co.uk.

Raj Tulsiani

Written By

Raj Tulsiani

CEO & Founder

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