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What does social mobility in organisations look like?

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It is a well used adage but, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. This is true when we think of diversity and equity in organisations and particularly so for social mobility which remains slow to change.

Social mobility looks at how educational opportunities and life chances are strongly linked to parents’ socio-economic background. If you are born into a well-off family, you are more than 2.5 times more likely to end up wealthy yourself.

In the UK, social mobility is low. One illustration of this can be seen in relation to access into certain occupations such as in medicine, law, finance and politics. These occupations are highly competitive and we often see that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to overcome the barriers into competitive professional careers. The Sutton Trust found, for example, that 71% of barristers are privately educated.

The issue doesn’t just arise from being able to access competitive careers and gain a foot in the door (what we can think of as increasing diversity within organisations), but just as critical is inclusion. Those who do come from non-traditional backgrounds can often be left feeling ‘othered’ or that they need to ‘fit in’ and adapt to the organisation. The Social Mobility Commission’s report Navigating the Labyrinth’ claims that, within the civil service, there are hidden routes to the top which those from privileged backgrounds find it easier to navigate. These often draw on biases about people’s background and social capital; the schools they attended, their accents and social networks.

For organisations to be more accessible to new talent and those from non-traditional paths, there are a number of steps they can take:

  1. Collect data and set objectives. Monitor socio-economic diversity from recruitment through to promotions. Data is key to evaluate where you are now and set targets which have high level, leadership commitment.
  2. Remove qualification barriers and have contextual offers. Recruit people based on their skills and potential and from different access routes such as apprenticeships. We know that there is an attainment gap for students from lower socio-economic backgrounds as these students often face multiple challenges such as having to work through their degrees, financial hardships and sometimes caring responsibilities. Contextual offers can recognise these additional challenges.
  3. Be open and transparent. Advertise posts in a range of places to access different people; offer clear guidance and support on the selection process, and make sure all people involved in selection are trained and aware of their own biases. Especially important, internships must be paid, but using internships and expensive extra-curricular activities to assess CVs can be exclusionary.
  4. Build organisational cultures which are inclusive. It is everyone’s responsibility to do this and this can be supported by training and development, senior leader role modelling, and open conversations which build psychological safety.

We know that workforce diversity can impact productivity and economic output, employee engagement, and better reflect society. Ultimately, our opportunities in life should not be related to our family background; social mobility is important for social justice and equity.

The first episode of The Inclusive Exclusive: Working for Equity is available now on Spotify and Apple Podcast.

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