The Social Mobility Commission recently published research showing that nearly three out of four senior civil servants are from privileged backgrounds. Sadly, this problem is not unique to the civil service, but it does highlight the scale of the challenge involved. Without action, organisations will be ill equipped to deal with future challenges.
The drawbacks of only taking people from a similar background are well known. Fundamentally the danger of group think undermines creativity and leaves organisations less resilient to the challenges it undoubtedly faces.
So a more open approach to bringing in new people and new thinking should be focused on addressing the social mobility. How do those from a whole range of backgrounds get access to the opportunities they need and deserve?
Some professions have at least recognised the scale of the challenge. The Social Mobility Commission report, ‘Navigating The Labyrinth’, looks at how socio-economic background shapes career progression within the UK Civil Service.
There is tendency to focus on the implications for organisations of this type of closed shop approach. But there are significant implications for the country. If swathes of the population know that they are, in effect, excluded from certain jobs or professions, that their opportunities are limited because of who they are, then society fractures, the belief in its institutions fade. But think about the impact on the individuals as well.
Importantly, there is an accompanying Action Plan to the report as well. Some ideas about how the challenge can be addressed.
Some organisations are focusing on diversity and inclusion strategies, but we all need to see examples and role models of a more inclusive approach to show that change is real, not just talk.
Benchmarking and reporting are useful at encouraging change, but they work best when pressure from outside is applied and the organisations are held to account. That also means applying pressure on the reputation of an organisations. That can often focus minds.
There also needs to be support provided for those leading the change internally but for those coming into the organisation as well. We all have a role to play in this.
Not all of us will be involved in the recruitment process and for some organisations the applications are simply not coming in.
The head of UCAS has complained about the “outdated stigma” about vocational qualifications and a “misplaced snobbery” about them as well. But that can be on the part of employers as well as applicants. It comes back to a lack of information but a lack of examples as well.
Until 1970, less than one half of those becoming solicitors had a university degree (‘Legal Education in England’, Andrew Wilson Green). That isn’t necessarily to say that it was any less exclusive, or that being a solicitor had any less status in the community, but it does show that the ways of gaining entry have narrowed.
Apprenticeships are on the rise which does open more opportunities. We need more acceptance of there being a range of options to get into any profession which to be fair to the law there are.
Yes, it is about employers, but we need to take a step back into higher education and, more importantly, secondary education. So, it is about the career’s advice delivered, the outreach done, and how we improve the knowledge about roles and how to access them.
Maybe we should all go out and talk to local schools more than we do. But this means more when people from a range of backgrounds can go out and talk. Some professions have groups of ambassadors tasked with such outreach. There needs to be more of this, and their roles expanded. It is not just hearing talk about how open an organisation or profession is but from those who optimise the approach to social mobility and from all levels, not just senior leaders many of whom the audience might not relate to.
The Commission’s Action Plan mentions demystifying and that is critical. Many people just do not know what the options or range of roles that may be open to them are. Again, it is self-reinforcing. Unless you have experience, normally through a family member or close friend, you just don’t know what the options are. Or even if you may be interested, the challenge is in finding out more, particularly how to get entry, how to strengthen the CV, undertake training and how to best position yourself. We need to move away from the idea that you need some sort of ‘insider knowledge’ or access. Only in that way we will deliver improved social mobility.
The writer is the Head of Public Affairs at BDB Pitmans