Social Mobility – the next frontier for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I)?

Recent figures from The Social Mobility Commission show that in the UK seven per cent of children attend fee-paying schools. However, The Sutton Trust found that in 2014, 34 per cent of new entrants into investment banking over the previous three years had attended a fee-paying school. The picture is similar in other professions, 71 per cent of top military officers, 74 per cent of top judges and 61 per cent of the country’s top doctors attended fee-paying schools.

Many employers pride themselves in being true meritocracies – hiring the best person for the job – but is too much reliance placed on academic qualifications and where they were achieved? During my time in Investment Banking I would argue that far too much emphasis was placed on just that – and I knew a number of successful people who felt they had to hide the fact that they hadn’t attended university.

Some will argue that good qualifications from an impressive university such as Oxford or Cambridge will result in ‘hiring the best’, however, there is much more required to building a successful career such as a good work ethic, resilience and interpersonal skills. Assessing ‘talent’ by academic success alone is a blunt and lazy screening tool and is not a clear-cut indicator of future success or potential. As one of my former bosses used to say “I’d rather have someone on my team who is determined and has had to work hard for everything they have achieved than someone who has had it all handed to them on a plate”.

A small number of businesses are taking note, with some working together to drive change. The UK Government created the Social Mobility Business Compact, which has resulted in companies such as EY removing academic qualifications from its trainee application process for graduates, undergraduates and school leavers. They are no longer required to comply with achieving a minimum of 300 UCAS points. Instead they conduct a number of online ‘strengths’ assessments and numerical tests to assess the potential of their applicants.

The legal profession launched PRIME in 2011, a programme to tackle social mobility in the sector. To date, 89 firms have signed up to a number of commitments including (i) specifically targeting work experience at school age students who have the least opportunity to access it otherwise, (ii) provide financial assistance to ensure they can attend work experience and (iii) maintain contact with the firm after work experience has ended.

Focusing on increasing transparency, removing barriers and bias from recruitment processes and broadening the reach into the wider communities are all-important factors to increasing social mobility. Placing vocational learning on an equal footing with academic routes is also a critical tool for meeting future skill requirements. Direct Line is one company that has taken the apprenticeship route seriously as an alternative route for talented people to get noticed by employers. Their programme enables people to gain valuable work experience and a recognised qualification without the longer-term burden of university tuition fees.

Social mobility is a complex issue that can’t be remedied with quick fix activities, but this isn’t going to go away. For organisations to widen their horizons and increase the potential pool of talented individuals for their organisations, the following three actions are a good place to start:

  • Broaden access points into the organisation – talent comes in all shapes and sizes and doesn’t all go to university. How can you access those who choose to start their careers without completing the university years?
  • Remove information on a candidate’s educational background from the recruitment and promotions process to neutralise any bias towards particular institutions. Challenge qualification requirements on job roles – are they absolutely necessary for every role?
  • Understand your numbers – identify how you can collect and monitor information about social and educational background. Creating sustainable change begins with knowing your starting point.

So, where does your company sit on their commitment to social mobility? Is it firmly placed within the DE&I strategy or a frontier that hasn’t been approached and something to consider in the future?