The business world has made some progress in tackling entrenched barriers of gender, ethnicity and sexuality in the work place. But inequalities related to income and education continue to attract much less attention.
Yet the social and economic position of a person’s family remains a key factor when it comes to career opportunities. Fairer employment is about access – and this is where employers can make a difference.
Plans recently announced by accountancy firm KPMG to make sure 29% of its senior staff are from a working class background are therefore welcome. It is a bold move which recognises that social class is a root cause of inequality – and that big companies have an important role to play in addressing social mobility.
That role will involve being aware of the many challenges and entrenched practices which have so far impeded progress.
To begin with, education is the single most important factor that can help people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The home learning environment has an important impact on development, and on readiness for school from an early age.
Access to education depends on the material and social resources of the family, including their ability to develop networks (related to job opportunities, for example, or other forms of influence). Research has shown that social class differences in identity, feelings, and behaviour make it less likely that working‐class families can benefit from educational and occupational opportunities to improve their material circumstances.
Employers can address some of the worst effects of this structural imbalance. They could, for instance, set up mentoring programmes in secondary schools. And they could strive to become more accessible by providing role models within firms or avoiding jargon in communication with young potential employees.
Employers should also explain that numerous career paths are available for people from poorer backgrounds. Offering alternative routes into an organisation for skilled individuals is valuable for all concerned. To make things fairer they could also start by recruiting from a wider pool of universities, rather than primarily targeting Russell Group members in the UK.
And they should also be mindful that there are higher levels of debt aversion among poorer families, so students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to go to university in the first place. Employers could step in to sponsor student placements through university and work with job centres, providing internships and routes to part-time degrees.
Creativity and insight
Another important issue concerns workplace inequalities that are ignored. Research shows how conversations around diversity can even neutralise potential gains. For instance, upbeat talk about diversity can actually downplay many of the problems, if the focus is on assimilation rather than considering and embracing difference.
In this way, good intentions to address discrimination can end up seeing others as inferior and in need of help, with the expectation that they will eventually adjust to the existing hierarchical order. It is also important to consider the ways unspoken norms and discrimination patterns are deeply rooted in some organisations.
Rightly, KPMG says it intends to monitor its workforce data in terms of social mobility, to track the improvement that needs to be addressed. It is to be hoped that other large companies seeking to attract the best talent follow their lead.
Firms which take a long-term strategy on recruitment and staffing will be the ultimate winners if they actively seek to attract people from disadvantaged backgrounds. They will also do well to consider the root causes of socio-economic inequality and what they can do to tackle it.
Put simply, this is because diversity is good for business. Diverse groups of people learn from one another, leading to improvements in creativity, knowledge, insight, and ultimately success. But there is also broader moral imperative, which will hopefully see more companies take on this approach – working towards the fair treatment of all members of society is just the right thing to do.