June 9, 2022

Why Social Mobility Must Be On Your D&I Agenda

4 min read
By The Smarty Train

Part one of three in our Social Mobility series. Read part 2 here. 

Have you questioned which fork to reach for at a work dinner?

Have you fumbled when holding a champagne flute?

Or maybe you’ve wondered how to start a networking conversation?

The language of networking and etiquette of formal dining, to name a few, can help individuals be successful in the workplace. They are an unquestioned part of our working culture. However, for individuals from a lower socioeconomic background, these behaviours are indecipherable or even invisible cultural codes.

These unfamiliar or hidden codes inhibit social mobility—defined through social class, parents’ occupation, and household income. For each of us, our cultural codes and our access to cultural capital vary based on life experiences. Put simply, if your parents have not been to university or had a professional job, you may be ‘the first.’

“The workplace is as important as education in determining social mobility prospects.”

As ‘the first’, you may lack knowledge of the cultural codes in the workplace that others will take for granted. As a result, you will have to navigate more cultural shifts—what sociologists call ‘code-switching’—than your peers from wealthier backgrounds, in order to try and fit in. You may struggle to feel like you belong, network with confidence, or know how to find the right mentors.

Our experience at work is a determinant of social mobility; a low socioeconomic background can directly contribute to slower career progression. As research from the Sutton Trust (2022) confirms, the workplace is ‘as important as education in determining social mobility prospects’.

The challenge, then, is for leaders to build more inclusive workplace cultures that account for the diversity in people’s life experiences due to socioeconomic background. This is often not visible in the way race, religion, and other protected characteristics can be. Since companies rarely inquire about socioeconomic background during the recruitment or onboarding process—or have the language to do so—this can lead to a vicious cycle reinforcing disadvantage. It’s clear there is work to do for many organisations: a May 2022 Accenture report highlighted that just two in five employees from lower socioeconomic backgrounds across U.K organisations feel included in the workplace.

A truly inclusive workplace connects the dots, recognises that some of these social codes are hidden, and commits to demystifying these codes (or even getting rid of them altogether.)

 How Might Low Social Mobility Be Impacting Your Organisation?


1) You Might Be Missing Out on Top Talent

Organisations are more likely to hire graduates from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Dr Sam Freidman, a sociologist at the LSE who specialises in social class & inequality, found that people ‘at Russell Group universities from a privileged background who achieve a second-class degree are much more likely to end up in elite professions than contemporaries from less privileged beginnings who went to the same university and bagged a first.’

For those organisations who do hire people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, research has found these individuals have fewer chances of progression. One in five people from a lower socio-economic background are promoted in comparison to one in four of their colleagues.

“People at Russell Group universities from a privileged background who achieve a second-class degree are much more likely to end up in elite professions than contemporaries from less privileged beginnings who went to the same university and bagged a first.”

What does this mean for your function? Consider the socioeconomic diversity of your cohort and the applicants you might be missing out on. Less selective universities have a higher number of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and recruiting applicants from the top universities will not necessarily equate to high performance at work.


2. Virtual Access Does Not Mean Equal Access

The hybrid world presents two different challenges for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

From a virtual perspective, although we may all suffer from bad Wi-Fi, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have additional tech challenges that hinder progress at work. Effective working from home depends on efficient technology and a quiet space to work at a minimum. These can be complicated for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who are more likely to be sharing technology, devices, or domestic spaces. These challenges for early talent from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not always visible to managers and the business, making it a difficult subject to talk about.

From an in-office perspective, although work has become less city-centric and more hybrid, relocation remains an important driver of social mobility. Relocation increases opportunities, access to professional jobs and income by 33%. However, those who relocate are more likely to be from wealthier backgrounds. Research shows 60% of people who relocate have one parent in ‘higher managerial occupations’ relative to 40% of people who do not relocate.

What does this mean for your function? Consider the impact a virtual or in-office working environment may be having on your talent. For example, the knock-on effect for career progression, as relocation enables and builds a wider network but is not always accessible for people from disadvantaged backgrounds.


3. Gen Z Thinks It’s The Right Thing To Do

Early Talent value purpose-driven organisations. A global study highlights that 81% of Gen Z will only work for companies that share their values.

Putting aside the economic case for diversity, Gen Z value transparency because it builds trust and belonging. It also helps create psychologically safe spaces where people feel they can share their life experiences and backgrounds.

Global events like the death of George Floyd, the pandemic and great resignation have driven conversations about race, meaning and purpose in the workplace. 41% of Gen Z now look to leaders to be vocal on social issues. Leaders must drive forward conversations about social mobility.

Social mobility isn’t simply the right thing to promote. It is how we will nurture innovation, growth and be future facing.

What does this mean for your function? The sooner you acknowledge and begin a conversation about social mobility, the sooner you can start to build truly inclusive workplaces. This is the first step towards addressing the disproportionate impact of socio-economic disadvantage in our society.


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