How can we break down the barriers to social mobility?

Changes in education and businesses are starting to level the playing field, but there is so much more that can be done, argues Sophie McIntosh

Getty Images/Klaus Vedfelt

Boosting social mobility in the UK is a critical step to ensure that a person’s circumstances of birth do not determine their outcomes in life. But from skills gaps to a lack of support network, barriers to social mobility are diverse and numerous.

Implementing the vast changes we need to improve social mobility will be a long-term investment in the kind of economy and workforce we want to see – where people of all backgrounds have equal access to professional opportunities and unhindered potential for growth.

From my Master’s research specialising in public policy to my work at Anderson Quigley, I’ve gained both academic and practical insights into the impact of these inequalities, but also, encouragingly, some of the tools at our disposal to begin proactively addressing them. So what can be done to boost social mobility?

This question has numerous answers, and responding to it fully will require collaborative and cohesive action across our society’s many moving parts. But as with any major challenge, the first crucial step is to understand the problem itself. There are a number of recent studies that illuminate just how serious the issue is, from a Deloitte report that found the UK still ranked as one of the lowest-performing nations for income mobility across the OECD, to a 2020 government study in which job seekers from ethnic minorities reported having to send 60 per cent more applications to receive as many callbacks as the majority group. 

These dire findings are supported by a 2021 PwC survey, in which 50 per cent of respondents said they had been held back at work by prejudice, and 13 per cent said they had faced discrimination based on their social class. Such research demonstrates just how much work remains to be done. But where do we begin?

Change at the foundational levels

There are some encouraging developments happening in the UK’s education system right now, including experimentation with new practices such as contextual admissions, which looks to be a valuable tool to broaden higher education access to candidates from underrepresented groups. An analysis of the London School of Economics’ contextual admissions model showed that if it could be replicated successfully, an additional 3,500 disadvantaged students could be admitted to the UK’s most selective universities per year.

Another promising recent example of implementing change at the foundational level is in Bristol, where a secondary school has developed a mentorship programme to increase social mobility and give children in areas with fewer opportunities the tools to become future leaders. 

If proven, the implications of these new practices could be truly exciting for balancing education’s uneven playing field, and while such programmes are likely to take several years (or even generations) to yield their full results, public sector leaders should take inspiration from these tactics to fuel social mobility in their own industries.

Broadening the talent pool

A key driver of social mobility will be the opening up of opportunities across sectors to a broader talent pool – particularly opportunities in leadership.

We employ blind recruitment practices for several of our clients. Blind recruitment is a technique used to remove bias from the hiring process. By omitting identifying details from a candidate’s profile that carry risk of conscious or unconscious characterisation and discrimination – such as their graduation dates, names of schools and citizenship – we enable our clients to focus on their practical skills and experience, rather than a specific ‘type’ of leader they may have envisioned for the role.

This practice may feel novel and perhaps daunting to some organisations, but if a client is serious about reducing bias and implementing fairer, better recruitment practices, it’s important that they trust our judgement and understand the value this approach brings in removing potential barriers for candidates from underrepresented groups.

Of course, blind recruitment tactics only work so far as you have a diverse talent pool of candidates attracted to the position - and your interview process is fair and objective to ensure biases don’t slip through at the later stages.

That is why anonymous hiring can only be one part of a diversity hiring strategy. Sustained training and awareness around equality, diversity and inclusion are critical to ensure the full employment cycle is fair, from the language in your hiring ads to the opportunities for progression once a candidate has been chosen.

Creating opportunities for progression

In order to boost social mobility, we must ensure that opportunities for progression are being created for employees of all backgrounds. It is not enough to simply broaden the point of access. Once a new employee joins your organisation, they must be offered a clear view of their potential development in the company, all the way to the highest levels of leadership.

This process obviously manifests in myriad ways dependent on the industry and company structure. But at the board level, for example, non-executive director (NED) appointments can make a significant impact by creating opportunities for those with no prior experience or less traditional boardroom roles, and bringing those new voices into the fold.

Associate NED roles can be a great way to help people learn about the work of a board member on the job, as they generally include training, development, and networking opportunities; all of which have their part to play in helping promote and support individuals who may not have previously had knowledge of or access to this kind of role before.

Collecting data

In the implementation of these new processes, collecting quality data will be crucial to track and analyse the impact of these measures in boosting social mobility. 

The current lack of socio-economic data on the UK’s not-for-profit workforce has left crucial gaps in our understanding of the biggest challenges and how to target solutions. As PwC’s report states, this has led to a “lack of understanding around the lower levels of socio-economic diversity and where additional barriers may be – for example, whether it is in the employee lifecycle (from attraction and recruitment through to progression), the business location or function, or if it intersects with other demographics, such as ethnicity and/or gender”.

Such gaps can be remedied by implementing new data practices for all new hires, such as those recommended by the Social Mobility Commission, to hold organisations internally accountable and set a standard across sectors.

Identifying and committing to a strategy

Today is the second-best day to begin addressing barriers to social mobility (the best was yesterday) but we can’t keep choosing the easy option of tomorrow. The future generations depend on us taking decisive action, investing in long term programmes that bridge business, government, education and industry bodies in a collaborative and cohesive strategy.

Radical new thinking and relationships between government and business will be needed to prepare the next generations for professional success, regardless of background. It is here that leaders in the not-for-profit sector face a significant opportunity to address structural social inequalities and open pathways for the future workforce.

Sophie McIntosh is PA and project coordinator at Anderson Quigley