Gillian MacLellan: Why social mobility should be on employers’ agendas

The recent Social Mobility Commission’s State of the Nation report covering three years of work makes sobering reading – 240,000 children in Scotland live in poverty. That’s just under a quarter (24.3 per cent).

You are still 60% more likely to be in a professional job if you were from a “privileged” background rather than a working-class background. Covid-19 has significantly impacted social mobility.

Young people have been seriously and disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and twice as likely to be working in sectors that were shut down than the rest of the workforce.

Social mobility, as the report explains, is the idea that where you start in life should not determine your future. It’s about ensuring that everyone can develop to their full potential regardless of their background, their parent’s income, or their education.

What particularly caught my interest in this report were the comments on the role that employers can play in progressing social mobility. One of the recommendations focuses on work and career progression. Employers are important because they “hold major levers to improve social mobility” and there has been a significant increase in interest from employers in recent years.

It is not the law that is driving this change – socioeconomic factors are not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, which is the main piece of equalities legislation in the UK. Although certain public authorities in Scotland are under a duty to consider socio-economic inequalities when they make strategic decisions, this applies to a narrow aspect of decision-making and this consideration does not apply in England.

The State of the Nation report suggests three steps employers can take. The first is to “know your workforce” by gathering data from employees about their socio-economic background.

The key question it recommends employers should be asking is: “What was the main occupation of your main household earner when you were aged about 14?” The results can then be benchmarked against performance against national and industry figures. The Sutton Trust, in its guide (social mobility in the workplace), also suggests that employers should ask what type of school the employee attended, whether they were eligible for free school meals, and ask about their parents’ education.

The second building block suggested relates to widening the talent pool by targeting schools and further education colleges in “social mobility coldspots for outreach activity”. Developing a future pipeline and getting involved at secondary and higher education level can nurture talent for internships, apprenticeships and graduate placement. One of the key methods of improving social mobility is access to quality education and being able to use that to move into quality work.

Finally, the report explains that employers need to support employees to “get on”. Once in employment there is a need for employers to support employees from lower socio-economic backgrounds to progress. The report explains that their research “consistently finds that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds face progression gaps”.

In the UK, there is a substantial class pay gap in the professions – the Sutton Trust reports that employees from working-class backgrounds earn £6,400 less per year than their colleagues from privileged families. And, of course, class also intersects with race and sex. “Black British people working in the professions from working-class backgrounds earn on average £11,000 less than their white colleagues from privileged backgrounds.” So, for employers who genuinely want a diverse and inclusive workforce, social mobility should be on their agenda.

Gillian MacLellan is a partner at international law firm CMS

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992