Emma Legg explores how measuring socio-economic diversity can help improve social mobility and shares how we as a small organisation monitor diversity.

The argument for greater diversity – whether gender, ethnic or socio-economic – has, thankfully, seen progress over the past few decades. Put simply, greater diversity allows organisations to access a larger pool of talent when recruiting. It makes financial and social sense.

Diversity can also give a better understanding of the people you work with. For example, when Sutton Trust alumni join our staff, they give a new perspective on our work, having gone through a programme themselves. Corporate responsibility for diversity is becoming a bigger issue for consumers too, so it makes good business sense to encourage change.

In recent years, many sectors have woken up to the benefits of improving diversity as a whole and there has been a welcome focus from employers, government and universities alike. But while the case for improving diversity may be clear, the next challenge is how to translate that into real change.

One area receiving much less attention is socio-economic diversity. For over two decades the Sutton Trust has highlighted this lack of diversity at the top of British life, as well as the barriers that young people from lower-income backgrounds face when accessing leading universities and professions.

Most recently we published Elitist Britain 2019 with the Social Mobility Commission, which explored the educational backgrounds of Britain’s elite and how this has changed since 2014. Unfortunately, despite many calls for increased diversity in higher level positions, very little has improved over the years. The report identified isolated pockets of change however the general trend is still one of uneven opportunity, with much higher than average numbers attending independent schools. 65% of senior judges, 44% of newspaper columnists, and 27% of FTSE 350 CEOs received a private education, compared to just 7% of young people.

As well as highlighting the root causes of social mobility, the Trust has always worked to encourage practical change, whether providing direct support to young people through our programmes or influencing change at a government or employer level.

Elitist Britain contains wide-ranging recommendations for government and employers to improve social mobility at the top. One of these focuses on the importance of measuring socio-economic diversity. Doing this can help identify any gaps and encourage employers to think about their recruitment practices and how this might be affecting their diversity.

Many organisations already monitor gender and ethnicity data; we encourage socio-economic data to be treated in the same way. We recently surveyed our own staff to see how we measure up.

As recommended in Elitist Britain, we asked questions on socio-economic background from Cabinet Office guidance. Participation was not compulsory, and all responses are confidential; one person had access to individual response data, and one more had access to raw aggregate data. As we are a small organisation, all aggregate figures have been rounded to the nearest 10% (which is why not all figures below will add to 100). Our key findings were as follows:

  • 40% of staff had parents whose jobs were of intermediate or working-class origins.
  • 70% of staff attended a comprehensive state school in the UK, while 20% were educated abroad and another 20% attended fee-paying schools.
  • 40% of staff’s parents had A levels or lower as their highest qualification. This compares to around 60% of the UK working age population having not attended higher education.

These results have been very useful in painting a picture of where we are now and how we can improve to get the best talent. For most categories measured we are generally representative of UK population data, although our small sample size may have affected how we compare in some areas. For example, 7% of the population attended an independent school, but 20% of our staff did; due to small numbers just one or two staff members will have a large impact on this figure. One thing we are now working on is how we might ensure we attract more applicants from less advantaged backgrounds and monitor how they progress through the recruitment process. We intend to repeat the survey at regular intervals to evaluate progress.

We hope our experience can encourage other organisations to also start collecting this data themselves, even if, like us, they are relatively small. Some lessons we’ve learned about monitoring socio-economic data as a small organisation:

  • Make questions as clear as possible, for example, definitions of occupation categories or guide to qualifications and equivalents.
  • Be aware of your sample size when interpreting results.
  • Round data to the nearest 5% or 10% to avoid identifying individuals.
  • Small organisations can monitor diversity too!

If you would like to explore any of our other recommendations for improving socio-economic diversity, you can find more information in Elitist Britain 2019. We’re also working on some more detailed guidance for employers, to give those interested in improving their socio-economic diversity a solid base for change.

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