How and why businesses need to break the UK’s class ceiling

Economy & Politics | Education | Reports

Written by Tolu Farinto, changemaker at culture-change business Utopia

Another Etonian becomes Prime Minister. It’s become so common, Eton’s pupils get a day off when an alumnus moves into Number 10.

It seems kind of comical. Farcical, even – especially given the grumpiness last month when, because it was during the summer holidays, Boris Johnson’s new job didn’t get the students of Eton an extra day in the sun.

But when you dig deeper, it’s pretty disturbing, shining a spotlight on the UK’s class ceiling. Recent research shows that top dogs in politics, the judiciary, media and business are five times more likely to have been through private school than the general population. But I’m sure the fact that over half of Johnson’s cabinet were privately educated is just a coincidence. Honestly.

The study, by the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission, found that a tiny elite of privately educated people, many of whom went to Oxbridge, continue to dominate high-ranking jobs: 39% of those in senior roles had an independent education, up against a measly 7% of the general population.

That’s not right at all. Not just from a sociopolitical stance, but also from a business perspective. This fundamental lack of diversity is costing businesses dear.

To quote data scientist Colleen Farrelly: “Individuals from working-class backgrounds learn skills for survival, solidarity and community. Values of solidarity and community make them good team players. Teamwork is also more conducive to creativity and innovation.”

A fundamental resistance to difference prevents businesses from tapping into the powerful current of diverse thought – the push and pull, the tension, the insight that actively spurs innovation and creativity.

To break the class ceiling, a change in mindset needs to happen not just in the boardroom, but across all levels of business.

The main divide comes from nepotism, which then dovetails into poor recruitment methods. There’s a real lack of understanding when it comes to the bespoke needs and challenges faced by aspirational talent from disadvantaged backgrounds. They have no shortcuts, no support, no social capital, no economic capital and no consideration for their needs.

And businesses just think, “Well, why do I need them? I can just get more of what I already have.”

I know companies today that still offer cash rewards for referrals – even though this only encourages the same types of people to join.

It comes from recruitment’s deep-rooted mandibles in the past. The emphasis has always focused on the university degree, as well as which university that was, how shiny their shoes are and if they use ‘whom’ properly.

To really shift the dial and access new, emerging talent, the priority should be on what makes a candidate right for the team, rather than for the job. That’s what proper inclusion & diversity looks like, beyond the wall of tokenism and quotas. Less tapping mates for roles, more outreach to charities and grassroots organisations; they have a wealth of understanding of the bespoke challenges these people face, as well as the ability to hunt for talent you’d just miss otherwise.

Ignorance is a pejorative term, but to be fair, it’s mainly just a lack of understanding. That’s the category most businesses fall into. For example, candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds often face massive problems getting into work, but they just need to be understood.

Once we educate ourselves on why people from these backgrounds might not even think a role or profession is for them, we can get on with stripping away the jargon. Finding new forums to advertise roles. Offering alternative interview options, rather than hiring on a glint in the eye and a firm handshake. Rethinking the way you pay socio-economically disadvantaged talent in the first three months – for example, a new starter loan could massively ease the cost and pressure of starting afresh.

But that class and economic divide I mentioned? It’s only widening. Social mobility should trump the Government’s other priorities, but it’s pushed aside, like most things, in favour of explaining what ‘no-deal’ means (you could do that with one unprintable word, for a bit less than a hundred million!).

So the onus is on businesses and organisations. Sorry, you’ve got to do it yourself – make change where you see the opportunity. I recently co-founded the Young Black Business Awards for that reason: because young black entrepreneurs need to be celebrated. They need to be in the driver’s seat. With the right information and access to investors, they can shape the fourth industrial revolution along with everyone else. Not by standing in the shadows behind them.

Any business that stands under the class ceiling isn’t fit for the future. Sure, it might work for them now, but that ceiling’s just sheltering them from reality. Soon, walls are built to support the ceiling. Tiles are hammered into the floor.

Then that’s it. Your business is trapped. A hermit. Not making connections. Not creatively solving problems. Rigidly sticking to one idea, one truth, no matter how increasingly difficult it seems. And that’s not a safe place to be.

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