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The author is Professor of Social Mobility at the University of Exeter
It’s not uncommon for you to talk passionately about accounting firms, but KPMG nonetheless other challenges, is now a beacon of hope when it comes to social class diversity. His decision to set a goal for the working class staff is an outdated first in British great corporate history and can learn from one other great company.
As the country’s first professor of social mobility, I am regularly asked to advise employers who have promised to attract people from a wide range of backgrounds. The approach to discrimination in employment practices has gone from marginal to mainstream, with multi-million pound initiatives to improve ethnicity, race and gender diversity, along with an increasing list of other personal characteristics.
Yet the social class is conspicuous because of its absence in the gleaming diversity and inclusion strategies. It is strange, as we know, socio-economic backgrounds affect people’s life chances deeply. Research by Paul Ingram of Columbia Business School found that workers in a lower social class in the U.S. are 32 percent less likely to become managers than those in a higher social class. This was a greater disadvantage than that of women compared to men (27 percent) or black employees compared to those who are white (25 percent).
In addition to the US, the UK shares the unenviable position of joining the at the bottom of the table for income mobility among developed countries. In Britain, it is still important for whom you were born and where you came from. Armed with the same college degree, someone from a poorer home will, on average, earn less than their equally educated but more privileged counterpart. The pandemic will make it harder to climb an already steep social ladder.
Some argue that this blind spot in business diversity is due to the enigmatic omission of social class as a protected feature in the 2010 Equality Act. It certainly did not help. But it also stems from the confusion and discomfort that many Britons still feel about defining exactly who we are and where we come from. Old notions about class divisions seem ridiculously outdated in the more open society we seem to live in now. Yet it is only in Britain that members of the middle-class elite claim working-class identity if, according to every socio-economic indicator, they are nothing else.
Social class is and will always be a controversial concept. Economists distinguish us by our income and wealth; sociologists focus on our professions and educational qualifications; other researchers argue that it is attitudes, tastes and ways of thinking that make us who we are.
KPMG’s objectives depend on one of the most tried and tested approaches adopted by the British government: measuring the class’ origins in the occupations of our parents when we were teenagers. These measures may not be in line with popular class perceptions, but they are powerful predictors of life outcomes.
Higher classes or higher managerial, administrative, and professional occupations (ranging from CEOs to teachers) accounted for 44 percent of the working population in 2018; middle-class or intermediate occupations (ranging from armed forces to bank staff) accounted for 24 per cent; and lower classes or routine and manual operations (including farmers, shopkeepers, cleaners, laborers, and truck drivers) accounted for 31 percent.
KPMG, which hopes that 29 percent of its partners and directors will come from lower-class backgrounds by 2030, will face practical challenges in collecting this data. Some employees may find it difficult to remember their parents’ work or decide not to share this information. But there is growing evidence that employees will complete staff questionnaires if they are anonymous and clearly explain why the information is collected and how it will be used.
Until the class is properly considered, the existing diversity efforts will remain insufficient. Executive boards are fortunately becoming less white and masculine. Yet, for all we know, they are still mostly middle class. If you are a white male from a working class background, the current diversity drives have little to offer. And we not only avoid a large part of the population; we also miss the opportunity to strengthen existing diversity efforts: people from most ethnic minorities are more likely to come from workhouses themselves.
The benefits of diverse workers are well documented. It ensures more efficient businesses, whether measured by production, cost-effectiveness, employee engagement or mental health.
So let’s hope it’s a watershed moment. To be serious about diversity and inclusion, employers need to accept it for everyone.