Hidden biases: Hurdles to socio-economic equity 

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One of the most pervasive elements of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in UK organisations is socio-economic bias.

Socio-economic biases may often hold back people from less privileged backgrounds from reaching their full professional potential, regardless of their ability. Only 36% of senior leaders in the City of London are from a working class background and yet this aspect of diversity is rarely discussed.

What does socio-economic bias look like? Based on what we see or know of other people’s experiences, education, home address, appearance or accent, we may make assumptions about their socio-economic status – their wealth, privilege, background and social class – and therefore employability. More often than not, such associations are subconscious – but they can have a powerful negative impact on individuals’ career opportunities and professional progression.

From an employer perspective, socio-economic biases work against productivity and growth. Organisations may fail to recruit, retain or promote the best talent because the candidate may be defined as a “poor fit” based on wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes, having a regional accent or not going to the ‘right’ universities.

So, what challenges should businesses recognise to eliminate biases and improve socio-economic mobility within their workforce?

  1. Pinning down the problem

    Humans are evolutionarily hard-wired to favour certain groups of people subconsciously, typically those that are more familiar to them. As such, biases can be embedded in individual decision-making, but also in the systems and policies of a business. Especially if there is a lack of diversity on interview panels or in hiring teams.

    While bias training helps challenge perceptions and raise awareness at an individual level, organisations need to put in place measures to guard against subconsciously biased decisions.

    This is a difficult area to navigate, not least because the definition of socio-economic background is not binary, driven by a mixture of factors including parental education and career level as well as the employee’s own education and hometown.

    The biases that exist are also multi-levelled, consisting of accent, clothing choices, school and university and hobbies. A recent report by the Sutton Trust highlighted that accents associated with industrial cities (Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham) and ethnic minorities (Afro-Caribbean, Indian) have the most negative public reactions. Furthermore, 25% of professionals have been mocked, criticised or singled out in the workplace due to their accents.

    The challenges organisations face tackling this is partly a reflection of the fact that socio-economic status is not included in the Equality Act 2010, and therefore there is no legal obligation on businesses to take action against this type of discrimination. It also requires organisations to realise that they will need to take a holistic approach to tackle the range of challenges that are faced by potential talent.

  2. Sticky social mobility

    There is no shortage of evidence that those from lower socio-economic groups, whether measured by wealth or by parents’ careers, are inherently disadvantaged.

    A new government report shows that children from a working-class background are just over half as likely to achieve GCSE English and Mathematics grade five or higher as children of privileged families.

    That feeds through to differentials in career options. Children from privileged backgrounds may have parents or family friends with connections, who can provide access to work placements in big professional firms and/or provide industry knowledge in order to excel in an interview; things that are much less common for children from less privileged backgrounds.

    A study by the Social Mobility Commission found that even for those with a good education and qualifications, the doors to top careers may remain firmly closed, as employers are subliminally influenced by factors such as clothing or regional accents in deciding whether a candidate’s face fits.

    Because of differences in opportunity and subconscious biases in recruitment, those from privileged backgrounds are six times more likely to get a professional job, regardless of academic achievements, according to the government report.

What can organisations do to improve social mobility?

  • Data gathering is key.

    Without data around socio-economic background, it is very difficult for an organisation to understand where policies and processes are holding back employees or potential talent from lower socio-economic backgrounds or to measure improvements in social mobility over time.

    • Relevant data could include factors such as education status and parents’ education and careers (the latter defined in the ONS). However, it’s important to bear in mind that defining socio-economic status can be complex and much less clear cut than definitions of, say, ethnic group or sexuality. Organisations may consider how they collect data to ensure that current and potential employees are representative of all regions across the UK.
    • To collect the data, employees will need to be able to trust the employer. Employers will need to help employees to understand the purpose of the exercise and how it may benefit their workplace experience.
  • Take action:

    Practical initiatives to tackle socio-economic bias within businesses include helping employees to identify their own subconscious biases and providing training to help them to tackle them. To tackle how socio-economic backgrounds can pervade throughout education, it is clear organisations need to have clear governance around work experience opportunities and increase internship and apprenticeship opportunities to those from non-traditional backgrounds. Implementing governance within recruitment practices and creating specific career opportunities for those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds will also help to increase diversity with firms.

    • These career opportunities may include outreach programmes to provide work placements or apprenticeships for a broader cross-section of young people, the recruitment of graduates from a more diverse range of universities, mentoring employees from working-class roots, and removing the requirement for a degree in a specific subject to be considered for a specific job.
  • Measure and communicate your progress:
    Create transparent, data-driven commitments to improve socio-economic diversity, alongside commitments to other legally protected characteristics of diversity, and hold the business accountable for these commitments over time.
Awareness of the socio-economic limitations inhibiting DEI has much further to go, but Mercer can support and signpost your organisation along the route to genuine social mobility.
Lucy Iremonger
Lucy Brown
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