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Time to break the barriers

Published on: 22 Feb 2024

Nicola Chiverton argues there is more to be done in key areas such as social inclusion if the sector is to make a success of tackling its workforce crisis

For anyone in attendance at our Solace Summit in October 2023, you would struggle to forget the hard hitting message from Nazeya Hussain and Chris Naylor as they discussed the findings of a Solace in Business-sponsored report which included analysis from 371 councils across England, Scotland and Wales and explored the extent to which workforce ethnicity data and pay data are being published by UK councils and whether council workforces are reflective of their local demographics. The outcomes were sobering and served as a wakeup call for the sector, about how much work is still left to be done – although encouragingly, progress is being made.

As I listened intently, pondering my own privilege as a white woman, it brought me to thinking about the wider conversation around the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda and inevitably the protected characteristics, from which notably missing (at least explicitly) is ‘socio-economic background’.

Clearly, the existing protected characteristics are crucial and offer a clear and immediate starting point in terms of where issues around under-representation and barriers to opportunity arise and, by extension, socio-economics are implicit. That said, I don’t regard socio-economic background as a counter point or a ‘yes, but’, but I wonder if there is a wider ‘yes, and…’ to consider?

Given it is proven that socio-economic background has a huge impact on an individual’s life chances I pondered what might be the blockers within organisations that hinder individuals’ chances of progression and success. For many years, local government has talked about breaking the cycle of deprivation in terms of services we deliver to communities, but are we thinking about it in terms of workforce?

As the daughter of a miner – and not just any miner, but one who was killed on the picket line in 1984 and hailed by many as a working-class hero – I spent many a childhood day being held aloft the head of Arthur Scargill like an early day Simba from Lion King. For this reason, I have never been in doubt about my socio-economic background. In fact, I proudly wear it as a badge of honour.

However, not everyone is quite as willing to be so explicit about their social class and often the conversation can feel somewhat taboo. Not to mention the significant challenges around defining social class. The result is that the topic is sometimes shied away from and excluded from the narrative altogether. If that is the case, then how can organisations truly claim that they are working to break down barriers and ensure recruitment strategies and policies support the path to a genuinely diverse workforce?

In his Harvard Business Review article The Forgotten Dimension of Diversity, Columbia Business School professor and advanced management faculty director Paul Ingram argues the difficulties in defining something that is subjective shouldn’t stop us from asking the question altogether. He states that both race and gender are not nearly as simple to measure as we might make them out to be and through a collective process, we have come to the point where we are taught not to assume someone’s race or gender based on outward signals, instead using people’s self-identification.

Self-declarations of gender and race have become a standard component of higher education and job applications, but explicit statements regarding social class are typically left out. According to Ingram, there is no objective reason why this should be so. Should we be including this question as standard? And, if so, how do we use that data to contribute towards the development of a more inclusive workforce?

Some of the big consultancy firms like PwC, EY and KPMG are taking steps toward ensuring social class doesn’t act as a barrier during recruitment processes, thus giving themselves the gift of a broader group of potential future leaders. Approaches include replacing stringent educational requirements with testing, in-house employee resource groups and in the case of KPMG, introducing representation targets that are aiming for 29% of partners and directors hailing from working class backgrounds by 2030. They also aim to tackle the pay gap that exists within this group, stating in HR Magazine that on average people from working class backgrounds who were in the role of partner or director were paid 8.6% less than those from other socio-economic backgrounds.

In local government we are seeing a broader range of ways that people can enter skilled roles, for example, apprenticeships, so the traditional overreliance on degree education is reducing, but we are yet to see a comprehensive range of initiatives designed to improve class imbalance in leadership roles. This said, we know that the topic is receiving more attention, which is a good starting point for change. Our recently launched Solace podcast which featured an interview with Tom Riordan detailed how, upon arriving at Oxford University, he assumed those around him must be much more highly educated and intelligent due to how they spoke and that, unlike him, the majority hadn’t been to state school. Luckily Tom fought the urge to leave Oxford and persevered with his studies – but how many people in his position have given up because they feel they don’t ‘fit in’? Thankfully, we are seeing a rise in organisations such as The 93% Club, which is a members club for people who went to state schools, and are focused on ‘breaking down the structural barriers to social mobility and building a future that’s fairer for the next generation’.

In another edition of the Solace podcast, Althea Loderick and Nazeya Hussain discussed looking at EDI through the prism of social mobility. They talked about the role of a chief executive as ‘corporate parent’ and the responsibility to ensure we consider the fact young people in our places often lack access to the networks of people and opportunities that can impact on their future prosperity – be that physical, mental or financial prosperity. Althea asks the important question about how senior leaders are considering this in the way opportunities are structured. And are we really ‘seeing’ privilege, and the advantages that may have been afforded when we recruit or promote our officers in local government?

Council workforce strategies are increasingly taking talent management and retention more seriously. With an ageing workforce, the importance of growing your own future leaders and building in succession strategies are very live topics. While the sector faces an unprecedented workforce crisis, the importance of HR and OD professionals ensuring this conversation continues, and that socio-economic factors are included in EDI policies and practices, is clear. We need to ensure that we are opening the door to opportunity to as wide a range of people as possible.

Further unlocking potential sources of raw talent may be the key to tackling our workforce crisis in the most meaningful and sustainable way. n

Nicola Chiverton is managing consultant at Solace