Understanding the barriers and how to overcome them: achieving socio-economic diversity

Author: Dr Louise Ashley, Bridge Group Fellow

Up until the middle part of the twentieth century and arguably beyond, professions such as law, investment banking and accountancy were seen as relative bastions of privilege, defined in the popular imagination, for example, by City gents in bowler hats. Over the past thirty years, these occupations have worked hard to address these stereotypes, including via the introduction of formal recruitment and selection techniques ostensibly designed to ensure that access is granted on the basis of what you know, not who you know, and therefore according to merit. Over the same period, we have also seen the expansion and diversification of higher education, which was expected by many (including politicians) to facilitate diversification of elite labour markets on the basis of gender and social class. Counter-intuitively perhaps, these developments have not had this effect. In fact, during 2009, an influential report published by the Cabinet Office demonstrated that many highly competitive occupations have become more rather than less socially exclusive over time. The important questions are, of course, how and why has this happened? And, what should we do?

‘Process and Volume:’ The How

While there is no single explanation for the apparent contradiction outlined above, a body of research (including my own) shows that applicants who come from more privileged backgrounds tend to enjoy systematic advantages at every stage of the recruitment and selection process designed by many large graduate employers, compared to their less-privileged peers. For example, in terms of attraction, leading graduate employers are more likely to visit the most prestigious universities, whose students apply in higher numbers and may enjoy better rates of conversion when they do. This is justified in relation to fast access to talent, yet often preferred institutions are those with the worst records for socio-economic diversity. In terms of selection, employers have historically screened applicants on A-level scores. Again, this is justified in part to manage the sheer volume of applicants, but this process benefits those from more affluent backgrounds who tend to perform better at A-level, primarily as a result of better teaching and resources. Within interviews, in a process sometimes known by academics as ‘homosocial reproduction,’ hiring managers often reward applicants who are similar to them or familiar, and thus (inadvertently) perpetuate the current status quo.

What about the Why?

This type of analysis offers useful information on how employers exclude. However, it tells us less about why they do so. One influential theory suggests that social exclusion from elite professions is not entirely an accident of history but can in some instances be thought of as part of a deliberate ‘professional project.’ This argument rests on the belief that certain occupations such as accountancy and law have achieved special status and prestige not because they possess especially complex and unique knowledge and skills, but because they have done a particularly good job of convincing us that they do. Historically, this has been achieved by (formally) controlling access to credentials to create an artificial illusion of scarcity in available knowledge. Though, more recently, different mechanisms have arguably been used to the same effect. One of these has been to (informally) restrict entry to the professions (and subsequent progression within) on the basis of gender and social class. My research also suggests that social class acts as a proxy for quality, reassuring clients and colleagues about the expertise and authority of the person providing the advice, which can be particularly useful in occupations where knowledge is relatively ambiguous or subjective.

What to do

Understanding both how and why exclusion takes place is vital in order to properly consider the barriers to change – and what we should do. One of the implications of the brief analysis here is that while there is undoubtedly a business case for diversity on the basis of talent, the pace of change within some organisations may be limited by a belief that there are equal benefits in maintaining the status quo. Indeed, building on the points above, the academic literature which looks at occupational segregation reminds us that the status and prestige of many occupations is not based on the ‘nature of the work,’ but is in fact closely associated with the identities of those who typically do the work. Put another way, occupations populated by or associated with white, middle-class men (who in our society continue to enjoy the highest social status overall) tend also to carry the most prestige. This can mean that for some (dramatic) diversification carries associated risks. Real progress may involve confronting this particular elephant in the room, to think how social identities such as ethnicity and social class continue to have an important impact on life chances, not just as a result of processes within organisations but as a result of attitudes across wider society too.

In the meantime, diversity policy and practice often reflects, but must also respond to, ambiguities and tensions such as these. Employers at the forefront of good practice are concentrating on both the supply side and demand. In other words, while targeting disadvantaged groups and helping individuals access elite labour markets by providing knowledge, information and (soft) skills, they are also engaged in critical interrogation of their own recruitment and selection practices and policies. This typically involves: rigorous statistical analysis of relevant data to identify bias; tailoring interventions to ensure that bias is reduced or, if possible, removed; and committing to close evaluation of outcomes and results. In this sense, organisations most successfully tackling this issue are engaged in not just ‘fixing’ the individual but in ‘fixing’ the organisation too.