The Diversity Series: Social mobility: the direction of travel

Socio-economic status is increasingly being recognised as a barrier to success in the workplace. Is it time for a change in the law?

The TUC are calling for laws on class discrimination to be introduced. The trade union believes that persistent class inequality still exists in Britain today and claims that graduates from wealthier families are more than twice as likely to start on a higher salary than their working class peers. This view - that socio-economic status must be protected to allow for social mobility - is a view that is gaining momentum.

What is social mobility?

Social mobility is the potential for individuals to achieve success regardless of their backgrounds. It is perceived as a measure of a fair society which rewards merit and hard work.

For some time, social mobility has been stagnant in the UK.  The Sutton Trust’s 2019 report on social mobility describes it as “low and not improving”. In fact, the statistics make grim reading:

  • The likelihood of an individual working in an elite profession is six times greater if a parent performed an elite occupation than if the individual’s parents were working class. 
  • The UK is ranked near the bottom for social mobility compared with other OECD nations. 
  • While only 7% of the country is privately educated, the most influential people in sports, politics, the media, film and TV are five times as likely to have attended a fee-paying school.

Against this backdrop, is it time that socio-economic status was given the same protection as other personal characteristics such as religion, sexual orientation and race?

Equality Act protection

The Equality Act 2010 currently offers protection against discrimination and harassment to those who have a protected characteristic, such as age, sex or disability. The law prohibits discrimination on these grounds at all stages of employment including recruitment processes, rates of pay and other contractual terms and access to promotion and training.

Socio-economic status is not a protected characteristic and the law gives no protection to those discriminated against because of their background, class or social origin, unless the discriminatory treatment overlaps with a characteristic that is protected.

Were socio-economic status to be protected by the Equality Act in the same way as other protected characteristics:

  • It would become potentially discriminatory to restrict eligibility to graduate training schemes to candidates from Oxbridge or other elite universities.
  • Promotions based on an employee’s connections, network or personal brand could discriminate against those without such attributes (typically those of lower socio-economic status). 
  • Jokes or jibes directed at an employee’s regional accent or other social or class identifiers would potentially be acts of harassment, actionable against an employer in the employment tribunal.
Enactment of the socio-economic duty

In fact, legislation already offers a starting point for change. Section 1 of the Equality Act 2010 contains a duty on public sector bodies to address inequalities arising from socio-economic disadvantage whether that be occupation, education, place of residence or social class. However, other than in Scotland, this section has not been brought into force. Only yesterday, Harriet Harman, former deputy leader of the Labour Party, tweeted:

“Need to implement section 1 Equality Act – public sector duty for all public sector bodies to narrow gap between rich and poor”

Make your culture inclusive

But employers, whether public or private, don’t need to wait for legislation before considering whether a recruitment policy is sufficiently inclusive or whether a company’s culture allows those of lower socio-economic status to thrive. The Sutton Trust’s 2019 report makes several recommendations as to steps employers can take. These include:

  • Data on the socio-economic backgrounds of employees should be collected and monitored.
  • Recruitment practices should be open, transparent and contextual. Applicants attainment should be viewed in the context of disadvantage, including underperforming schools.
  • Pay gaps, retention and promotion rates should be addressed. Employers should look at barriers to progression and foster an inclusive culture. The TUC is calling for compulsory reporting of class pay gaps.
  • Leading social mobility employers should take a role in sharing and promoting best practice within their sector.

Any change in the law may be a long way off but recognition of the impact that social background can have on an individual’s career is increasingly perceived as an important part of a truly inclusive culture.