“In a world of such vast diversity of experience, cultures, skills and talents, it would be commercially negligent of us to ignore the transformational potential of meaningful social mobility” – Hannah Awonuga, keynote speaker at Culture Clash
Hannah Awonuga, Culture Clash Keynote Speaker
I’m going start by asking some questions. What if we completely rewrote the battle lines in the war for talent? What if we radically shifted our perceptions on where to find, identify and acquire it?
The reason I ask this is because for all the focus on the challenges diverse communities face us right now, it feels to me as if many people are treading the same old paths to trying to connect with emerging talent.
Milk rounds, graduate schemes, Russell Group universities, they all certainly have a part to play in finding accomplished young people. But I believe there is a talent pool that goes largely unseen and overlooked – and truly embracing the notion of socioeconomic diversity is the way to tap into it.
Right now, race is at the forefront and is often an uncomfortable topic. It’s forcing us to examine the inequalities in the world around us, the limits of our own thinking and the complex challenge of how to pay more than just lip service in this crucial area.
On one hand, progress is being made. We are moving for instance beyond a broad brush categorisation of BAME to a more nuanced picture of the disparities between the challenges facing employees of Asian and those of the black community. On the other, we still do not have a single black CEO of a FTSE 100 company.
Gender meanwhile is more embedded into our thinking. We’re certainly doing better on this. But women still only have 31.5% of leadership roles in the FTSE 350. It’s not exactly a level playing field yet is it?
But what is far less discussed is the impact of socioeconomic class, not only in the workplace but in wider society. I would argue that this missing tier is the crucial missing part of the jigsaw, the element that will allow us to unlock a truly three-dimensional approach to creating equity in the workforce.
In many ways I am an anomaly. A female senior leader. A black female senior leader. And, critically, someone from a socio economically deprived background.
I grew up in Bermondsey and was living independently by the age of 15. A year later, I’d started work. Eighteen years on, I don’t know many people like me working at a senior level in financial services.
What’s changed is that I can now talk about all this. For a long time, I needed to code switch and downplay experiences. Now I have learned just how powerful it is to be my full self. But there are many young people for whom this is not yet possible and we must find ways to reach them if we are to tap in to what they have to offer.
It starts with how we assess emerging talent by expanding our thinking into a more holistic approach. It’s time to acknowledge that a young person who’s grown up with a single parent working long hours and leaving them to self-start when it came to homework, perhaps cared for younger siblings, or experienced poverty might have ‘lesser’ qualifications but a set of skills that are vital in the workplace.
Then there is the impact of growing up in areas where there is little aspiration. The role of early mentors cannot be underestimated. I got my first job because I had the core GCSEs – as a result of my head teacher focusing me on my studies.
We can’t romanticise socio economic disadvantage. But resilience, passion and a relentless energy for moving upwards are just some of the qualities that many of those who’ve experienced it have forged into them. They have to fight in ways that young people from more economically advantaged backgrounds do not. It gives them valuable skills that we as employers can enter into a productive exchange with.
Then there is what I call the ‘gratitude gap’. I know from personal experience that being given opportunities creates an emotional connection with your organisation that builds loyalty, energy and motivation.
Social mobility however isn’t one quick fix. We hear a lot about the struggles that white young schoolboys from socio economically deprived backgrounds face in education. But the data shows us that these barriers are not translating into the workplace. The statistics tell us they are still able to progress at work. Black boys meanwhile are succeeding at school but finding themselves stymied in the workplace.
So socio economic mobility can’t be seen as a one hit solution to creating true equity. But it should be a crucial consideration in the practices and policies put in place to realise it.
For me, its true power is that it’s not one dimensional: it’s not white or black, it’s not straight or gay. If organisations really opened up to, and embraced, the idea of social mobility they would inevitably impact other important agendas.
Right now though, we’re just not doing enough to truly understand the barriers it creates – and break them down. Equity is about giving people what they need to thrive and succeed. It’s not favouritism, positive discrimination or swinging the pendulum blindly to tick boxes.
It’s about understanding what young talent needs to thrive. Something as simple as paying the travel fares of a young person coming to you for work experience is equity. And all these tiny building blocks can knit together to create a shift.
It’s also critical that we put the work in to supporting people throughout their career. There is still a tendency for instance to look to men as mentors. But I see a real opportunity now for white women to champion and sponsor ethnically diverse women.
We must also remember that social and emotional barriers do not disappear once you’re in a role. They are arguably most heightened in the early years, as employees learn to navigate and grow within an organization, but I’m currently on the Solaris executive leadership programme for black women and it’s been invaluable to be in a space where I see others like me who have had similar experiences to mine.
The good news is that more businesses are waking up to all this – particularly in financial services. Companies are beginning to turn the lens on why the vast majority of CEOs are from wealthy backgrounds. Large corporates like PwC and KPMG are setting targets for socioeconomic inclusion.
But it’s time for all of us to embed this into our thinking, to view it as a critical plank of our strategies for diverse, profitable and equitable businesses.
Partnering with organisations that work with these communities, as well as going into the communities themselves rather than waiting for them to come to us, are key. If not, we will continue to attract one calibre of talent.
And in a world of such vast diversity of experience, cultures, skills and talents, it would be commercially negligent of us to ignore the transformational potential of meaningful social mobility.