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Reaching full potential

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Published: 08 Jun 2022

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With improving social mobility and building a diverse workforce being key priorities for ICAEW, two students share their experiences of joining the profession.

The disparity between those from lower socio-economic backgrounds and the more privileged in the UK is staggering in terms of academic achievement, salaries, and positions of power and influence. By the age of 16, children receiving free school meals typically achieve 1.7 grades lower at GCSE, and graduates who were on free school meals earn 11.5% less after five years than those who weren’t. In addition, 32% of MPs, 54% of FTSE 100 chief executives and 70% of High Court judges were privately educated, despite just 7% of the population going to private school. These inequalities are not because of a lack of talent, but the result of students from lower socio-economic backgrounds not having the same academic environment, resources and support as those from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

There is a cost to the economy, too: according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index, low social mobility is predicted to cost the UK economy £140 billion a year until 2050. The report finds that there is a direct relationship between income inequality and social mobility, with higher income inequalities fueling lower social mobility. However, enhancing social mobility has the power to convert this vicious cycle into a virtuous one, and has positive benefits on broader economic growth. 

Here, two ACA students tell us about their backgrounds and experiences in entering the chartered accountancy profession and how they overcame the challenges.

“The main issue is not knowing what is out there or how to get there”

Brooklyn Jones, ACA student, Bristol

I grew up in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. Neither of my parents went to university or college, nor had professional careers – their jobs have included bus driver, carer, cleaner and landscaper. When I was at secondary school I asked my teachers why my predicted grades were all relatively low, and they said it was partially because of my background. On average, academic attainment of people from a lower-socio economic background is lower than those from wealthier backgrounds, often because they don’t have the same academic environment, resources and support as those from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Despite this, many of my teachers believed in me and encouraged me to do my best. I beat my predicted GCSE grades in almost every subject, did A levels at my local college, and studied for a BSc in accounting and finance at the University of Bristol through its ‘Access to Bristol’ scheme for students from disadvantaged areas. I chose Bristol University as it was closest to me – I couldn’t really afford to move far away and it’s a very good university that gave me the best shot of having a professional career. 

I always found accounting and finance interesting but I didn’t know anyone in a professional career so could not speak to anyone in my social network. I had to research myself (or at least try). I thought that a university degree would be enough for me to get into the accountancy profession, but I learnt that employers look for much more than that, and place emphasis on soft skills.

Before and even during the start of university I didn’t know what audit was. Living in Weston made it difficult to know about professional careers – most businesses are small, local and often tourism-based. About halfway through my degree I stumbled upon different things that helped me develop my awareness through careers fairs and the careers service, including a social mobility charity called upReach. I also learnt (although too late) that, as well as gaining experience, internships were a way to get a return offer and that big employers recruit a year in advance.

My experience of entering accountancy at PwC has been positive; everyone in the firm has been very welcoming and supportive. The diversity and inclusion network (among others), holds regular meetings that allow me to learn and share experiences without judgement. I also have a career coach, a buddy (a colleague a year above me for questions), a talent coach (at the tuition provider) and I’ve signed up for mutual mentoring with a senior colleague. The support we receive is encompassing and thorough, and everyone gets the same – so it’s always worth checking what is on offer from your employer.

In some ways it is easy to forget about your background when working with colleagues who all respect and support you. But even small talk can remind you of how different you are, especially when people mention their background or exciting experiences they had when younger that I never had a chance to experience. I know from my own experience that there are so many talented people from under-represented and less-advantaged backgrounds and yet they don’t receive a chance like I have, which is usually because of a lack of knowledge and network as opposed to lack of skill and talent. 

The main issue people from low socio-economic backgrounds face is not knowing what is out there or how to get there. Pathways into professional careers can be varied and complicated, and without someone to guide you it’s hard to know what your options are.

“I would like the accountancy profession to demystify itself”

Chetanraj Dhillon, ACA student, London

My grandparents came to the UK from Punjab in India in the 1950s and started their family here, moving first to Derby then London. My parents have both worked as postal sorters for Royal Mail. Growing up in Southall, West London, I went to state primary and secondary schools and then studied geography and economics at Loughborough University. I worked for almost a year in research before beginning the three-year audit programme with the National Audit Office (NAO).

Accountancy was not a career path that was emphasised to me when I was growing up until I went to university. I came across the profession for the first time when looking for a work placement in the second year of my degree, following visits from accountancy organisations who came to speak about the three-year graduate pathway.

I like working with numbers, analysing data and the investigative aspect of auditing. For me, when choosing a career, it was important to consider not just what I enjoyed doing but what would deliver a stable income too. The chartered accountancy profession ticked those boxes and also offers great access to a wide range of career pathways. I also understood that, once I had my foot in the door of a profession, I could open that door to people around me, because I can teach them about the possibilities available to them.

At the beginning of my career I experienced a lack of self-assuredness. I was the first person in my family to work in a professional role, and was always worried that I lacked the skill and personality type, and that eventually I would lose my job. People who are connected, or from more affluent backgrounds, tend not to have those worries, but I have come from a background where you really can lose your job just like that. I know I’m not alone and that there are many others in the profession from a similar background to me with similar fears, and I know that anxiety impacts a person’s ability to work effectively. Employers can and should pre-empt and address these anxieties through effective line managing and coaching. 

The cohort of people I joined the NAO with in 2020 appear to be from a diverse range of socio-economic backgrounds than previous cohorts, and there are support services such as mentoring and coaching programmes and a social mobility network. Discovering the network was a relief because instantly I knew there would be people here who were like me. As an ICAEW member I can also access the caba support service, and working at the NAO I am a member of the Whitehall Industry Group, which offers services such as mentoring and coaching.

Support services like these are very important, but they tend to be targeted to broader groups rather than tailored to address issues that might be specific to certain people. There can be times when a mentee or coachee, with issues specific to their background, would benefit from being matched with someone from a similar background who has experienced similar challenges and overcome them. This area is slightly lacking in the profession.

I would like the accountancy profession to demystify itself and make as clear as possible what the role involves on a day-to-day basis, how candidates are assessed and the criteria against which they are assessed. That is really, really important. At the moment, sufficiently detailed information typically isn’t included in a public job advertisement, which means a candidate with friends or family in the profession will have the inside track, securing a huge advantage. Publicising this information helps to remove that advantage, level the field and ensure the most capable candidates are selected, rather than those who have simply lucked out.

Brooklyn and Chetan’s experiences demonstrate that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have resources and avenues to access support in their accountancy careers. Students from higher socio-economic backgrounds have a vital role to play in being aware of their own privilege, for example by being considerate and inclusive in conversations. 

Employers should be clear and inclusive when describing career pathways and the details of accountancy roles. These actions will boost efforts already underway across accountancy to increase social mobility. Three of the UK’s largest accountancy firms have been ranked among the top ten employers for social mobility by the Social Mobility Foundation. ICAEW, too, is making progress in supporting students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, including the Rise and Access Accountancy initiatives.

Find out more about social mobility and inclusion on our hub.

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