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Accountancy takes the lead on social mobility

20 November 2020: The COVID pandemic has highlighted the vast social inequalities that exist within our society. Encouragingly though, three of the UK’s biggest chartered accountancy firms dominated the podium in this year’s Social Mobility Index, adding clout to the sector’s pledge to tackle the issue head-on.

PwC, Grant Thornton and KPMG have taken first, second and third places in Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index. The report is designed by the foundation to identify employers that have taken the most action to improve social mobility in the workplace. 

This is the second year running that PwC has topped the ranking, while Grant Thornton has consistently ranked as a top 10 social mobility employer since the launch of the Index in 2017. KPMG, meanwhile, retained a top-three ranking for the fourth consecutive year.

The Index assesses employers across seven key areas, including their work with young people, routes into the company, how they attract talent, recruitment and selection, and progression. This year, 125 employers from 18 sectors were considered for the Top 75 rankings.

Reflecting society as a whole

The OECD has warned that the UK has one of the poorest rates of social mobility in the developed world, meaning that people born into low-income families, regardless of their talent, or their hard work, do not have the same access to opportunities as those born into more privileged circumstances.

Across business specifically, improving social mobility has become an important goal as organisations recognise that helping everyone regardless of their background achieve their full potential makes good business sense; greater diversity is fundamental to providing and delivering innovative products and services that better reflect society as a whole. 

Social mobility ‘never more important’

Kevin Ellis, Chairman and Senior Partner at PwC UK described it as both an honour and a responsibility to be named social mobility employer of the year. “Improving social mobility has never been more important or more challenging,” he commented. “The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on disadvantaged people, regions and groups, and there's a risk that progress isn't just slowed but reversed. We need to redouble our efforts to open up opportunities to more people.”

Grant Thornton said its use of data to identify and remove barriers to progression was paying off. The firm’s detailed pay and progression dashboards allow leaders to review reward and progression alongside socio-economic background. The firm also produces data that shows the correlation between employees’ socio-economic background, gender and ethnicity and rates of progression, performance, reward, retention and lateral hiring. 

Karen Campbell-Williams, Partner and Board Sponsor for Social Mobility at Grant Thornton UK LLP, said the firm’s mission was to identify and remove barriers to entry and progression, “not just at our firm, but across the professional services industry and in the wider community.” However, she warned there was no room for complacency, after the most recent State of the Nation report from the Social Mobility Commission found the UK’s better-off are still 80% more likely to make it into professional jobs than those from working-class backgrounds. “In the context of a global pandemic and economic recession, it’s more important than ever that we continue to play our part in improving opportunity for everyone,” she said.

Kevin Hogarth, UK head of people at KPMG, said its focus on social mobility was not merely a matter of fairness but one of economic necessity. “Having recently hired over 600 graduates and over 200 apprentices, we are clearly in a position to make a difference to the lives of many young people. 

“The firm also looks closely at socio-economic background, including whether its people attended a non-selective state school or were the first generation in their family to attend university. Only with this data can we truly measure and make progress,” Hogarth added. 

Access Accountancy

The Access Accountancy programme was launched in 2014 to address social mobility across the sector and continues to support firms in their social mobility endeavours. It boasts 25 signatories, including chartered accountancy firms and professional bodies, and has been chaired by ICAEW since 1 October this year. Between 2015 and 2019, 3,843 work experience opportunities have been offered to school children in years 10 to 13 who have been identified as socially deprived. 

Sharon Spice, ICAEW’s Director of Global Student Recruitment, said there was sometimes a misconception that young people from socially-deprived backgrounds lacked aspirations: “It might be that their influencer groups are different or their exposure and access to information might be limited, so they don’t always get to see what opportunities the profession has to offer. Our objective is to fill that void, but this is just one piece of the puzzle.

“It’s exciting to see the profession coming together on this important issue,” she continued. “This isn’t just a PR exercise – it’s about levelling the playing field and making sure all individuals have access to organisations that are passionate about giving opportunities. But we also need programmes in place to make sure that progress continues throughout their careers. We should never be in a situation where we say we’ve done enough.”

Further reading

  • Find out more about Access Accountancy here
  • Read the Social Mobility Foundation’s Employer Index Report here

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