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Data key for boosting social mobility – but only part of the story

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 11 May 2023

Ramping up stats on disadvantaged people’s progress in accountancy will drive better HR decision making, hears ICAEW and CIPFA event – but speakers also highlight the value of listening to lived experience.

A richer pool of data on social mobility will be vital for opening accountancy careers to more people from disadvantaged backgrounds: that was the key message from a joint ICAEW and CIPFA event at Chartered Accountants’ Hall on 2 May.

Titled ‘Background Should be no Barrier: Strengthening Social Mobility in the Accountancy Profession’, the event brought together a range of high-profile voices from business, civil society and politics to discuss potential solutions for barriers to entry and progression.

Measures for change

In his opening keynote, Social Mobility Commission Director John Craven pointed out that PwC and KPMG have led the way on publishing staff data around socioeconomic background, but asked: “How do we measure socioeconomic background? What do we measure? What’s the benchmark? It’s much, much harder – but no less important. So, you really need to think about how you are measuring that within your workforce at every level.”

Developing that theme in a presentation alongside CIPFA President Jayne Owen and ICAEW President Julia Penny, the Rt Hon Justine Greening MP, Co-founder of the Social Mobility Pledge campaign, said: “I know as a policymaker that what gets measured gets done. As Education Secretary, I was awash with data. We have a huge amount of deep insight into those early years of people’s progression through school. But there’s a complete black box when it comes to employment. People drop off a cliff – and so does our ability to understand what happens within that journey.”

An experienced chartered accountant, Greening added: “If we can get our network to prioritise measurement, we will start to see change happen, because we’ll have the numbers with which to make some good decisions. And we’ll have some insight into how we can use everyone’s talents to the best degree and ensure that none are wasted.”

Individual stories

However, a question from the floor in a subsequent panel talk prompted a shift in context that framed data as part of a much wider set of solutions.

Asked what firms could do to make it psychologically safer for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to speak openly about their experiences, Nik Miller, Chief Executive of social equality consultancy the Bridge Group, said: “I agree strongly with colleagues that data is absolutely necessary – but it’s not sufficient. It tells us what’s happening, but it doesn’t tell us why – or what we might most usefully do about some of the ways in which the data illustrates that there are barriers. So, for people in the workforce, when there is much at stake, it will be important to understand what will happen with that evidence that they’re sharing about their lived experience – what it will, and will not, be used for.”

Miller added: “Sometimes, data analysts like us risk homogenising groups, assuming they’re all very similar – it’s a small leap to assume that people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are very similar, as it is to assume that people from a particular ethnicity are very similar. So, I think these individual stories need to be respected for their individuality.”

According to Grant Thornton M&A Assistant Manager Vincent Egunlae – Co-founder of the Open Private School and Number One Rising Star in last year’s Black British Business Awards – companies must overhaul their definition of what talent means.

Responding to a question about what sorts of changes should happen in the recruitment sphere, he said: “There’s a war for talent right now, and it’s not going to abate anytime soon. More and more companies are fighting for what seems like a smaller and smaller pool of people, because their definition of talent filters people out. So, when you are born from a lower socioeconomic background and you didn’t go to private school, that’s one filter – they’ll stop looking at you. Then, if you didn’t go to a top university, that’s another filter.”

Character traits

Even people who overcome those biases to find work in professional services firms often feel like they don’t fit in, Egunlae noted. “This means that they don’t hit the ground running or get picked for big projects at the start, and it just snowballs – leaving us with figures such as 7% of people in the UK are privately educated, but 37% of people who are privately educated comprise positions of power in our country.”

Chiming with Miller’s thoughts, Egunlae also suggested that storytelling around lived experience would be essential for encouraging organisations to redefine the meaning of talent. “For me,” he said, “talent is someone who’s been through a lot – because from what I’ve seen in my professional career, resilience is the top skill or ability across all leaders. So, we need to start thinking about things like resilience: how have people’s lives been affected by experience? And which character traits are we looking for that we are going to need in our leaders in the future?”

As those questions hung in the air, though, Miller said on behalf of the Bridge Group: “I would take a moment to celebrate that, of the sectors we work in, accountancy is probably the most progressive – particularly in terms of data collection and sharing. If you don’t already know, and I hope most people here will, Access Accountancy is a wonderful exemplar of organisations coming together, sharing data transparently and benchmarking and publishing that data. So, lots to do – but lots of progressive practice underway, too.”

CIPFA Chief of Staff Nicola Hannam, who also spoke at the event, pursued the “lots to do” theme. “While we have seen improvements around entry to the profession, we’re not seeing enough diversity in senior appointments,” she said. “Therefore, monitoring at all stages is important to identify barriers. If your friends and family lack the experience to advise you, it can feel like playing a game in which you don’t know the rules. Ensuring career pathways are transparent and having support such as sponsorship or mentoring can help.”

Speaking to Insights after the event, Greening reflected on the relationship between numerical and anecdotal data. “You need both,” she said. “You need hard data, and you need those inspiring case studies – the qualitative side – to give you the full picture.”

She noted: “Most companies may well get the data and then need to understand what it means. And that’s where the qualitative piece comes in: sitting down with staff and getting a sense of why the numbers are what they are. Auditors love a bit of analytical review – so it’s about that combination. The real prize is when you bring those types of data together.”

Penny added: “Social mobility drives success – not just for individuals, who can make the most of their talents, but their employers and the economy as a whole. But if we don’t know where our strengths and weaknesses are in this area, we can’t tackle any barriers, or show how successful we have been.”

More information

The Social Mobility Commission has produced guidance for the Financial and Professional Services Industry on what to measure when collecting data on the socioeconomic background of potential and existing employees.

Social mobility and inclusion

As organisations struggle to attract the talent they need, there is a business need to widen the talent pool. At the same time, they recognise the need for diversity of thought in order to survive and thrive.

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