As the Chief Executive of the country’s leading foundation aimed at boosting social mobility, it’s a question that I’ve been asked many times.
In days gone by, efforts to improve opportunities for talented young people from non-privileged backgrounds would be filed under the ‘nice to do’ list of corporate priorities.
Decisions over whether to support such activity would be farmed out to philanthropy or corporate social responsibility departments. This was about enhancing life in the wider world and little to do with the core business itself.
However we’ve witnessed a change in attitudes in recent years. It helps of course that we have influential and open-minded business leaders on the Sutton Trust Board. But the language of our corporate funders has genuinely transformed.
Their talk now is of ‘talent pipelines’, of opening access to their workplace to candidates from all backgrounds, and of measuring social diversity in the workforce. These businesses are now not just sponsors, but our corporate partners in social impact.
There is an increasingly compelling case that improving social mobility is good for business as well as for society as a whole. A review by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust on the financial services sector shows that organisations would benefit from a more socially diverse workforce.
That’s because it would create a mix of perspectives within teams to improve decision-making and a broader understanding of what customers want.
The research also found that some sectors are anything but diverse. It found that in the finance sector 58% of leaders and 37% of new recruits were from independent schools, even though only 7% of pupils attend independent schools. The figures are strikingly similar to those for many other business sectors.
Companies have confined themselves to fishing in familiar talent pools that have disproportionately fewer candidates from non-privileged backgrounds. The cost of casting the net wider has become prohibitive for many firms.
It’s not all bad news. We also found many examples of good practice among banks in their education and outreach work, and the Sutton Trust has forged major partnerships with Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Deutsche Bank and HSBC that help thousands of students and teachers every year. More organisations could adopt an approach to help young people at different life stages, spanning work with schools and universities and linked to recruitment into the sector.
We have already learnt a lot from our work. A really important lesson is that partnerships have to be equal: for example we deliver a prospective pipeline of young talent for the business, but the business also has to contribute our efforts to improve social mobility more generally. The social mobility question now is ‘how much should we focus on opening up opportunities to help improve the business itself versus supporting efforts to improve the development of talent in society as a whole?’.
We’ve come a long way. But there’s still a long way to go. The exciting prospect is that genuine partnerships between businesses and charities are now being forged to tackle one of our greatest social challenges and improve opportunities for all.