Why you can't overlook social mobility in D&I action

Race, gender, disability, and sexuality are, rightly, the focus of most diversity and inclusion (D&I) agendas. For our Deep Dive on Marketing and the Marginalized, Peter Bardell, co-founder of Drum Network member agency Revolt, argues that no D&I strategy is complete without another pillar: social mobility.

Social mobility is an often-overlooked area of D&I; some companies make no references to it at all. Nevertheless, the problem is very real. Just last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) reported that England’s leading universities are failing to address social mobility.

Social mobility should be at the core of all D&I action. Often, D&I is focused on the important topic of race, but this focus alone won’t necessarily address all the key issues.

If you look at life as 100m sprint, many of us have started 50m ahead, but many others start at zero. These are the people we can help.

What is social mobility?

Social mobility is the movement of individuals or groups up or down the socio-economic ladder. While your background should not determine your future, structures mean that your birth frequently dictates your access to education, internships, and job opportunities.

As the IFS research makes clear, there’s a social mobility problem in the UK. We currently rank 21st on the World Economic Forum’s Social Mobility Index, behind most G7 countries. Surprisingly, socio-economic background is not a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010. This means we are in danger of ignoring the issues of rejections based on a perceived ‘cultural fit’.

There have been government initiatives to tackle the social mobility problem. Back in 2012 P&G, Coca-Cola and BP were among over 100 top brands to sign up to the government’s social mobility strategy Business Compact.

Then the Social Mobility Pledge was set up in 2018 by former Cabinet Minister Justine Greening and entrepreneur David Harrison. With three key elements (outreach, access and recruitment) the pledge was launched as “a powerful and pioneering shift towards being a truly purpose-led organization committed to social mobility”. Over 6,000 companies globally (employing over 7 million people) have signed up.

How to increase social mobility: 4 pillars

First, it’s about what you do as a recruiter and employer. You must create the right environment for people to enter your business, remove barriers and ensure a level playing field.

The spotlight is increasingly on employers. The Social Mobility Foundation ranks organizations according to their employer-led social mobility actions. Interestingly, in its recent 2021 index, large consultancies and law firms dominate the top 10.

Second, make social mobility part of your CSR. Talk about it, encourage others, show the benefits, work with NGOs, and offer free training. Support the Social Mobility Pledge.

Third, assess whether social mobility should be the purpose of your business. Every company should look at this, but clearly social mobility will not be the right purpose for every company. If it is, you’ll need to bake social mobility into company structure, and have recognizable leadership in this area.

If you get social mobility as purpose right the benefits are huge, driving innovation across your organization.

Regardless of whether social mobility is your purpose, get your whole organization involved, and embrace the principles of purpose in how you act as an employer. Explain the issues clearly – a lot of people don’t understand social mobility – and define what it means for you as a business. Make it simple. Give context.

Social mobility is not a box ticking exercise. If you treat it as one, it won’t work. You have to believe it will help your business; it needs to be a business decision, not just a moral one. Employing handful of people from different backgrounds is not ‘job done’. Continually make people aware and able to take opportunities.

Fourth, social mobility can fuel marketing. Understanding and embracing social mobility is fundamental to who we talk to and how we talk to them. As an industry, we need to move on from only talking to people who look and sound like us. Of course, this goes beyond social mobility to all areas of D&I, including religion.

‘Campaigning’ for social mobility

You can be truly creative with social mobility campaigns. For example, at Revolt, we developed the brand strategy for the Department for Opportunities, the advocacy and campaigning arm of the Social Mobility Foundation. We created their ‘CVs aren’t Working’ campaign, playing on the Tories’ 1979 election slogan.

We also created End Laptop Poverty, bringing together charities to get consumers and employers to donate unused laptops to underprivileged children who couldn’t learn at home during lockdown. That drove 1,107 laptop donations.